15 Tips to Cosplay on a Budget Without Spending a Fortune

15 tips to cosplay on a budget

Anyone who cosplays a lot will tell you that it’s a pretty expensive hobby. If you want to create detailed and accurate costumes, the whole process can easily cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. But, that doesn’t mean cosplay is only for the rich. There are so many ways to reduce the cost of cosplay to make it work with any budget.

As a whole, you can reduce the amount a costume costs by using cheaper materials, repurposing other clothes and objects, and simplifying the design of a costume. Using costume or prop-making skills will also be incredibly helpful in reducing the overall amount that you spend on a cosplay.

You will need to make some trade-offs when figuring out ways to reduce costs. You will need to make decisions about the quality (and accuracy) of the costume, the amount of time it takes to complete it, and the money you are willing to spend. Maybe it’s okay if the shoes aren’t 100% accurate, or maybe you need to wait until the next convention to give yourself more time to budget. 

1. Thrift simple pieces of your costume 

The first way to find cheaper cosplay is to look for pieces used. If you have a thrift store in your area, you can go and look for any shirts, pants, shoes, or other garments that would work for your cosplay. However, if you’re looking for something specific, I’ve found it a lot easier to search for costume pieces online. It’s a lot easier to search for exactly what you need because instead of sorting through racks of random clothing you can easily type in relevant keywords.

Places like ebay, etsy, and storenvy will have listings for all types of used clothing that you can get pretty cheaply. There are also some online stores that specifically collect and resell clothing that’s in good condition. One that I’ve used occasionally is called ThredUp (but you have to make an account to shop there). These options may not be quite as cheap as clothing from a local thrift store, but you can still find clothing for low prices that make it much easier to stick to a budget.

Atlantis cosplayers
I absolutely love the interpretation that these cosplayers created of the characters from Atlantis. It’s both recognizable and entirely unique.

2. Use your real hair

A good quality wig can be the most expensive piece of a costume, especially if you need anything long or specially styled. The easiest way to avoid this cost entirely is to use your own hair instead. You can dye your hair to match the color of your character, and style it to match the design.

If you don’t want to color your hair or your hair texture isn’t the same as the character, there’s also no reason you can’t change the character design to make the hair work for you and your real hair. Creating a Sailor Moon with afro puffs is just as recognizable and can even help you stand out among all the other cosplayers.

3. Choose a simple character

The simpler the costume, the cheaper it will be in the long run. A cosplay that consists of a T-shirt and pants will always be cheaper and easier to put together on a budget. 

When I am deciding who to cosplay, I usually have a short list of characters. Some of them will have complex designs that will take more time and funds, while others are quite simple. When I need to stick to a tight budget, I’ll choose the characters with the more basic design and move the other characters down on the priority list.

Another tactic you can take is finding a casual-clothes version of your character to cosplay. If making or buying your character’s superhero suit is too expensive, look through the source material for a time when they are wearing regular clothing. You can cosplay your favorite character in this alternate outfit that will be easier to thrift or create with fewer parts and less money.

ranka from Macross Frontier
Ranka from Macross Frontier was a popular character for a long time so it was easy to resell the costume. You may have more trouble with lesser known costumes and characters.

4. Buy a cosplay second hand

Many people who cosplay a lot end up running out of storage space. They’ll try to sell their old costumes to make room for their newer creations. In the past, I’ve sold costumes on Storenvy. eBay and the Facebook marketplace are also great places to look for people selling their second-hand costumes.

You can often find entire second-hand costumes (wig, shoes, and all) for less than Fifty dollars. Sometimes you’ll even find a gem that’s only twenty dollars. The downside is that you need to get a costume from someone who has basically the same measurements as you. So, you’ll be limited in what costumes you can find.

5. Make your own costume

If you have some skills with a needle and thread (or are willing to learn), you might be able to save some money by making your own costume from scratch. It’s important to note that sometimes creating a costume from scratch ends up being more expensive than purchasing a costume. However, if you’re willing to use cheaper materials and don’t have to buy expensive equipment (like a sewing machine), it’s a lot easier to cut costs where you can. I will often thrift some pieces of a costume and create the parts that are too difficult to find.

The other benefit to creating your own costumes is the ability to spread out the costs associated with the cosplay over a longer stretch of time. You can pay for the fabric one month, the materials for your prop the next, then buy shoes and miscellaneous items the month after that. Even if you don’t end up spending much less overall, it’s easier to afford because you don’t have to pay for the costume upfront and then wait two months for it to arrive.

6. Plan ahead of time

In a similar vein, write out an actual budget. This is tedious and often overlooked, but knowing how much you need to spend and creating a plan of action can be the most important part of affording cosplay. Once you know how much money you have available and how much everything will cost, you can make a month-by-month plan to put the necessary money aside to pay for your cosplay.

Everyone has their own way of creating a budget, but these are some tips to get you started:

  1. Determine how much money you have available every month. Do you typically have fifty dollars available at the end of the month? Multiply that by the number of months left until the convention so you know how much money you’ll have available.
  2. Make a list of all the pieces that you need to purchase for your costume. Make sure to include everything that you’ll need, including a wig, shoes, any props, and all pieces of the costume.
  3. Research the cost of everything. You don’t have to know the exact cost, but you should get a ballpark estimate so you can plan for everything.
  4. Spread out the cost of the costume based on your available money. Make a plan to get some items for the cosplay every month depending on the money you’ll have available.
  5. Don’t forget the cost of the convention. The convention itself will also cost a lot and eat into your cosplay budget, make sure to take everything from convention ticket to hotel and transportation into account.
cooro cosplay
I’ve worn my Cooro (from +Anima) to so many different conventions. The cost-per-use is probably the cheapest of all my costumes.

