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How to Properly Cosplay on a Budget

Updated on June 19, 2013

Lacking Money? You can still cosplay!

Cosplay can be a pricey hobby. Many of us spend over a grand a year on fabric, prop materials, etc. But a lot of nerds get into this hobby while they're still teenagers in junior high and high school. So obviously, no job = not much money to work with. If you're one of these young future-cosplayers, or maybe a poor college student just getting into the hobby, I'm here to show you how you can cosplay adequately with low funds.

Fly high, ponyboy!
Fly high, ponyboy!

1. Do not aim too high

If you have a $100 budget, don't attempt to cosplay a summon from a Final Fantasy game. Despite any affordable shortcut you come up with, you will never make a decent full-body Bahamut for that amount money. Also, if you're just starting out, you need to start in your skill area. Do not make a labor-intensive costume if you've barely sewn or done prop-work before. You build up your skills set over simpler costumes until you are ready to approach those.

Casual clothing cosplays are feasible on a low budget as are many school uniforms. This may even leave you some money for props if your character has a weapon or something along those lines.

My last advice, NO BROADCLOTH. If you are trying to cut corners by using broadcloth (the under $3 a yard fabric, usually an entire wall of it, at fabric stores), your costume will look dreadful. Broadcloth is thin and flimsy and will not work well for 98% of costumes. If you cannot afford as much quality fabric as you need, make a costume that requires less fabric overall... it's simple economics.

Bangs on the wrong side, ponytail too low - these things do make a difference
Bangs on the wrong side, ponytail too low - these things do make a difference

2. Sans wig or wig recycling

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, ruins a cosplay more than a dreadful wig. You younger cosplayers are fortunate because there are a lot of cheaper options for quality wigs (most Chinese sellers on ebay have good, affordable wig selections - NOTE THOUGH - their wigs run small and avoid them for short hair styles!)

Here are your best options: cosplay someone who you can pull off with your own hair or get one wig and find more than one cosplay use for it. Now, say you have medium blonde hair and you decide to cosplay Ino from Naruto. That's fine, but do not leave it hanging there like a limp rag. If you use your own hair, put some effort into not looking like you forgot your hair altogether. To reuse a wig... save up money to get a quality medium or long wig that works for a cosplay you are planning. After you finish that cosplay and are ready to move on to something new, find a character that has the same hair or a shorter style. Then, with a bit of bravery and practice, you can trim your wig and turn it into a totally new style for this next cosplay.

Do not... DO NOOOT... ever... get a Party Store wig. Your hair will look dreadful in every photo that is taken with flash. You are throwing away your money going this route.

Red shirt from Goodwill - $4.  Purple and white trim - $6 .. dye a white tie and use old buttons on hand,... DONE.
Red shirt from Goodwill - $4. Purple and white trim - $6 .. dye a white tie and use old buttons on hand,... DONE.

3. Your friend, the thrift store

When I started cosplaying in high school, my closet and thrift stores were my friend. I could barely sew, I had a very meager part-time job, and I was not trying to sew anything extravagant yet. My first couple of costumes were Goodwill finds that I later modified. Akio from Shoujo Kakumei Utena was a "cowboy" shirt that I added trim to. In the end, it matched very well to the source and cost me about $10 tops after adding details to it.

If you have clothes already in your closet that would work and you are not attached to, get some scissors and get to work. Both of these options are often cheaper per yard of fabric than actually buying the fabric off the bolt to sew yourself.

Almost entirely cardboard, super impressive. Take your time, be meticulous, and most materials can look amazing.
Almost entirely cardboard, super impressive. Take your time, be meticulous, and most materials can look amazing.

4. Affordable prop alternatives

  • You can do amazing things with cardboard if you have enough patience. People have made entire Gundams out of cardboard that look stunning.
  • Insulation foam of different types... if you aren't making an absurdly large prop it can be a cheaper method. A board of blue foam can be layered, adhered, and sculpted... and then layering some paperclay over the sculpted prop, a quick sanding, and with a lot of patience you have a gorgeous prop ready to paint.
  • Craft paint can sometimes be a cheaper and better option than spray paint. Often though, for metallic colors, spray paint is a better idea than quality metallic craft paint.
  • For tiny props like horns, paperclay or sculpey is more cost-effective than trying to make molds and use resin. Get too big and this method will get pricey as well.

Twill gives a crisp look to structured outfits.
Twill gives a crisp look to structured outfits.

5. Affordable fabric alternatives

  • Check for bulk fabric lots on ebay. You can get amazing fabric for dirt cheap sometimes.. especially on expensive fabrics like furs.
  • If you are using a decent fabric for the majority of your costume, you can probably do something along the lines of double-layering broadcloth in other areas of the costume and it won't look bad.
  • Buy thread, as much as you can, while it's on sale. Thread costs build up fast.
  • When a good fabric sale occurs, think ahead to future costumes and stock up if it is financially feasible at the time.
  • Boot covers! Save money on nice shoes by using cheaper (used if possible) ones that are the right shape and cover them with fabric.
  • Long bolts of upholstery fabric often run past 60" a roll. It may seem like it's an expensive choice, but you may get way more fabric per yard using this method. Often many of them have a different back to the fabric that you could possibly find another use for later.
  • Keep scraps, you never know when you may need that half-yard of white twill to sew a strip down a shirt.
  • And speaking of twill, it is pretty affordable, comes in great colors, and the weight of the fabric looks marvelous for many stiff-fabric clothing articles, like jackets.

In closing, cosplay what you want but work where you are comfortable and capable. If anyone would like tutorials on anything specific mentioned above, make a comment and if it's something I can supply help on I'll make another hub about it!

On average, I spend ______ on each costume I make.

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    • ghintz profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      They aren't the easiest thing to make, but they get easier over time. Also, if you find the right style of boot for cheap in the wrong color, many shoe materials can take paint pretty well. Do a test section first though because sometimes even spray paint can crack.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thanks for the tips! I had never really thought about using boot covers (which proves how dumb I am)!

    • Geekdom profile image


      5 years ago

      Useful +

      Great article. You have a lot of wonderful tips. I love using Goodwill and Salvation Army as my costume department.


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