What I’m Really Paying for When I Pay $22 for Lipstick

In my makeup bag, a healthy mix of pricey and cheap: Target makeup brushes, Sonia Kashuk primer, The Balm shadows in caught in the act courtney and luscious lani, Lancome eyeliner pencil in black coffee, Loreal Voluminous mascara, Clinique blushwear cream stick, Clinique bronzer, Paul and Joe lipstick, Clinique lipstick in Tenderheart, Mary Kay lip liner in neutral.

Confession: I buy expensive makeup. It’s not because I have money to burn, or because I think the quality is so much better.

I choose $22 lipstick from the cosmetics counter over the $5 drugstore stuff because I’m cosmetically inept, hopelessly indecisive, and easily overwhelmed.

I love the idea of cheap makeup, but the four aisles of product at Target completely overwhelm me. I don’t know what brand to choose, which formula, what color. I can’t try it on, and I can’t visualize what it’s going to look like on me.

And I hate–to an irrational level–getting it home and finding out that the color is all wrong for me, that it smells funny, or that it’s uncomfortable to wear. And it can’t be returned.

Some of you think the thrill of the hunt is fun. You can have at it. I don’t enjoy the hunt: I just want to get it right.

I buy my $22 lipstick from the professional makeup artist who runs my favorite little cosmetics counter. He pre-selects the right products for my skin and the right shades for my skin tone. He shows me how to apply it, because I still need help figuring this makeup thing out.

Maybe the quality is better than the Target stuff; I don’t know and I don’t care. When I pay for expensive makeup, I’m paying for more than the product: I’m buying good advice, a narrowed range of choices, and the ability to try it before I buy it.

I don’t buy a lot of $22 lipstick (because, $22) but that suits my style anyway. I’d rather have a slim makeup bag stocked with products I wear all the time than a bulging bag filled with products I don’t. All I need is a neutral lipstick and a bright, maybe a red. A couple of eyeshadows, some blush. A liner or two. And I’m set.


My makeup guy said none of his reds would look as good on me as this $6 red from NYX. I appreciated his honesty–and a cheap lipstick, for once. 

There are a million reasons why women choose the makeup they do, and one of them is personality. For better or worse, my personality is better suited to the pricey makeup route.

But regardless of your personality type, or your preference for the cosmetics counter or drugstore or no makeup at all, remember Anne Lamott’s words and you’ll be good:

“Joy is the best makeup.” – Anne Lamott

Do you buy $20 lipstick (at the cosmetics counter) or $5 lipstick (at Target)? Or a little of each? Or neither? Why?

P.S. My favorite $3 lipstick (and overcoming perfectionism).

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  1. I don’t buy (or wear) make up often, but when I do I prefer to buy quality brands instead of the cheaper alternatives for many of the same reasons you do.

    My favourite indulgence is Chanel lipstick. It costs a small fortune, and I could probably kit out an entire make-up bag for the price of it, but it’s one of my sole treats and since I buy it so rarely (and wear it often) I feel I can live with the indulgence.

    The quality is far superior to the cheaper drugstore brands – it not only lasts longer when I’m wearing it, but lasts longer in the tube so I need to buy it less often. The most important thing for me is that knowing I’m wearing this indulgent balm makes me feel good. I don’t need to have the label showing or tell anyone what I’m wearing. In a way it’s similar to wearing beautiful underwear beneath an otherwise dowdy outfit.

  2. I am not completely loyal one way or another. I usually use Bare Minerals makeup which is more expensive, but I feel like it stays on better than other foundations/concealer combos. I still own a Clinque lipstick in Tenderheart that my mom bought me for prom…16 years ago! That’s how much I wear lipstick 😉 But I have been wanting to try lipstick as an adult. I think going to cosmetics counter is probably best for that, but I also have wanted to try Radiant Cosmetics, which I can only buy online.

  3. I am the complete opposite… I love roaming those 4 aisles at Target! I have mixed emotions about cheap make up, I do believe you pay for what you get… but I’ve totally used the ELF (eyes lip face) brand from Target which is SO cheap and I think some of their stuff is great. My friend gifted me a trial pack of some expensive make up and I think the ELF eye primer stuff works just the same. I guess it’s trial and error.

