How to Get Fabulous Makeup Without Spending a Fortune

When I first decided that I wanted to pay off my loans early, I realized I needed to cut costs. Everywhere. That included my makeup and skincare products. Gone were the days of going to Sephora every time I wanted a new lip color, in came drugstore makeup.

Growing up I was always envious of girls with designer lip glosses and eyeshadows, so it felt amazing once I started buying the brands I once coveted.

But spending so much money on makeup seemed frivolous once I realized how much I owed on my student loans, and many people claimed that you could find the same quality for cheap. If that was true, then why was I spending so much money?

Unfortunately, I haven’t entirely converted to drugstore makeup, but that doesn’t mean I’m OK with buying full-price products. There are ways to save when you’re shopping at Sephora or Ulta.

Do Tons of Research

Anytime I’m in the market for a new eyeliner or lipstick, I go to the number one place to read reviews: You have to register there to see the reviews, but it’s so worth it.

For example, if I want to get a new tinted moisturizer, I’ll go there, click on Product Reviews, Tinted Moisturizer and search. I can instantly sort the options based on price, number of reviews and average rating. Usually, I do it by the number of reviews because if someone’s rated an item five starts once, it’ll be the highest rated.

Once I’ve found a few I want to learn more about, I click on the links and read the individual reviews. I like knowing if a foundation made someone with oily skin break out more or if the facial sunscreen left a white cast. Reading lots of reviews makes me prepared to actually go to the store and start shopping.

MakeUpAlley includes both drugstore and high-end brands in their reviews, so you can easily see if there’s a CoverGirl tinted moisturizer that works as well as the Nars or Laura Mercier. I love that! Who wants to spend more money for the same product?

Find Duplicates

Sometimes when I find a high-end product I really like, I still don’t want to splurge on it, especially if it’s something non-essential like setting powder or eyeshadow. I’d rather save my coins for foundation or eyeliner, something I use every time I put on makeup.

So if I have a product in mind, I’ll go to Temptalia, a blog that does makeup reviews and finds duplicates (or dupes). Most of the time, the dupes are cheaper versions of the same product. Temptalia writes about how the two are different, and she’ll rate how close the drugstore version is to its high-end twin.

Here’s an example. I looked up MAC Ruby Woo and found a bunch of dupes. Temptalia recommends the Maybelline Very Cherry – and even shows how it’s $9.51 cheaper than MAC and matches Ruby Woo 94% – what a win!

Seriously, if you’re not looking at drugstore duplicates, you’re really missing out.

Try Before You Buy

If you haven’t found a drugstore version of the makeup you like, it’s ok to get it from Sephora or Ulta. Sometimes, quality is more expensive. But before you splurge on $50 foundation, try a sample of it. Nowadays, I always get samples before I buy makeup because I want to see how it works on my skin away from the bright lights of Sephora. I also like samples because you can make sure your skin doesn’t have a bad reaction to it.

Sephora’s employees are super nice about letting people take samples, but the people at Ulta can be a little hesitant about it. Still, it’s better to get a sample before you buy something you don’t like. Too many people end up not returning something, so that’s why I recommend getting a sample first.

Wait for Sales

Ulta and Sephora rarely have sales or coupons, so definitely stock up when they do. Sometimes I’ll even buy my favorite NARS foundation when it hasn’t yet run out because I don’t want to wait and miss the sale. Sephora’s sales are in April and November, while Ulta always has some around the holidays.

Join the email list so you’ll be notified when it happens. Ulta also has weekly coupons you can use on their cheaper products, which is also a great deal.

Join the Rewards Program

Both Ulta and Sephora have a rewards program that is free to join, so definitely sign up for that if you haven’t already. You can get free gifts on your birthday – I’ve gotten a mini free NARS lipstick from Sephora that was perfect for my skin tone and a travel-size Fresh cleanser. Plus, it makes it easier to return items if they’re linked to your card.

Sometimes Sephora has special deals where they’ll double how many points you earn with each purchase. Since Sephora’s rewards are actually super valuable, this is also a good time to buy anything you need.

I always wait to use my Sephora rewards until I’m 100% sure I want the product. Sometimes I’ll have enough to redeem for a special gift, but there’s nothing I actually like. But if I’m patient, eventually I’ll find something I like.

Also, if you shop online at, you can usually get extra samples and offers if you spend more than a certain amount. You can find this in the Beauty Offers section.

Check the Sale Section

Both stores have an in-store and online sale section that can have great stuff if you poke around. I’ve gotten good deals from their clearance area before too. Plus, you can usually sample the goods at Sephora so you’ll know if you’re getting a good deal or a crappy product.

My Favorite Budget Beauty Buys

Nowadays, about half of my makeup comes from Sephora and half comes from Target or Amazon. I research carefully before deciding if I want to splurge or if I can save a few bucks. I rarely buy new makeup, so it’s always a big deal when I need to replace something. I’m really confident in my recommendation, so here’s a list of my favorite budget beauty items:

Real Techniques Brushes

A good makeup brush is almost more important than the makeup itself, so I’ve always strived for quality when it comes to my brushes. The great news about Real Techniques is that their brushes are affordable AND highly rated.

I’ve slowly replaced most of my brushes with Real Techniques. If you wash them regularly with gentle soap and cold water, they’ll last forever.

I also save money because as you can see, I don’t own a ton of their brushes – just the blush and foundation brush. I still have an eyeshadow brush from EcoTools that I use, but when it starts to fade, I’ll replace it with a Real Techniques.

They work well, distribute color evenly and last forever. Just make sure to keep them away from your dogs, who might think your eyeshadow brush is a small chew stick.

Cost: Ranges from $3-$8 per brush on Amazon

Wet n Wild Color Icon Collection Eye Shadow Trio in Silent Treatment

This is my favorite eyeshadow palette. I can layer the colors to create a sophisticated look, and they hold up throughout the day.

I would recommend this to anyone who doesn’t want to splurge on the Naked palette but still wants a few good neutrals to wear. Did I mention it was less than $3?

Plus, since I travel a lot, I can fit this easily in my makeup bag. It holds up throughout the day (even better when I layer eyeshadow primer underneath it). Even though I have a bigger palette now, I still reach for this one when I’m in a hurry.

Cost: $2.99 at Walgreens

L’Oreal Voluminous Original Mascara (Waterproof)

For a while, I was buying my mascara at Sephora, but I went on MakeUpAlley (duh) and this mascara had great reviews. It’s held up really well and doesn’t run like other drugstore mascaras I’ve tried. I get the waterproof since my eyes get teary, but I think the regular version also does well.

Cost: $7.99 at Ulta


What are your best tips for saving on makeup and skincare? Share your favorite tips below!

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