Pretty, Cheap: Makeup Advice for the Frugal


When I reached the age where I was interested in makeup, my mother handed me Cindy Crawford's "Basic Face," a book in which a model shows you how to put on makeup. Because she has so much experience with that herself. Because she's a model.

So, with that book, Clinique's makeup counter, and a fair amount of wherewithal in hand (my mother's makeup bag), I started my makeup exploration like every other pre-teen girl — completely lost. (See also: Budgeting Beauty: An Expert Tells All)

Years of trial and error later, I still find myself completely clueless about so many things. Eyeshadow bewilders me, lip liner seems completely useless, and blush makes me look like a china doll.

Somehow, however, I still get up every day and put this goop on my face, my lips, and my eyelids. I have a routine, one that I follow religiously because every time I try something different (or just don't bother), my coworkers freak out at the sight of my apparently terrifying eyelashes (they're blonde). Surprisingly, my acne prone/scarred/screwed skin doesn't bother them in the least.

It's made me wonder...what do other ladies do? Have they read books by famous (and naturally "gorgeous") women or magazine articles by expert makeup artists? Did they get help from someone at a makeup counter? Or did they just wake up one day and look beautiful?

I sent my friends a quick email asking them to detail their experiences with the basics: concealer, foundation, and mascara. What I found out quickly is that no one's basics are the same. Some use blush every day, some can't live without eyeliner, others rely on eye shadow. Some wear nothing at all! I also found out that they have struggled with the same problems and faced the same amount of trial and error.

Below I've detailed what I've learned from research or just asking my friends about places to go to check out new makeup. And I almost have an answer to the age old question about what to buy, where: "Over the makeup counter or over the pharmacy counter?"

Where to Find Makeup and Advice

First of all, let's talk about where to get your face did.

The Mall

Oh, the horrors of mall makeup counters.

I'm not comfortable being told that my face was "done wrong" (yes, when I was in high school, an employee at a Clinique counter told me this). However, most of the employees know what they're talking about. And while I don't suggest getting a makeover, I do suggest asking lots and lots and lots of questions and sampling everything. And don't just go to one counter; try them all. The employees will be able to tell you what you need to wear with your skin type — oily, dry, acne-prone, all of the above.


When I used to live in New York and a boozy brunch turned into an all day party, ensuring there was no way I was going to make the long trek from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I would stop in Sephora and freshen up. Generally speaking though, you go to purchase one thing, and you're shown 30 more. 30 more awesome products. That you can try. Right then and there. I mean, why not? You've got time and resources. Oh, you don't? Okay, well, run along quickly.


Unlike Sephora, ULTA is your best bet for deals. While Sephora offers a membership club, the results are usually a tiny mascara or fragrance (which is great for trying out new products), but they only come once in a blue moon. ULTA's rewards are far reaching, and more importantly, so are their deals.

Your Friends

Why not have a makeup party? Okay, fine, I'm not 13, but really, your friends probably have the best experience and advice to offer about makeup. They've been there, they've done that, and most likely they've picked up tips along the way. Of course, don't share any eye makeup, but otherwise learn from each other. Heck, if you have a friend selling Mary Kay, give into her pressure for a party and learn something. You never know.

A Makeup Artist

A lot of local salons usually employ makeup artists to help with weddings and proms. Go to your local place and see if anyone is there to pick their brain or have them play with your face. It might be free (and might not, of course), but it never hurts to ask.

The Drugstore

I'll never forget the moment Walgreens announced you could return makeup products you don't like. I think I had an entire bag full. Granted, they were all really, really old and there was no way I was going to be able to return them. Now, it seems it's up to the manager's discretion, which makes buying makeup there (and at other drugstores) a bit trickier. You're not afforded the opportunity to try before you buy, so just keep the receipts.

Products to Buy (or Try)

Now, let's talk products for a moment. Before you proceed, tab open the Best of Beauty article from Allure Magazine. Really the only thing to discuss is makeup counter versus drugstore, and my poll of friends came up with a myriad of results.


Everyone seemed to agree that foundation, mineral powder, or anything else you put on your entire face and wear all day is worth spending the most money on. I use Clinique, but this is a trial and error type of problem. Some people swear by mineral powder. Some prefer just tinted moisturizer. Read this article from Oprah (yes, I know, but seriously — it's useful), and go play at Sephora and the makeup counters. If you're going to clog your pores with something, make sure you look great doing it.


Whether it be creamy or more of a stick, there are a wide range of choices for concealer. My friends generally go for the drugstore option (rolling in at around $6-$8). Total Beauty has a useful list of the best rated concealers, although most are more expensive, and Real Simple did a nice round-up of the best concealers. Thanks to Real Simple, I personally fell in love with Sonia Kashuk's Take Cover Concealing Stick from Target. It's cheap and easy to use. My only complaint is they're usually sold out!


Mascara-wise, everyone seems to use drugstore mascara. All of their options (Maybelline and Cover Girl were the most popular) ran between $7-$10. Almost none of them used waterproof because it's hard to remove. Here's where I differ. I've been using Clinique Lash Power Mascara Long-Wearing Formula for a while now (I even made my mother bring me some from the States when I was living in New Zealand). It's double the price of drugstore mascara and only lasts a few months. So why use it? Because it's unbelievably easy to remove and lasts all day. Also, as mentioned before, my eyelashes are super blonde, so I need something like that!


There are a lot of options for blush. The main thing is picking out a color that looks best on your face (and compliments your eyes). I rarely use blush because I generally drop it and it cracks and then it's all gone. Makeup Geek has a good round-up of different types of blush, from creme to powder. This is where I'd suggest using the power of Sephora to find the right shade and texture and the power of the drugstore to find the best price.