    I would like some professional opinions though. It’s always nice to learn from the pros 🙂

    • Anne says:

      Amber, I had no idea ELF stood for eyes lip face! Thanks for enlightening me.

      I think I’d have more fun roaming those 4 aisles at Target if I was with someone like you–someone who actually thinks it’s fun!

  4. Tina B says:

    I’ve never been one to wear much makeup. Mom took me to an expensive boutique when I was 16 to get me “the good stuff.” I found it to be so thick and heavy and disgusting. Then there were all of those steps that I just had to do so I’d have perfect skin. I was a tomboy with no interest in makeup and I felt so “made up.” To this day, because of that experience, I don’t trust a “professional.” I’d prefer to wander alone in the Target aisle to find what I want. My thinking is that even if I buy a couple of the cheap ones, it’s still much easier and cheaper than going to the cosmetic counter.

    • Anne says:

      Oh, interesting. I’m sorry your first experience was so bad–“thick, horrible, and disgusting” are terrible adjectives for anything–especially anything that goes on your face!

  5. Grace says:

    I very rarely wear any make up at all, but when I do it is the expensive stuff. My mascara I just got was $20. This is because I’m choosing the organic, natural brands that are not going to give me cancer and are made from local companies. In a lot of cases, I’ve been learning that you get what you pay for.

  6. Ley H says:

    I am half and half. I’ve mastered the basics of makeup–applying a base properly, using proper eye creams and primers, how to put on mascara without my mouth hanging open (clench your back teeth, it works a lot better!)–but there are a lot of things I am terrible at. Matching my skin tone, for one. I’m also a little lazy, so I don’t want to spend a half hour making my eyes look amazing. I will go to the drugstore to replenish what I already know and love, but when I need a new palette or foundation, I trust the gals at Sephora to point me in the right direction–they are also the masters of five minute makeup, FYI.

  7. Sarah Beals says:

    I usually buy things from Clinique when they have their free gifts. I find that when I buy lipstick from a drug store, the color is never right and I never use it. I like trying first. My foundation was $40. gasp–from Estee Lauder and I love it after a year of trying cheaper ones from the drug store. In the long run I spend less, I think. I just bought the Clinique chubby stick lip gloss and looove it.

    • Anne says:

      I’m a recovering bonus time junkie. 🙂 (You can see evidence in the photo above.) I did love the Clinique chubby stick gloss I got in my last little bonus bag–I’ve worn it down to a nub!

  8. None whatsoever – but I think you knew that. 😉 However, I’m with you all the way on “a slim makeup bag stocked with products I wear all the time than a bulging bag filled with products I don’t.” Even though I don’t wear makeup at all, I am with you all the way on the idea behind that. I say the same for my closet, my kitchen, and my home in general. It’s not the price, it’s buying what you know you will use and no more.

    • Anne says:

      “I say the same for my closet, my kitchen, and my home in general. It’s not the price, it’s buying what you know you will use and no more.”

      Exactly this.

  9. Christine says:

    I can relate – I am always overwhelmed when buying makeup!

    But keep in mind that most drugstores (CVS comes to mind), Ulta, and even Wal-mart will give you a full refund for makeup products that have been opened and used!

  10. Tim says:

    Anne, while I can’t recall ever paying $22 for lipstick I can say that your buying philosophy is right along with mine. I go for things that may cost more initially when I know that the value will come out over time. That said, there is also a place for picking up whatever’s cheapest sometimes. Appliances: first category. A replacement toothbrush on an overnight trip out of town: the second.


  11. Dani says:

    I totally agree with you. I am not much of a make up person, and I feel so lost or overwhelmed when they discontinue a color that I use. I primarily buy MAC for the same reasons. I like that I can go and have someone else tell me what will look good on me and what won’t. I also like to get suggestions from my friends. I feel like most of them are much more make up savvy then me.

    Funny thing I am looking a good red lipstick too. I would love to find one for $6.

