Costuming When You’re On A Budget

This is a panel that I have presented at several conventions – and even a modified version at Dragon*Con. It’s all about the budget! Love it or hate it, it’s a VERY necessary part of costuming.

Firstly, let’s discuss the different levels of costuming.

Beginner – This is someone who is just getting into costuming/cosplay. They may have little to no experience, they may or may not know how to sew. This is a person who maybe only has dressed up for Halloween in the past. Maybe they decided to dress up with friends? Maybe they’re a first time con-goer. Fear not! We’ve all been there and this post is definitely for you!

Intermediate – This person may have some costuming/cosplay experience. They may be able to sew some things, and may or may not participate in costume contests. They may make stuff for friends and family. Guess what? This post is also for you!

Advanced* – This person will have a lot of costuming experience and most definitely knows how to sew and/or build props and armor. This person participates in costume contests and can even attend conventions as a guest. This person probably also makes and sells wares. The budget still applies though – so yep, this is for you as well. 🙂

*Note: Yes there are several people out there who I consider professionals or experts. Their skills are amazing and they definitely belong on a whole other level (Yaya Han, QSTQ, etc)

Now that we’ve established the levels – let’s get right down to it!

Budgeting for a costume.

Use reference images!
– Does the character have a ton of armor?
– Is there a lot of leatherwork? Props?
– What material is it?

Set a budget and STICK TO IT!
– No costume is worth not making the rent. Just saying.

Be prepared to save for a long time
– Example: Good proton packs can range from $700-2000+

Keep in mind your time frame and plan accordingly!
– If you’re having a costume commissioned – be prepared to pay a lot more if you need something rushed.

Why do we even NEED a budget?

Once you factor in costs for the convention or event – it can add up!
– Hotel, Registration, Gas, Food, Swag, etc!

It’s good to set a budget
– You shouldn’t spend thousands of dollars on a costume that you can manage for a couple hundred.

The economy isn’t the greatest, and a budget will help stretch your dollars further
– It’ll help you bring a character to life without breaking the bank!

How to budget for a costume.

Things that you need to consider:
– How much are you willing to spend on a costume?
– How much time/effort are you willing to put into it? (Is it particularly elaborate?)
– When do you need the costume to be finished?
– Can you make the costume versus buying it?
– What quality of costume do you want it to be?

It all comes down to time/money/quality AKA the “Trinity”

Keep it in balance

Using the “Trinity” of Costuming…

The trinity is one that must remain in balance.
– If you want a high quality costume on a budget, prepare to spend more time on it.
– If you want a costume in a shorter time frame, be prepared to have quality suffer or spend more money on it to help keep the balance.

Tip: For budget costumes, I try to plan them out as far in advance as possible!

Tips for keeping on budget.


Get organized!
– Plan out your budget and keep it in a format you can follow – spreadsheets, charts, lists, etc
– Allot for time – There is no need to panic because it’s the night before a con. Seriously.
– Scope out sources for materials

Think outside of the box!
– Almost anything can be used to make a costume or prop

Research materials
– Dragonskin vs other silicone
– Metallic sculpey vs pouring metal
– Silicone caulk works great for mold making!
– 2 part exoxy works for resin casting smaller objects and it’s cheap!

Get crafty
– Painting, sculpting, woodworking
– Learn a new skill set – and definitely learn how to sew

Get thrifty!
– Hit up thrift stores and surplus shops
– Yard sales
– Take advantage of sales – JoAnn, Hancock, etc always have coupons and sales going!
– Buy some things used and borrow from friends
– Work together!
– RECYCLE!  – You can sometimes use old bits of other costumes for new ones! This includes wigs, makeup, shoes, etc!

Nurse Chapel ($12 + time)
Nurse Chapel Cost $12 +time

With these helpful hints you can make almost anything while keeping on a budget – be it a “beer budget” or a champagne one! Never be intimidated by a costume and its complexity – just remember that if you plan it far enough in advance, you can make something truly epic!

Feel free to post YOUR tips for staying on budget in the comments!


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