7. Wear your cosplay to multiple conventions

One of the things that makes cosplay so expensive is the fact that they are usually created and worn only on special occasions. Many people might wear a costume once and then never again. While the actual price of the costume may not be any different, you can reduce the cost-per-use of the cosplay by planning to wear it to multiple events.

I’ll usually only create one or two new costumes every year. I’ll wear the new costumes on the Saturday of a convention, but then reuse my older costumes to wear during the other days. Sundays are reserved for my most casual and comfortable cosplays.

8. Repaint children’s toys

If you want to include a cool prop with your cosplay, try finding a children’s toy that you can repaint to look right. For example, water blasters often come in some pretty interesting shapes. They usually come in bright colors, but you can easily repaint them to give them a sci-fi or futuristic appearance. Look to see what types of toys are available, from wands to swords and more, and get creative in the way you change the appearance of the prop.

9. Store-bought cosplays are sometimes cheaper

Making your own costume can help reduce the cost of a cosplay. However, if you don’t carefully pay attention to the price of materials or have to redo parts of the costume, a DIY costume can cost more than a store-bought costume. 

Online cosplay shops, especially those based internationally, can create costumes for lower prices. The cost of labor overseas is lower, and they usually use polyester material (which can still look okay for most costumes, but it is a cheap material). In general, any kind of school uniform cosplay will end up being cheaper overall if from one of these shops while still looking pretty good. 

These will still seem expensive upfront, at somewhere around $100-$150, but that can actually be cheaper than buying all the materials and making a costume yourself, especially if you are a detail-oriented person who will try to make everything as accurate as possible.

Of course, you need to be careful where you buy cosplay online since there are many ripoff stores that will give you a very low-quality costume. Try to make sure the shop is using its own unique photos and see if you can find any reviews from an external source.

10. Ask for cosplay items as birthday or holiday gifts

Sometimes the best way to save money on a cosplay is to get someone else to buy it for you! My friends and I shared wishlists on Amazon where we can add items that we plan on using for upcoming cosplays. This will be anything from wigs we want to jewelry, clothing, or materials we need. You can make your list and share it with friends and family members that are asking what you want for the upcoming holiday or birthday. And don’t worry, you can add external links to the wishlist as well so you’re not limited to stuff you can find on Amazon.

You could also ask for gift cards to places where you buy materials for costumes. For example, Joann gift cards are always useful for getting fabric, paint, and other crafting materials.

11. Look for coupons

Never purchase anything before looking for coupons. Places like Joann’s and Michael’s almost always have some sort of coupon you can use. You can often get 40% off an item or 15% off an entire purchase. I will even monitor the weekly coupons and wait until a really good one comes up before getting what I need for costume materials.

Other places will have sales, promotions, or rewards points available. Arda Wigs (the most well-known cosplay wig shop) is known for having occasional sales that you’ll find if you follow them on social media or sign up for their newsletter. They also have a rewards point program so you can get discounts in the future. Wherever you are getting your cosplay costumes and supplies, it’s a good idea to check and see if they have promotions or coupons you can take advantage of.

12. Trade materials and skills with your friends

It’s common to have leftover materials when making a costume. It’s hard to estimate exactly how much you’ll need, so I usually get a little extra. Well, your cosplay friends are probably doing the same thing. If you really liked a fabric that they used for one of their costumes, they might have some extra leftover. See if they’d be willing to make a trade or potentially let you buy it for a discounted price.

Alternatively, if your friend has a skill that you don’t have, you can also help each other save money by trading talents. Maybe your friend has learned how to create excellent armor, while you’re a wiz at sewing. You can both end up with fantastic costumes if you work together with the skills you’re most comfortable in.

13. Design a casual cosplay

A casual cosplay is when you style an outfit that is inspired by a character but is not an exact replica. The goal is to evoke the feeling and aesthetic that you get from a character, but not to dress up in costume. 

This means you don’t have to worry about accurately creating specific pieces of a character’s costume or commission it. Instead, you can create the style based on clothing you have in your wardrobe or can easily purchase from clothing retailers. 

anna from Shaman Kin cosplay
Simple costumes can easily be put together using basic thrifted clothing. For my Anna cosplay, I only needed a black dress, red headband, and cheap costume jewelry.

14. Use long-forgotten clothes in your own closet

Similarly, you can create a closet cosplay. Unlike a casual cosplay, you are still trying to replicate a character’s outfit as closely as possible, but you use only clothing in your closet (or clothes that you can find cheaply in thrift stores) rather than creating anything from scratch. You can also take the time to alter clothing that you have to make it work for the costume.

This is, by far, the cheapest way to create a cosplay. I use this for some of my more casual costumes. For example, Izzy from Digimon was just a pair of brown shorts and an orange button-up, and Anna from Shaman King was a black dress with a red scarf. 

15. Use cheaper materials

When working on a budget, you’ll also want to be careful about the type of material you choose to use. Some choices will simply be more expensive than others. Even if they can make a higher quality costume, they might not be right for your budget.

This can be as simple as choosing to use a standard cotton material when shopping for fabric. However, it will also include choices in which prop material you use. For example, Worbla (a moldable plastic) may be amazing to work with, but it’s more expensive than EVA foam. EVA foam is more expensive than paper clay or paper mache, and cardboard is an option as the cheapest material.

Don’t feel like you always have to use top-quality supplies. Once you have more experience under your belt and a larger budget to work with, you can always remake the prop or costume at a higher quality, or you can move on to bigger and more complex projects.

Emily Joice

My name is Emily, and I have been cosplaying since my very first convention in 2008. Over the years, I've experimented with all different kinds of cosplay costumes, especially loving the process of creating props and styling wigs. I also delved into cosplay photography, and love exploring how to optimize costumes so they look excellent in photos. Most of the photos you find on this site were taken by me over my years at anime conventions.

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