  12. Amanda says:

    I used to love shopping for makeup as a teenager and trying new things. Now that I am old(er), with three little ones, I have no time, energy, or money for that sort of thing. I buy my makeup at Sephora, where they match it to my skin tone and show me just what to buy. And don’t know if this is just my Sephora, but one time the girl recommended a foundation and when I got it home and used it several times, I could just tell it was not the right shade. I took it back and they never questioned exchanging it for a different shade. I don’t see Target doing that, and I like that someone else is telling me what matches so I don’t have to try to figure it out!

    • Anne says:

      That’s great to know that Sephora swapped out your foundation for a shade that worked better for you. It makes it so much easier for me to pull the trigger (especially on something pricey like good foundation) when I know I won’t be throwing money down the drain if I get it wrong!

  13. Allison says:

    I love my MK 3-in-1 Timewise cleanser. It’s my one beauty splurge, and keeps my face almost completely blemish free (except for that time of the month when your pores decide to have a holiday!)

    If I did do makeup, I would go the tailored, more expensive route – in my limited experience cheap makeup means nastier skin.

  14. I only wear makeup on special occasions, for a variety of reasons. I guess the main three are convenience, culture (my mom is British), and the fact that I think girls my age and younger just plain wear too much here in the South. I want to be an example of the fact that you can and do look pretty without makeup on. As for the makeup I buy, it’s mostly stuff from the discount store since I wear it so infrequently.

    • Anne says:

      Oh, Magdalen. I’m just barely in the South, but I think since Southern Living covers my state in their magazine it still counts. And I know exactly what you mean, I’m afraid. 🙂

      “I want to be an example of the fact that you can and do look pretty without makeup on.”

      Love this.

  15. Shelly says:

    Hi Anne!

    Love this post. I am in between….I can’t afford to buy much of the expensive stuff, BUT I think I probably end up spending more on the cheap stuff because the color ends up being wrong, etc. I was just thinking about how I should give up buying make-up from cheaper places.
    I am intrigued that you have a favorite make-up person. The only place I know to get make-up is at the beauty counter with a specific brand or drugstores/target – type stores. I know I don’t live anywhere near you, but I would love to know where you go.

    • Anne says:

      Okay, for my makeup guy: I’m guessing it’s an unusual setup. He mans the cosmetics counter at one of the higher end independent boutiques in my town has a cosmetics counter. It’s pretty rare around here for a shop like that to have a cosmetics counter, but I’m glad it does. 🙂

  16. Lisa says:

    I buy the $20 lip gloss because it’s what’s been recommended by the makeup consultants at Sephora when I have the time to sit down and let them apply makeup for me. I just don’t trust myself to pick out great shades because no matter what, when I get home I’m disappointed.

  17. Robin in New Jersey says:

    Let’s see, $22 lipstick or milk and bread for my kids? I would love to be able to buy expensive makeup. When I do buy it, which is rare, I buy a cheap lipgloss, and Maybelline mascara in the pink tube with the green wand. I have always wanted to buy a really nice lipstick, but it’s just not feasible.

    • Anne says:

      No joking! Milk and bread it is. And cheap lipgloss. Or none.

      I have always heard that the pink tube Maybelline mascara is one of the best mascaras out there–at any price. I’ve never tried it myself because I’m partial to my own brand of cheap mascara. It’s good to know that good stuff can be found at all price points. Or can be skipped altogether.

  18. I do so much better when I have limited choices and when someone recommends something. I finally learned that about myself just a few years ago. I now have limited choices for clothes and shoes, and it doesn’t take me long to decide what to wear. I’m the same with makeup. However, I’m a drug store girl – mainly due to price and convenient location.

  19. I love makeup and have tried it all over the years and found that many things are worth extra money, while others aren’t. I swear by Lancome concealer, MAC lipstick, and good quality eyeshadow (Chanel eyeshadow lasts forever, Laura Mercier is another good brand, and so is Bobbi Brown). But I find that Maybelline mascara is just as good as expensive brands. Other drugstore mascara is hit or miss. I tried Target ELF mascara once and had to throw it out after the first use, so that was not worth my $1!