Eyeshadow and Eyeliner

Everyone agrees that cheaper eyeshadow and eyeliner works just as well — the main thing is how to apply it. Use your friends or an experienced makeup artist for this, although I've had some luck with YouTube tutorials. The key for those is finding someone with a voice that isn't painful to listen to. These two products are generally cheap and plentiful, so go forth and play!


For lipstick, it all depends on what color you prefer and how chapped your lips are. Pick out a color that works for you from a makeup counter or Sephora, and find the cheap version at the drugstore. If that doesn't work, try, try again. did this experiment with just one color, but there are plenty of chances to figure it out!


Overall, it seems having good tools is important — eyelash curlers, brushes, and sponges. But if you don't know how to use them, it might defeat the purpose. As mentioned multiple times, ask a lot of questions!

I'm sure you've got a lot to add, so please do! I'm unbelievably interested in what you have to say on the subject of makeup. What works for you?

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Guest's picture
Laura Marsh

Hi Jennifer!
Great article and really helpful advice! I am also make-up illiterate. I generally just use waterproof eyeliner AND mascara, because I exercise and am outside for a living (plus I cry a lot, ha!). I use Maybelline waterproof remover at night which works really well. I'll also put on some cover-up (it's probably grossly expired, I got it at Big Lots years ago...sick!) and mineral powder to make it stay put. I also put mineral powder on my eyes BEFORE applying eyeliner--this makes it stay longer and doesn't crease or "fall off" in my daily sweating routine.
I love the advice about going to the mall or Ulta for advice and samples!!
Thanks, hope this helps!

Guest's picture

Wow! This article is so informal. I wasn't expecting that. You definitely covered a wide range of information in a very clear and interesting way. Thank you for sharing. Make up and I are best friends and enemies. I rarely buy it for myself but use whatever my mother or grandmother or sister get as samples just because I don't like dropping a lot of money on make up when I am not a huge fan of taking the time to put it on, but I love wearing it.

Guest's picture

I regret to admit that I'm 23 and still don't know anything about a lot of makeup tips and tricks. Luckily, I have friends who are great at putting on eyeshadow and things like that. I do love Sephora but hate salespeople who are just trying to get you to buy a bunch of different things- I feel like I can only semi-trust them because they have an invested interest in what I buy. I did like this article though!

Guest's picture

This is so funny that you posted this today. This is the first day that I left the house for work or class without makeup in over 16 years! When I say, without makeup, I mean I wore mascara and lipstick. Everyday before I work foundation, under-eye cover, several shades of shadow, blush, eyeliner, a few more steps in the bare minerals system, mascara and lipstick. It took a lot of time, cost at least $200 a year (on my standard products, I usually got talked into something new whenever I went to replace something) and kept me from doing a lot of other things, like working out at lunch time. It also kept me from having the feeling of "getting dressed up" because I was so overdone all the time. So far, no one has said anything or looked at me strangely. I prefer the way my skin feels and really liked having the extra time this morning.

Guest's picture

Mascara is definitely something to buy from the drugstore/discount store, and so is lipstick. But eyeliner varies dramatically in quality by brand, and higher end eyeshadow pigments are much stronger and adhere much better. Concealer is also something that's hard to find in high quality at the drugstore. Maybeline's Dream Matte Foundations are only one step below Chanel foundations, though--they are simply amazing for the price point.

Jennifer Holder's picture

That's a good point about wearing eyeshadow all day. You definitely need something that stays on! I have had a ton of luck with the concealer I mentioned though - I used to only use high quality brands. And awesome about Maybelline - I'll have to try it out!

Guest's picture

No mention of using YouTube videos to learn makeup techniques?

Jennifer Holder's picture

Actually, I did under the Eyeshadow and Eyeliner part!

Guest's picture
Thrifty Writer

Wow. I've never worn makeup, other than lip gloss or tinted lip balm. I think this happened because my mother never wore make up, when I was growing up (and still doesn't, to this day). She strongly believed that makeup ruined the skin. Maybe because I grew up with her for an example, I never developed the habit. I'm lucky in that I inherited her family's good skin, and my eyelashes are naturally dark and fairly long. My mother still looks pretty good - she attributes her skin partly to genetics but mostly to her vegetarian diet, very high in vegetables:-) I have to admit, when I see women covering their faces in foundation, on the subway or in the ladies room, I kind of wonder how their skin breathes?

Guest's picture

I was just thinking about my routine yesterday, and how I've done almost the same thing since I was 18. All I do in the morning is clean up my face -- BB cream (which is my new favorite thing) to even out my skintone and concealer/foundation to touch up the rough spots. Some powder, some eyebrow shader for a thin patch, and that's it.

I've never had anyone say "You'd look better with makeup," and as long as I'm cleaned up, I think I'm good. Sometimes I wish I knew how to do eye shadow and blush, but people around me are so used to me being "without" that it would freak them out.

Guest's picture

The great thing about Ulta is they have both high end and drugstore brands, so you can compare shades in store. Also, they have an awesome return policy. If you don't like it you can return it, period. Most of the time they don't even ask for a reason and if they do "this product didn't work for me" is an acceptable response.

Guest's picture

I'd have to agree that make up is very expensive. Luckily there are plenty of places to find good deals and sales on quality brands. I usually save until I can afford one expensive item that I've been waiting to buy, and then wait a couple months to purchase the next on the list. Over time, I've gathered a hefty collection of my favorite make up brands!