Cosplay should be fun, not stressful. In a perfect world, we’d all have an endless bank account to spend on our favorite costumes. The reality is we have limits whether that be in skill, time and money. I’ve compiled some of my favorite tips to help you create your next costume on a limited budget.

Plan your costume in advance

This should go without saying, but the some of the best cosplayers plan their costumes way ahead of time! When making your own costume, something will certainly not go as planned. A piece of your costume might break or that DIY you found on Pinterest doesn’t work so well after all! Planning ahead gives you time to fix mistakes or move onto plan B. Plus, a lot of DIY projects take time. Especially projects with “drying time” or elaborate details such as hand sewing or drawing. Do you really want to be cramming all that into one weekend? I’ve been there. It’s stressful and turns the costume making into a chore instead of something fun. See my post about planning a costume if you need some tips to get started.

Planning also allows you to break up costs instead of buying everything all at once. For example, I might buy the fabric one month and accessories next month. Organizing exactly what I need to purchase allows me to buy the items at a time they’re on sale instead of buying them last minute at whatever price I can find. Keep a list of things you need in case you run across a good deal unexpectedly. It will help tremendously in the decision making and keep frivolous spending at bay.

Choose a simple character

Select a character that isn’t big and elaborate. The less you need for a costume, the less you spend! Typically, these “simple” costumes involve characters who wear everyday clothes or whose costumes can be easily crafted from street clothes. Characters, such as superheroes, very rarely wear street clothes. They are most recognizable in their suits, which typically involves a lot of crafting or sewing. Keep in mind your travel distance. If you’re flying or taking a small vehicle you won’t want to be transporting big costume pieces that can’t be folded.

Also be mindful of how your costume will impede on others’ personal space. Will it be easy for you to walk around a crowded comicon? Does your costume drag the ground? These are all things to consider!

Look in your closet first

Turn to your own closet first! This might seem fairly obvious, but you’d be surprised how many items you already have! It could be things you wear as-is or accessories that can be easily transformed. Look past your clothes and their immediate purpose. Consider alternate uses for accessories such as scarves, belts, shoes, and jewelry. Another trick I like to use is finding old sheets or table clothes that can be used in place of expensive fabric. This is the easiest and quickest way to save on cosplaying!

Learn to sew

This may not be a viable option for everyone, but if you’re serious about cosplay and want to make custom and realistic costumes, sewing is a must-have skill. It is a valuable tool that creates endless cosplay possibilities at a much lower cost. Even basic sewing and alteration can really open the door. Think about the last time you looked at a pre-made or customized costume online? Was it cheap? The answer is heck no! Quality replicas of your cosplay character can cost hundreds of dollars! I certainly don’t have the budget for that. If you’re going for the big time and want your fictional costume to look extra realistic, sewing is your best bet. It does take a bit more elbow grease, patience, and dedication, but trust me it’s worth it.

Hit the thrift stores

Buy pieces at a traditional thrift store such as Goodwill or Salvation Army. This is also a green option! Instead of buying more new clothes, you’re repurposing clothes with a lot of life left in them. Wouldn’t you rather pay $5 for pants instead of $50 brand new? You might also try thrifting online through merchant apps. Mercari, Poshmark, ThredUp, and eBay are especially good for finding a wide variety of apparel and accessories. Or hit the morning garage sales with your friends. Often, you can find practically new stuff for pennies! 

On social media, try keeping an eye out on Facebook marketplace or join a craft destash group. Often times, members are selling new and used craft supplies and fabrics for discounted prices. These are some less traditional ways score super deals.

Fabric Dyes

Did you find that perfect piece, but it’s not the right color? Transform it using fabric dye such as Rit. Tea is a great (usually free) option to “brown” items that are white or light colored. I’ve even heard of people using Koolaid and vinegar to transform their clothes. Keep in mind how colors mix. If you have a pink shirt and add blue dye to it, you might come out with a muddy purple or gray. Be sure to test the dye in a small inconspicuous spot whenever possible. Scrap pieces are great for this purpose!

Use craft foam

This may not apply to everything you make. If your character wears anything leather, creating faux-leather with craft foam and paint will save your hard earned money! Craft foam leather may not withstand heavy hardware, but you can put studs, light rings, rivets and other bedazzling goodies on it. It’s super cheap, quite flexible, and allows you to create whatever shape you need. Plus, you won’t have to invest money in leather working tools.

Foam can also replace custom metal or plastic parts, such as armor. Creating foam armor and props is an artful skill in itself, but with a bit of research and practice, its an affordable and good-looking option. Many cosplayers use EVA foam, which can be pricey, but there is nothing wrong with using craft foam from the dollar store if it suits your purpose.

Paint is your best friend

Spray paint has many uses and can transform ordinary objects into cosplay magic. I don’t know if I need to expound on this subject since its uses are endless. Spray paint is a staple in a cosplayer’s arsenal and can save you during those last minute panics!

Your costume may not need spray paint, but maybe a bit of acrylic paint can achieve the effect you want. There are lots of other useful paints that can help weather an object or just give a fresh look such as acrylic craft paints or model paints. You don’t need to have every color on the planet of Asgard either! I only have black, white, yellow, blue, and a red base which I mix together to make any color I need, except for metallics. For the metals, I keep gold and silver paint in my collection. A little bit of study on color theory can go a long way in this department and save you $$ down the road.

Take advantage of sales

Most everything I buy for my costumes is discounted in some way. I rarely buy things full price. I purchase a lot of my costume supplies at Joann Fabric and Michael’s. Both their mobile apps have legit exclusive discounts and they mail monthly circulars chock-full of coupons. If you don’t have this option try Hobby Lobby and even the dollar store! You might be surprised at what craft supplies you find at your local dollar tree. Regularly perusing clearance aisles can also score you some easy cosplay accessories and shoes. This is another reason to plan, plan, plan!

If you’re not a sewer and thrift stores just aren’t your thing, you can also visit discount clothing stores such as Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls, and TJ Maxx for clothing items.

It does not need to be perfect

I am a perfectionist when it comes to making things. I tend to overthink and over-do which leads to indecision and time management issues! So you don’t have the same hair length or eye color? Skip the wig and contacts if they are not integral parts or a focal point of your costume. Those items can be very expensive. Especially if you need prescription contacts! Do what you can and don’t worry about being 100% accurate. It’s okay to put your own personal spin on a character. Plus, it’s fun to see someone’s ideas and personality shine through.

10 tips for cosplay on a budget