    I agree with other posters above–I’d rather have fewer things but have them all be nice, than have lots of things that are all cheap. But that, as you said, Anne, is a personality thing not a value judgement!

    • Anne says:

      Catherine, I love hearing which items other women splurge on, and which reliable drugstore favorites they depend on. I’m a big fan of my cheap Loreal mascara myself. That’s horrible about the ELF brand! Thanks for saving me a $1 🙂

  20. HopefulLeigh says:

    Next time I visit, I say we add a stop to see your makeup guy, OK? I’ve never had good customer service at Sephora and I don’t like the limitations of department store makeup counters- they’re all trying to sell you on their specific line. An independent person is so up my alley.

    I buy a mix of pricey and cheap makeup. I have sensitive skin and I wear contacts, which means I have to be picky. But as to lipstick, I’m in love with my new Chanel. It should last me a long time but I have no doubt I’ll buy a new one when it runs out.

  21. Ashley says:

    For me, it’s a little of column A, a little of column B… I have some less expensive stuff (NYX) and pricey stuff (Besame). In both cases though, it came down to having the opportunity to try a product and get advice from someone more familiar with makeup than I. Besame had a rep at a dance event and I was able to try things that weren’t in my ‘everyday bag’ (bolder red lipsticks, new products, rouge) and after I changed hair color, I sent them a message on Facebook asking for color advice and they actually wrote back! I did take a chance on their powder (most things look horrible, or cause me to break out in a rash) and found that their products look, feel and smell amazing.

    Same goes for NYX. I received a small eye shadow set from a well meaning relative (encouraging me to actually wear it) and when I took it to the stylist she bought it from, the stylist showed me how to use it and helped me find colors I was comfortable with wearing day-to-day. Even with things I already owned that I bought elsewhere…I was able to bring them in and she’d show me some tricks on how to make it last longer, create a different look or give me an honest opinion on whether it’s a good color on me.

    In both cases (be it $22 lipsticks from Besame or the NYX lipgloss) the value isn’t in something that looks good, but in the whole experience of learning how to enhance my beauty (and, if I’m being honest… getting a boost to my self esteem). I don’t just get a product: I get an experience.

    • Anne says:

      Ashley, how fun to read about your experience! I’m impressed that they responded on their facebook page. Nice. 🙂

      And I’m with you, the value is in the experience. And the education. When it comes to makeup, I need plenty of each. 🙂

  22. Stephanie says:

    Anne! I completely relate to this! I am helplessly and hopelessly confused in the Target make-up aisle.

    You’ve convinced me to head to the beauty counter. I have to admit to being a little nervous about doing that too though b/c I want to find someone who shares my makeup “philosophy” (which, essentially, is “less is more”). 😉

    • Anne says:

      Your point about finding someone who shares your makeup philosophy is sooo important! There have been times when I’ve come home from the department store makeup counter or Sephora and my husband has said what happened to you? because of the clownish amount of makeup the employees had slathered on my face!

      But my makeup guy says the best makeup makes it look like you’re hardly wearing any, so we’re good. 🙂

  23. Danielle says:

    Hi Anne,
    This might be a silly question, but does it cost anything to get your make up done / get the expert color advice from the make up artists at the counter? Where do you go to get this done? Is there a particular place you would recommend? I’ve recently gone through all of my make up, most of which I got in high school or early college, and now all of it looks bad on me, and I think it’s the wrong colors. However, I have no idea where to start to get a flattering make up look for myself – like you I’m overwhelmed by the choices in the make up aisle. Plus, I just have no idea what is really right for my skin tone and hair and eye color. I end up just wearing none at all and feeling ugly!

    • Anne says:

      Danielle, that’s not a silly question at all because the answers vary widely depending on the shop, counter, or makeup artist!

      The makeup counters (like at department stores, think Clinique, Lancome, Chanel) don’t charge for their advice, but some makeup artists at those counters are incredible and some just aren’t.

      I go to a specialty shop, that doesn’t charge for full consults as long as you spend $50ish or so. (Easy to do.) And there wouldn’t be any charge for help picking out a lip color or eye shadow–that’s their job! But an hour-long session would cost if the customer wasn’t buying anything.

