Six Strategies for Inexpensive Halloween Costumes from an Experienced Parent

Halloween is coming up, and for many American families, that means “beggar’s night” is about to happen. Children in costume will be wandering your neighborhood, bags in hand, asking for treats, often followed by parents who bought or put those costumes together.

I’ve had kids going out for beggar’s night for the last dozen or so years, with most years featuring multiple children out there in costume looking for candy. I know all about the hunt for costumes and the annual attempt to find a cost-effective way make your kids happy.

Here are six absolutely key things I’ve learned over the years about keeping the cost of Halloween costumes low.

Start now

The earlier you start preparing for your kid’s costume, the less expensive it is, and the easier it is. Don’t wait until October 28 when you’re driving in a mad dash to a store to grab a costume, only to find there’s only a pile of really bad and overpriced costumes left, and your kid doesn’t want any of them, and so you’re searching around for anything they’ll like, and the only one they want is the one that costs $40… not that I’ve seen this or anything.

Sit down with your children tonight and talk about what they want to dress up as for Halloween. If it’s something that works as a premade costume, like “Spider-Man” or “Buzz Lightyear,” you have plenty of time to shop around for it. If it’s something that’s a little off the beaten path, like “a cardboard box” or “a zombie hospital patient” or “The Great Saiyaman,” then you have time to work with it. (All five of those costumes were ones suggested by my own children in the last several years.)

Also, the earlier you start, the less intense the preparation is. You have time to find the elements needed to make the costume work or to shop around for the pieces you need to buy.

Inspire your kids with low-cost options

If your child needs some inspiration in costume selection, look for inspiration in low cost things. For example, do your homework in advance and find a bunch of costumes you can easily pull off using the strategies below and show several of those to your child when they’re trying to think of something.

You can do a pretty thorough “pre-screening” by simply searching Google for easy homemade halloween costumes for kids or something similar and browsing through the images. Save a bunch of images and links and use those when you’re going through ideas with your kids.

If you want a few basic ideas that are pretty easy to pull off with found items and minimal additional expense, consider a “zombie” (basically get some clothes dirty and add a bit of face paint), a “robot” (paint their face, get a large cardboard box that fits around them, and paint the box), or a “ninja” (buy them black sweatpants and a long sleeved black shirt and use a thin scarf as a face mask).

Another example: when my children were younger, they made an annual ritual out of watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! during October (in fact, they just mentioned it again this very morning). One year, when we watched that before they had selected costumes, one kid became very excited to just have a costume that was a bedsheet with holes cut in it. Incredibly easy to pull off and exactly what my kid wanted.

Try to make it yourself with found items

Almost always, a costume is less expensive if it’s made mostly out of found items with perhaps a bit of additional makeup. If you can turn odds and ends around your home into a costume, then that costume is going to be quite inexpensive.

For example, the aforementioned “zombie hospital patient” involved taking an old gown and rubbing some dirt on it in a few places. We had a child who wished to be a “cardboard box” (seriously), and that costume was… you guessed it, a cardboard box with some appropriate openings cut in it. Another year, we had a child who wanted to be a “ninja,” so we simply bought black sweatpants and a long sleeved black shirt that could be worn at other times and devised a breathable head wrap using a thin scarf.

Found items also make for great props. For the “zombie hospital patient,” one little piece that really added to the effect was that we found an old teddy bear and wiped it down with dirt to go along with the dirty gown, which really made the costume.

Face paint and makeup is usually cheaper than masks

This might not necessarily be true for a single year, but the advantage of having a variety of face paints is that you can continue to use them in future years for other costumes.

We used makeup and face paint for the “zombie hospital patient” costume noted above, but we were also able to use it for a “ninja” costume and for a “banana” costume and for a “slice of pizza” costume and to accentuate a “Spider Man” costume. All of those costumes were made much less expensive by simply having face paint and makeup on hand from earlier years.

If you have a young child or children, consider getting a set of non-toxic face paint and carefully storing it. It will last for a few years and you’ll be able to get several face paintings out of that set.

Practice costume swapping

Another great strategy is to find other parents with children both older and younger than you are and simply swap and give away costumes within that group. This is a great thing to do with relatives, like your first cousin that has children approximately the same age as your own.

After the Halloween season, just take pictures of the costumes you have, note their size, and share them with parents of other children of similar ages. Offer to swap the costume you have that likely won’t be reused for the costumes their children have, or at the very least simply share pictures of the costumes.

This allows a Halloween costume that might otherwise just go into a storage box for a few years and then get discarded to actually get a second use within a year or two, saving a relative or a friend some money, and if they have a costume you can use, then you’re saving a lot of money, too.

You can do this, even now. Dig out some older costumes right away, note their sizes, take a few pictures, and share them with friends. See if they have any older costumes they would be able to swap for them, or just give your old costumes away. Most people would be thrilled to see a costume that would otherwise be donated or discarded to instead be handed to a friend or relative who would actually use it immediately.

Shop on November 1 for next year

As soon as Halloween is over, many stores quickly clearance out all of their Halloween related items within a day or two, and that’s a perfect time to shop for future years.

You can find things like full costumes, face paint kits, and other items on steep discount right around November 1. Even if your child doesn’t necessarily want to pick a costume for a future year right then, you can pick up a variety of face paints for a pittance and save them for a year to help with whatever they choose to dress up as next year.

I was able to find a face paint kit with a wide variety of colors for less than $2 after Halloween one year and it received multiple uses over subsequent years, drastically reducing the cost of future Halloween costumes.

Final thoughts

Halloween costumes do not have to be an expensive endeavor or one that’s filled with last-minute planning and buying at inflated prices. In truth, it’s actually like most other buying decisions. The more forethought you give to it, the less expensive and easier it becomes. Give your children’s costume — or your own costume — some forethought right now and start making a few smart moves sooner rather than later and Halloween won’t turn into a big expense or a stressful experience for you.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.