Better Costumes, Lower Costs: This Halloween, Hit the Thrift Shop

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Every October, hundreds of Halloween pop-up stores emerge in malls and empty storefronts across the country. Meanwhile, existing costume shops hire a ton of seasonal employees for the Halloween rush, and drugstores and other retailers dedicate an aisle or two to costumes and candy. At every one of these establishments, you'll find a variety of ready-made costumes in bags, not to mention fake weapons, mustaches, wigs and other accessories.

But when it comes time to choose your costume, we'd urge you to skip the Halloween store and head for the thrift shop.

"No costume-in-a-bag has ever won a costume contest," scoffs Melissa Massello, founder of DIY and frugal living site Shoestring Magazine. "If you go the DIY route, you're much more likely to get the cash prize or gift certificate."

Even if you don't care about winning costume contests, there's another good argument for skipping the costume shop: It's a lot cheaper to put your costume from scratch than to buy it ready-made.

Consider one staple costume: The old-timey gangster. This one usually consists of a large-fitting, pinstriped suit, some manner of fedora or other brimmed hat, and perhaps a fake tommy gun. Throw in a wide tie with a thick knot, and perhaps a cigar, and you're all set.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%I visited a large costume shop here in New York, and found a whole section dedicated to the gangster look. Its offerings were pricey: One costume cost $60, and another came in at $70. The bag contained only the suit -- no tie, tommy gun or hat was included.

Then I headed over to the Salvation Army thrift store, which happened to be next door. There were plenty of ill-fitting suits on the rack, and I found a nice pinstriped one for just $24. But that's not all: Most of the store is 50 percent off on Wednesday, so the actual price was just $12. And unlike the polyester "suits" from the costume shop, these were real garments, meant to last, albeit used ones that probably needed a good dry-cleaning. If I'd decided I liked the look of the suit, I could've even had it tailored after Halloween and entered it into regular rotation in my wardrobe. The mass-produced "gangster" costume, by contrast, looked unlikely to hold up to multiple wearings.

That's just one example. Another would be the classic Super Mario costume, which consists of a pair of blue overalls, a red shirt and a red hat. At a costume shop, you're looking at paying about $40 for this costume. (That's also what you pay for a "Pete the Plumber" costume, a shameless ripoff of Nintendo's beloved character.) But again, there's no need to buy a costume in a bag when it can be assembled from clothes found at any thrift store -- how much would it really cost to buy a pair of overalls and a red shirt at your local Goodwill?

If you do decide to go the thrift store route, there are a few things to keep in mind going in.

Things are about to get very busy. "October is like Black Friday for thrift stores," says Massello, who has a tradition of making her costumes from scratch. "At this point, a week away, they're starting to get picked over." Get there before the weekend rush if you can, but keep in mind that you might need to hit multiple stores in the area to put together your full costume.

Plan ahead, but be willing to improvise. Massello recommends doing Google Image searches of your costume beforehand and putting together an itemized list of what you need at the store (and what you can provide from your own closet).

But if you still haven't decided on a costume, or you're not sure that you'll find every element you need, your best bet might be to go in with a few costumes in mind and hope that inspiration strikes while you're browsing the buck-a-pound box.

Remember to clean what you get. There's one advantage that a costume in a bag has over a thrift-store creation: It doesn't need to be cleaned first. Make sure you leave enough time to clean your purchase. "You need to assume that nothing has been washed at a thrift store," Massello says. "If you're buying the day before, don't buy something that has to be dry-cleaned."

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

We are showing you how to eat, drink and be scary this Halloween season.
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