10 Tips for Cosplaying on a Budget
Or more specifically, a small budget.
1. Plan Ahead
If there was only one piece of advice I could give, it would be to PLAN AHEAD! The best thing you can do when trying to cosplay on a budget is to plan things far in advance. You can’t decide the week before a large convention that you want to go and cosplay all 3 or 4 days. Larger conventions often sell out months in advance, sometimes within minutes of tickets becoming available. If there is a major convention you are considering attending, get on their mailing list and social media, and keep close watch for the date tickets go on sale.
Once you know that you have tickets, you’ll be better able to prepare your cosplays.
(If you’re traveling, be sure to book your hotel at the same time as your ticket purchase because the best deals sell out quickly. It’s always a good idea to shop around, but generally the hotels that are partners of the convention have discounted rates for convention attendees, and it’s always more fun to stay in a hotel that is near the con that has a lot of fellow nerds staying there, rather than a hotel 5 miles away where everyone gives you funny looks for leaving your room in a weird costume. If you get a hotel with a fridge or microwave you can save money by taking the quick walk back to your room to eat rather than buying overpriced food.)
2. Save Save Save!
The second best thing you can do as a budget cosplayer is to always be saving money. Make saving money a habit, even if you don’t have anything planned. It’s easy to preach about saving, and it’s hard to actually do, but think about how much a cup of coffee a day costs, or a cigarette habit. Do you eat out a lot or drive to places when you could walk instead? Little changes add up. Even a change jar adds up after a few months.
It can seem out of reach when you add up the cost of a hotel, convention tickets, gas or airfare, food, autographs or merchandise, and costume costs. But if you’ve planned ahead, you probably have 6 months or even a year to save that amount, and if you’re attending a local convention, cutting a hotel out will make it a lot more affordable. Things will go wrong (we’re called Off the Rails Cosplay for a reason), and you don’t want to miss your convention because you couldn’t afford a last-minute car repair crisis.
3. Get to Know Your Local Thrift Stores
Goodwill is okay and has a lot of locations, but don’t forget that there are often locally owned thrift shops with better prices and friendlier staff. Get to know what’s around, and which ones are good for what types of items. One thrift store might always have a lot of shoes, or another might always have really good deals on fabric scraps. If you know you need a specific thing, you can save time and money by finding it at your first stop rather than driving all over or getting desperate and paying more than you should.
4. “The Bins”
For the uninitiated, the Goodwill Outlet Store, aka “the bins”, is simultaneously the best and worst place ever. It’s a giant store where you can buy all the crap Goodwill couldn’t sell at their normal stores, but it’s sold by the pound (books and videos are $1-$2 each, but still an great deal depending on what you find). It’s called the bins because it’s all in giant rolling bins that you have to rummage through. The bins are periodically swapped out, so the merchandise is always changing.
It often smells bad, people (employees and shoppers alike) are usually surly, things are frequently sticky and gross, and you’ll start to question whether humans are truly civilized beings within your first 10 minutes of being there. But, again, things are sold by the pound and you get a price break at 25 pounds (and yes, you’ll easily get that much crap). I can’t even begin to describe the kinds of stuff you find there. We’ve even found EVA foam mats, which, by the pound, are an incredible deal. If you can stand the utterly dehumanizing experience of digging through what seems like a mountain of trash to find the most randomly perfect thing you needed for your cosplay, it is a great way to save money.
5. Buy in Bulk
If going to the Bins seems like a nightmare inducing experience (it really is), your other option is to buy new, but in bulk. You will almost always get a better deal on things when you buy a lot of them at once. If it’s too much for you to use, find a friend who will split it (and the cost) with you. Ordering things from China on Ebay is a hit-or-miss place to do this for things like snaps, buckles, strapping, cord stops, fasteners, bias tape, elastic, and other staple crafting needs. Don’t get screwed: it’s hard and sometimes not even worth trying to get a refund when you buy from overseas sellers, so be sure to double check sizes, colors, quantity, seller reputation, and delivery times (sometimes it can take up to 2 months).
6. Use Coupons and Mailing Lists
Yes, we all hate using coupons. I was at a Joann Fabrics once and two older guys standing in line were cracking jokes about all the cat ladies and their coupons. Haha, dumb cat ladies, paying full price is so much better! We’re so smart!
It’s easier to coupon nowadays, and most of the time you can even pull up a coupon on your cell phone. Don’t be an idiot and pay 200% markup for things. Joann Fabrics is unfortunately where I get stuck going because there is no locally owned fabric store where I live, but their weekly coupons make things almost reasonable. There is usually at least a 40% off one item and sometimes as good as 70% off. The only caveat is that it has to be a regularly priced item. This is why planning ahead is important: if you have ample time to wait for the week when your fabric is not on sale and there is a 50% off coupon, you’ll save a lot of money.
