Earlier this week I posted on Twitter about how I bought $261.00 worth of makeup, skincare, and haircare products for only $1.96. I got a lot of questions of how. My love of makeup is no secret—I do artistry as a second job—but it’s an expensive hobby that I’ve worked hard to fit into my budget. So, I’m going to share a few tips and tricks that I’ve picked up along the way.

Rule 1: Only buy things when they’re on sale.

I always have a cart of the things I’m looking to buy ready to go on Ulta and Sephora. This might sound weird but it does multiple things for me. First it forces me to look at what I really want and need. And it helps prevent impulse buying, which is a huge problem people have when purchasing makeup. Having a cart saved, along with a short wish list of items (both Ulta and Sephora let you create a favorites list) helps control your spending. Yes that palette is on sale for $24.99, but would you have bought it if it never went on sale? Just because something is half off doesn’t mean you need it.

The other reason I like this is it means I’m ready to go when a good sale or coupon comes along. Ulta is doing its 10X points event soon, and it will eventually be sending out 20% off coupons to people in its rewards programs; so I knew I needed to be ready. Fortunately for me they decided to have a surprise one-day sale this week that included a few brands I was looking to purchase. Skinfood was buy-one-get-one-40% off, which meant my favorite skincare products came to a total of $36.40 instead of $48.00. That’s about a 25% discount, more than if I had waited for a 20% off coupon, and saved me an extra $2.00.

Rule 2: Save up Rewards points.

Ulta has been known for it’s awesome rewards program for a long time, and Sephora just announced yesterday their plans to expand theirs (I’m just a little excited). Their rewards programs are free, though with both the more you spend, the higher bracket you end up in, and the faster you accumulate points; and both programs give you free products. Sephora and Ulta give a free birthday gift (without having to make a purchase) and also give you some pretty good coupons throughout the year up to 25% off.

While Sephora’s brands are often better, Ulta carries good brands of their own. That includes several cheaper brands like Wet ‘n Wild, and Ulta’s rewards points part of their program is much more generous. Ulta has many 5X points events throughout the year, along with some 10X points, and if you plan your purchases properly you can earn enough rewards points for $125.00 off of your purchase by spending as little as $200.00. Remember if you’re shopping during sales, you should also be getting way more than $200.00 worth of products when you’re making purchases as well.

With Ulta the more points you have the more you save. 100 points equals $3 but 2000 points is $125, so instead of it being 33 points per $1 it’s 16 points per $1 (please note that points can expire, so make sure to look into that). So don’t just spend your points unless you’ve maxed it out (2000 is the biggest increment available) or they’re about to expire.

Rule 3: Don’t be afraid of Ebates and Ibotta.

There are several browser add-ons as well as apps such as Ebates and Ibotta that give you cash back when you shop. With the good ones, you don’t have to do anything besides tell it you’re shopping and then you’re good to go. Sometimes you can earn much as 10% cash back (paid to you quarterly). If you want to take the cash and run that’s great, but you also can get get a boost up (my last one was 20% extra!) if you take a gift card. On this shopping trip I had a $35 gift card for Ulta that I had bought solely with Ebates rewards.

Rule 4: Gifts with Purchase (AKA GWP)

Sephora’s gifts with purchase are pretty straightforward: they have different samples available at different times, and you put in a code when purchasing online to get the one you want. On the other hand’s Ulta’s are a jungle to fight through. I use /r/muaonthecheap and usgwp.com to help navigate my shopping trip as they normally have a pretty good breakdown of the different sales and GWP available. Ulta always has GWP items available, often hidden, and some are better than others.

During my purchase this week I was able to get a free ELF eyeshadow palette, a Tarte eyeliner, a Tarte eyeshadow, a Tarte Mascara, and a Benefit concealer all included with my purchase. Some I needed to hit a minimum total for my trip (I had to spend $60 total for the tarte products) and others I had to spend a minimum on a brand (I had to spend $15 on ELF to earn the eyeshadow palette). When you’re waiting for a good sale make sure to keep the GWP in mind. If they have a GWP for a brand you love sometimes that makes it worth it. GWP contributed $71 worth of value alone to my purchase, so it’s definitely worth your time. 

Rule 5: Don’t buy random stuff.

The biggest downfall I see people fall into is thinking because it’s on sale they’re getting a deal. That isn’t true. Just because it’s on sale, doesn’t mean you should buy it. It doesn’t even mean it’s a good deal if it’s on sale; so do your research and make sure you’re buying something because you want it, not because it’s on sale. If I had just bought everything that caught my eye I wouldn’t have such a productive shopping trip this week. If you start doing this you should be using it to help you shop more conservatively, not go on a crazy spending spree.

The breakdown

So all those rules are great but how exactly did I pull off this specific shopping trip? First of all, I’ve been strictly following all the rules above until I accumulated 2000 points. I only shopped during sales, buying what I needed, often combining points multipliers, sales and GWP. When I ordered sunscreen this year I ended up with two extra bottles and a beach towel for free (plus I had 5X points)! After I accrued my 2000 points and my $35 gift card (from Ebates as described above) I patiently waited for the perfect sale.

When Wednesday’s sale came along, I already had a cart with what I wanted in it and I only had to make minor adjustments. My favorite moisturizer wasn’t on sale so I dropped that out, but if I spent $15 on ELF I got the free eyeshadow palette and I already had $10 in ELF in my cart (and there were other products I use regularly and like) so I swapped those around. Once I made my adjustments, I checked MUAontheCheap and usgwp for good GWP and added to those to my cart. Finally Ulta always has coupons for either $3.50 or $5.00 off $15.00 (this time it was $5.00) so I used one of those and I was good to go. At the end of the day I paid $1.96 and the value of all my products was $261.00 before sales, coupons, and discounts.

It’s a bit of work—I have to watch the sales and be prepared—but to me it’s worth it. I really love makeup but am on an extremely tight budget, so this lets me have the best of both worlds. This can be fun as long as you’re willing to walk away from sales, willing to make a few mistakes, and don’t mind reading the fine print once in awhile. It seems intimidating and confusing at first, but I caught on surprisingly fast and have been doing this for two years now. This is far from my first major discount purchase from Ulta or Sephora, though I have to say it’s definitely my most impressive. So make sure you’re signed up for the rewards programs and keep an eye out. Who knows what kind of deal if you might find!

Kate hails from Worcester MA and also does a bit of card altering. Check her stuff out on Facebook! She mainly plays legacy and modern though will occasionally find herself playing EDH.

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