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Cheap Swaps & Alternatives to Expensive High-End Makeup Brands

Hands up if you’re totally addicted to makeup – my hand is definitely raised high. I love trying new products, checking out the latest colors, and splurging on a purchase every now and then. After all, if you wear makeup every day, you want the best stuff out there.

Unfortunately, my budget doesn’t always agree. And while I do admit that there are a few things I splurge on (quality mascara and foundation are my must-haves), I’ve learned that you don’t need to spend big bucks on pricey designer makeup when other products out there are just as good – if not better.

Smart Swaps for Spendy Makeup

Walk into any department or makeup store and you’re going to find scores of sales associates ready to make you look perfect – and to talk you into buying their wares. Sure, a $20 blush probably won’t break your budget, but over time it can really add up. Luckily, over the years I’ve learned to first check out the local drugstore, big box store, and online retailers for the best deals in makeup, and I’ve found that I could replace almost all the pricier stuff with affordable products of similar quality.


I regularly pony up the money for my beloved Diorshow, but it’s not the be-all, end-all for volumizing mascara. While you won’t get the signature rosewater scent or the statement tube, L’Oreal Voluminous Million Lashes does a great job thickening up long lashes. In fact, I keep a tube of it on hand in case I run out of my Christian Dior and don’t have time to run to the department store to replace it.

BB Cream

BB (“beauty balm”) cream is a handy beauty product that combines foundation and sunscreen with moisturizer for a light and dewy finish. It’s perfect when I want a little coverage without having to wear a ton of makeup. Luckily, there are a lot of cosmetics companies picking up the BB cream trend, which means you’ve now got several choices in the marketplace.

While Stila makes amazing products – I especially love their lip gloss – there’s no reason to pay that much for a basic BB. My favorite from the many I’ve tried has got to be Maybelline’s. It’s a lot creamier and gives better coverage than most BBs, and I love that it comes in a variety of shades – most brands just offer one or two.

Liquid Eyeliner

I love liquid eyeliner when I’m feeling overly dramatic, but I don’t love paying too much for the stuff. One of my favorite makeup finds of the last year is the extremely affordable eyeliner pen from e.l.f. It goes on smoothly with a marker-like tip and doesn’t budge all day. At $2 a pop, you can afford to buy multiple colors, and e.l.f. routinely has amazing coupon codes on websites like RetailMeNot and, so make sure you do some bargain shopping before you buy.


MAC is known for their highly pigmented, long-wear eyeshadows, but you’re going to pay big bucks for a super-small pot of color. While I do recommend splurging on brighter colors – you don’t want your plum purple to fade – you can save big when buying neutral colors. Both Toast and Soba are neutral pinky-browns that don’t need all of the high-priced pigments from MAC. Buy the Ulta version and you’re going to have money leftover for a second color, too.


I swear by primer as a way to start out the makeup process. It fills in pores and fine lines and then helps the rest of your makeup behave throughout the day. The first primer I ever tried was by Too Faced, and while it worked well, I couldn’t justify the price. I changed to Revlon’s primer and didn’t notice a difference in anything but my wallet. It comes in two types: tinted and color correcting, which is great if you have dark spots or under-eye circles.

Smart Swaps Spendy Makeup


NARS Orgasm is the industry standard for universally flattering cheek color. It’s a peachy-pink that looks good on everyone. However, if you don’t have the $29 to shell out for a small palette of NARS, consider the super-cheap Wet n’ Wild alternative. You might not get as much pigment as you do with NARS, but you can achieve the same look by layering it, and at a fraction of the cost. Those extra couple of layers just might be worth the $26 savings.

Lip Stain

Lip stains are amazing at keeping color where it belongs – on your lips. The YSL version is known for hydrating as well as coloring, so you don’t get that dried-out feeling after a couple of hours. Luckily for you and me, L’Oreal does at a great job with the products in their Colour Caresse line, which are also super-hydrating and long-wearing. As an added bonus, both lines have a hot pink that I love – only, one is about $24 cheaper than the other.


Nicki Minaj collaborated with MAC Viva Glam to create a line of cosmetics inspired by her style. Her lipstick is a bubblegum pink that has become her signature color. CoverGirl, however, does a much cheaper version of the same shade, and its Lip Perfection line is moisturizing and long lasting. Why pay $10 more for the pricey brand name when you can score the same color for cheap at the drugstore?

Cleansing Tools

The Clarisonic line of oscillating and vibrating cleansers opened up a new world of beauty products and beauty marketing. While Clarisonic is one of the best-rated products of its type, it’s also a serious splurge at around $150, depending on the model you purchase. If you’re looking for the buzz without the bank account crash, go for the much-cheaper option from Neutrogena. It doesn’t have oscillating brushes, but it does have a gentle vibration meant to lift dirt and oil from the skin’s surface while gently exfoliating.


A good set of makeup brushes is a must for your arsenal, and with different features and materials, it’s easy to spend big bucks on a set. However, I simply swear by my Sonia Kashuk brushes, sold exclusively at Target. They’re every bit as soft as pricier brushes and I’ve had my set for over a year with nary a loose bristle in sight. Plus, they come in a ton of fun colors and designs to help set your brush collection apart.

Final Word

You don’t need to spend a ton of money to look glamorous. With new products being released all the time, there’s a good chance that your favorite splurge is now available at a drugstore near you on the cheap. Look around and you might be surprised at the products available. Play it smart and you could end up saving big money without ever having to sacrifice your makeup.

What other makeup swaps can you suggest?

Jacqueline Curtis
Jacqueline Curtis writes about edtech, finance, marketing, and small business strategy. With over 14 years of copywriting experience, she's created content and scripting for organizations such as GE, Walgreens, Overstock, and MasterCard. She lives in Utah with her husband, three kids, and an overzealous springer spaniel named Penelope.

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