      There also used to be a makeup shop in my town–I’m not sure if it’s still open, even–that did $50 consults all the time for people who wanted a personalized crash course in makeup application. They loved the seasonal color theory there (are you a spring, summer, fall or autumn?) and would help you choose colors for your face (and nails, which was fun) based on your personal coloring, and show you how to put it all on. Their consults were really popular with teenage girls, who would come in with their moms for a consult when they were deemed old enough to wear “real” makeup. 🙂

      • Danielle says:

        Thanks a lot, that’s helpful! I’m not sure if there are any specialty shops in my area, but I’ve never looked before. So I’ll have to look into that option. I might try a department store make up counter, just to see what they say! Thanks again. 🙂

  24. Jasi says:

    My makeup bag is a mix of high/low too. I love Hourglass foundation- it’s dewey and still natural looking, also since it covers the most it’s pretty healthy compared to some others. I love Lancome Hypnose Star mascara- the texture, the wear, the wash off, even the scent is amazing. But Maybelline has hands-down THE BEST under-eye cover/ highlighter in Dream Lumi Touch Highlighting Concealer. MAC “Well Dressed” blush is my staple- it looks like naturally flushed cheeks for me. Also MAC “Cusp of Dawn” lipstick matches my skin for a perfect natural nude. But ANY eye pencils, liners, shadows, additional seasonal blushes, bronzers and lip colors are usually just play shades from drug store lines.

  25. Victoria says:

    My first grown up trip to the States I spent ages looking for the testers and was really shocked when there weren’t any! In the UK the pharmacy chains and even supermarkets all have testers for the majority of the products (not usually mascara). Teenage girls and to be honest, many grown ups, spend hours trying all the eyeshadows and lipsticks on the back of a hand. Having said that, I don’t know of anywhere like Sephora here where it’s a shop only for make up and they give you so much to take away and try at home.

    If I know I want something that’s going to be expensive I get a make up counter to apply it, say foundation, and do the rest of my shopping. If it’s still on and looking nice I’ll go back and pick it up on my way home.

  26. Roy says:

    Hi! My wife just sent me a text to let me know that she just dropped $700 worth of makeup from Nordstrom. She said there’s about 20 items altogether (Cleanser, toner, moisturizer, blush, eye shadow, eyeliner, etc). She says she’s never had “real” makeup before and she’s almost 40. She said most of the stuff with last for years. I’m trying not to freak out, but I just bought a $1500 70″ tv. Anyway, is this what “real” makeup costs? Thanks!

  27. Beth says:

    I’m coming way late to the party BUT this post caught my eye from your Friday links roundup. On my goals for this calendar year is to get my butt to Sephora and have them help me pick out a decent lipstick. It can’t possibly be more expensive than the SIX tubes I bought at Target last year but ended up chucking because the color either didn’t work for my skin tone or coordinate with my eye makeup.

    I will buy drugstore eye shadow and sometimes foundation and concealer but I’ve found that spending up for eyeliner is well worth the money. Yes, it’s $20 but I buy one a year. I keep meaning to try more expensive mascara but haven’t gotten around to it. Maybe that trip to Sephora should be on the list for this week.

  28. Quiche says:

    Also a visitor from the Friday link round-up. This is a really great post. I used to subscribe to the inexpensive makeup point of view, but as I get older I’m finding that I’m more willing (even enthusiastic) to set money aside for the quality stuff. And it transcends beyond makeup as well…

    I’m NOT a fashionable girl at all. I LOATHE shopping for clothing because nothing has ever fit correctly. I’ve always blamed this on my extremely pear-shaped figure. However, in this very-connected era where you can just pop onto Reddit and get free fashion advice – and having learned about things like capsule wardrobes and uniforms – I’m finding that I was just going for the quick-fix-clothing (wild colors that can’t be matched to anything else in the closet, clashing patterns, completely wrong fits and lengths) instead of the tried-and-true essentials.

    So I totally agree with you. I will now pay more for what I absolutely know will work for me because it’s worth it knowing that the money will not have been wasted.

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