How to Cosplay on a Budget: 10 Tips and Tricks

As a veteran of various conventions spanning over a decade, I can safely say I know a thing or two about cosplay. The amount of work and effort put into each outfit was grand, but most of the material I used to create them was pretty cheap. If you’re looking into cosplay but worry about the possibility of the investment it might take, I’ve got some advice on how to save money on your project.


#10: Planning is Key

Budgeting Notebook Cosplay pic

Before you set off on your adventure, I recommend printing out reference pictures of your latest project. These will come in handy, as you’ll be talking with people at some point about what you need, and it’s best if you can just show them rather than try and describe it. It will save you a bunch of time.

Speaking of time, write out a rough time table and budget schedule. If you’re going to an event in a few months, then set aside say $50 per month for an estimated $150 weapon creation or something. It can help you itemize when you need to buy what and lessen your financial burden, because it will be easier to spend a little over a longer period of time rather than drop all the money on something at the last minute.

You can absolutely make something cheap in a few days, but those cosplays generally tend to be rushed and simplistic. A cheap and well thought out cosplay can look just as good as one of those super deluxe expensive as hell ones if you put the right amount of time into it.

What I do nowadays is put the reference pictures, time table, and budget all into a notebook. Then I carry it around with me when I go out, because you never know when you’ll see something in a window that might just work with your ensemble.


#9: Hit Second Hand Stores

Second hand store

Goodwill, Salvation Army, and other second hand stores sell used clothing that you can buy for super cheap. Do yourself a favor and don’t limit your mind to the exact styles or colors as the character portrays in the anime/movie/game. If you find a dress that looks similar but you want it to not have sleeves, you can cut those off. If the dress if white or light yellow, you can buy a cheap dye to change the color.

Also, check out their accessory items for other cheap pieces that you can add to your cosplay toolbox. Jewelry can always be sewn into the seams, or you can mix and max necklaces and earrings, or even make a crown. Belts are super useful if you want to do nearly any Final Fantasy character, and purse straps can be made into belts.

Check out the toy sections for plastic guns. You can use craft paint to make them look more realistic and add tubing to make them look futuristic. The same goes for some types of swords. Get creative with what you can find and there’s no limit to what you can make.


#8: Go to Yard Sales

Yard Sale

I’m from Kentucky, so we called them yard sales, but you northerners call them garage sales I believe. Either way, check out your local newspaper for the classifieds section. There will surely be times and places where people will be selling things, so pick a weekend and go to a couple of sales. The earlier you hit one of these the better, as the older generations will be trying to pick the place clean of all the good stuff.

If you’ve never been to a yard sale, one of the main benefits of it I enjoy is on the spot haggling. You can get a bunch of trash to treasure pieces for under $5 if you play your cards right. You’re also seeing what you’re about to buy, which you won’t get with online shopping experiences.


#7: Look and/or Post on Craigslist

Craigslist

I actually recommend Craigslist over your local newspaper on for sale items. Yes, the reputation of shadiness exists, but in general the listings in your area will be more abundant online than in your newspaper. Also, you can ask for pictures of what you’re about to buy and talk about prices via email before you meet with the mystery buyer.

The benefit of Craislist also includes being able to put up a wanted posting for items you need. Personally, I’ve had limited success, but my friends in bigger urban sprawls say that in the city wanted postings work better. If you live in the countryside, it might not work out as well.


#6: Watch for Deals Online

Amazon Etsy eBay

Amazon, eBay, and Etsy will have deals and bargains sometimes. Although for me online shopping usually means I can’t try it on and I’ve got to put trust in some unknown party, the fact is the world wide web has got a lot of connections to people around the world who are selling cosplay items. Besides, some things just aren’t easy to find, like say gears for steampunk wear. I don’t have a bike or clock shop, so I have to buy those online. If you’re looking for something really specific that you just can’t make, put up a Google alert so you can get notified when something you need goes on sale.

Also, when it comes right down to it, buying a costume and wearing it can be fun. If you look at your project and you know you won’t be able to make the deadline, just go ahead and find the cheapest one. Even though many in the cosplay community like the sense of accomplishment that comes from making their own stuff (myself definitely included), not everyone has the time to devote to it, and that’s OK.


#5: Enter the Craft Store

Craft Store

If you’re new to the whole cosplay thing, I recommend you go to your local craft store ASAP. If its got a point card, get one. If its got a newsletter, sign up for it. If its got coupon packets, grab ’em up. Your local craft place is where you will eventually live and breathe if you get into cosplay as a hobby. Your life will get easier if you stay in touch with it and keep track of when there are sales, bargain items, and even some places do classes for different kinds of crafts.

Get friendly with the people who work there, too, especially the older ladies who’ve been doing this craft stuff before you were born. Their knowledge is vast, and they can help you when all seems lost. If you give them reference pictures and ask how to do something, they will help you as best they can, and might even be able to tell you how to make it at the store.


#4: Find a Local Theater

Theater Storage Room

Stage theaters and drama circles will most definitely have a costume area somewhere in the backstage or basement. Call them up or ask for their help in finding items that you just can’t seem to make or get online. Case in point, one of my friends couldn’t get his hands on a rapier. Luckily, his Dad worked at the Drama Club downtown and managed to find an old prop in the Shakespeare collections.

If you are at a school or university, it can’t hurt to find your drama teacher and ask if they’ve maybe got something you require. Drama teachers can even maybe help you out with creating your project, so if that resource is available to you, use it.


#3: Think Outside the Box (Literally)

Cardboard Ironman

You can use recyclable items such as cardboard boxes, soda cans, foam, and so on to make a thousand different weapons and accessories. Go on YouTube and you’ll find hundreds of videos for how to make Transformers and Ironman costumes out of cardboard and foam. Shields and swords can be made with just foam and spray paint.

You can usually get free cardboard at your local supermarket. Just say you need boxes for moving and they’ll probably throw a hundred at you in one day.


#2: Turn Generic into Fabulous

Generic Costumes

You can find a bunch of costumes for super cheap online, especially in the fall when Halloween season gets into its full swing. Generic costumes offer a great way to buy an already made template for cheap, and then you can simply change or add onto it in order to make your chosen character’s outfit.

Just like at the second hand store, think creatively when you’re browsing either on or off line at costumes. Browse both men’s and women’s sections, because all too often there will be different things available in each that you might be able to utilize.


#1: Raid Attics and Basements

Attic

In your grandparents attic or basement there is most likely a treasure trove of old clothes that you can take for free. And unless your friends hate Halloween (and dump them immediately if they do, because that’s just wrong), they most likely have got costumes from years past they’ll never use again. Show your reference pictures around to family and friends and ask if they’ve got something hidden away that you could take off their hands.


Cosplay can be a great hobby, and sometimes people even manage to make a living off of it. Don’t be afraid to get out there and try. Even if your project doesn’t turn out exactly the way you wanted it to (the first one rarely does), or if people make rude comments about how it doesn’t fit canon or something otherwise asinine, it’s not about being perfect. It’s about having fun in bringing your favorite character to life.

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