One of my favorite things to do for an event like Spring Bling (coming up on 4/29!) is go on a hunt through consignment and thrift stores for something new, but affordable. My dress last year cost $35, and fit me perfectly right off the rack.
Here's my top tips for scoring a great deal!
1) Find a Store
Do some research to find a handful of consignment stores that carry styles you like. Many stores have a particular focus (for example home goods or children's clothes) and sometimes that's hard to tell just from a web listing. Additionally, many stores have their own personality based on the items they receive and the neighborhood they're located in. Time of year counts too; with prom season starting in May, stores will accept more formal wear in early spring than they do in, say, autumn. For an event like Spring Bling, call stores in advance and ask what they have for cocktail dresses and formal wear.
2) Try it on!
Go around the store and pull anything that looks interesting. Items may look better on your body than they do on the rack (and vice versa!). Remember that previous owners may have had alterations done, particularly to formal wear. Formal wear is also sized differently from everyday clothing, so just because an item is your size doesn't mean it will necessarily fit you.
3) Have a shopping buddy
Extra important if you are prone to impulse purchases, or will make a bad choice because "it's such a great deal". Bring along a shopping buddy that will keep you to your goal and will be honest about how garments look on you. If you don't have a buddy to come out with you, phone a friend - don't be afraid to take pics of yourself in a mirror and send it off to a level head for evaluation from afar.
4) Be focused, but be flexible
It may not be exactly what you envisioned, but when a great find comes along don't pass it up. If you have your heart set on a strapless, hunter green cocktail dress with beading but no sequins, you're almost certainly setting yourself up for disappointment. Knowing that you'd ideally like a strapless cocktail dress, however, will help focus your search. Being open to that floor length gown that highlights your best features is crucial.
5) Alterations can enhance a purchase
It's great if a dress can be worn right off the rack, but alterations can really make it perfect for you. Just be realistic on what can and can't be done. Garments can usually be taken in to fit better, but not let out. Hems can be shortened, but not dropped. The more layers a garment has, the more difficult tailoring can be. Ask someone working for the store if they think something can or can't be done; they will usually be honest about their knowledge of alterations.