7. Amazon Prime
When things do go wrong and you’re working up to the last minute, you end up paying what we call the procrastination tax, which is the added cost of ordering things with rush shipping or paying twice what they should cost because it’s the only place that has it. The cost of an Amazon Prime membership is a little high, but it does come with streaming videos and music, and it can be defrayed by splitting it with family/roommates. I can’t count the number of times that 2-day shipping has saved the day. Walmart and other online retailers have 2-day shipping with a minimum order, and, depending on what you need, can sometimes beat Amazon’s prices.
I live in a small town and don’t get a lot of human contact, but for people who live in cities and civilized places, networking is a great way to cosplay on a budget. If you have a wide variety of friends and contacts, you will always find someone who is moving, cleaning out a closet, throwing things out, wanting to trade, or willing to give someone a good deal on something. When you have crafting skills, bartering your time or skill for use of space, tools, or equipment is a great way to save money. Sometimes you can find ways to get help paying for costume elements that might have other uses: “Hey, I’ll paint your ceiling if you put in some bucks on the stilts for my costume”.
9. Start Hoarding
I’m not saying every newspaper ever printed needs to be stacked in your living room, but holding onto things you might normally throw out can save you money. (Also you might want to keep a couple of those newspapers in reserve for paper mache, a cheap means of drafting patterns, or putting under messy projects…just sayin’….)
Containers are also something to hold onto. Pudding cups, sour cream containers, and interestingly shaped boxes that are disposable/recyclable are nice to have to mix in, shape over, or prop things on. A variety of shapes also makes it easy to grab something to trace around for a perfect circle or square.
Scrap fabric, foam, plastic, cardboard, and other materials are also great to hold onto in a bin or a drawer. It’s nice to have a little swatch of something to test an idea on, or for when you need just a tiny piece for a repair. When you go to make something, always start by checking what’s in your scrap bin.
Being creative and flexible about how you use things is a big part of cosplaying on a budget. Always be thinking about alternative (cheaper) ways to accomplish what you’re trying to do.
10. Keep on Truckin’
Maybe the second most important tip I can give for budget cosplay is to just keep at it. Trying to cosplay on a budget is a challenge. Not having the right materials, not having enough space to work, trying to make old broken machines and tools cooperate, having unsupportive friends or family, lacking a specific skill and not being able to afford a class, or feeling inadequate when you constantly see $1000 builds being praised are all common hurdles, and not just for budget builds.
You’re sitting there the night before the con trying to sew your satin fabric that cost too much into a dress you’re still not sure you got sized right, and the needle is snagging up the fabric even though it’s brand new and the right type, the bobbin thread keeps snarling and you’re almost out of the right color thread, the machine is skipping stitches, you just realized that you sewed a different piece on backwards, your roommate is knocking on your door and griping that your sewing machine is too loud, there’s a water stain on the fabric you didn’t notice at the store, and now your cat decides that, even though it’s been there for 6 months, NOW is the time to explore that precarious pile of materials on your shelf. And hey, how about for good measure, your power goes out?
There have been times when I was so frustrated with things that all I could do was sit down and have a good cry (punching a wall is a good way to break your hand and add to your obstacles, so don’t do that). If you need to have a shitfit, take that time. There’s no shame in losing it when literally every single thing that could go wrong just did. Sometimes it makes it easier to come back with a clear head, so that you can survey that disaster of a sewing project or the batch of resin you just ruined along with a prop it took you a month to make and say “you know what, I am still going to make this work because I am just that awesome”.
We hear it time and again from celebrities in panels at cons: don’t give up. If you really want to do something, keep at it. Don’t let anything stop you. I really like Jake Parker’s “Finished, not perfect” and I rewatch it sometimes when I’m feeling particularly disheartened.
If you’re just into cosplay for attention and likes, nothing you do will ever be enough. The person that spends $1000 on a build might get a lot of attention and press, but it’s fleeting, and that person will always be expected to perform at that level or better in the future. (I’m not hating on expensive builds, but I think the community can do better to support and encourage participation by all skill levels and budgets). No matter what skill level you’re at, there will always be someone better. You should use that as motivation, not an excuse to give up.
What I try to remember is this: There’s no right way to do things in art; the right way is what works for you. Even if it doesn’t work — I don’t think we’ve had a costume that didn’t have something break on it at a con, and there are definitely at least two costumes that I hate how they came out. If you learn something from it, it’s still a success. If you treat your builds as learning experiences, and you’re into cosplay for you, you will always come out happier in the end.
Keep at it, no matter what your budget is!