When it comes to makeup, I’m a minimalist, but I’m also a believer. The stuff works.

I’ve often defended my vanity-filled world quoting Nancy Etcoff, author of one of my favorite books, The Survival of the Prettiest. A cognitive psychologist, the thread of her research proves that our desire for a more even skin tone, brighter flushed cheeks, eyes framed by luscious lashes and lips with just enough color and moisture is an evolutionary survival tactic designed to keep us in the game of life. She gets at why, with analytical proof, that regardless of age, we all have an innate need to look our best. It’s vital.  

Armed with the knowledge that it’s not just vanity propelling my purchases but survival, I have a smart excuse to indulge. So while in the throes of working towards thriving and navigating my budget concerns, I’m contemplating my makeup purchases. These are my basics, like a favorite uniform.

  1. Mascara. There are so many price points, and regardless of style, mascara is a staple for everyone. And, we all think there is a better one out there. Here’s the secret: It’s all about the brush. Pigments don’t vary much — it’s all about the delivery. I will admit that while sitting in the hot seat as a Beauty Director, my go-to was Dior Show, a luxurious choice, but a solid investment at $40. Now, with my insider’s brain ticking, I’ve analyzed my issues and am going drugstore all the way. I’m naturally light brown, so my lashes need deep color and, of course, volume. Rimmel London Wonderlash Volume Colourist for $9 does the job. The tapered brush wraps each individual lash with pigment, making them fuller while over time, gradually darkening them.
  2. Lip balm. I was previously addicted to By Terry Baume de Rose for $60. Developed by Terry De Gunzberg, a truly elegant Parisian woman who developed YSL’s famous Teinte Touche Eclat, it has a gentle pink hue, loads of emollient and a lovely rose fragrance. Like a distant cousin with similar DNA, my go-to, more affordable, luxurious balm is Rosebud Salve, $8. It’s 90 percent less expensive and 100 percent as satisfying. 
  3. Foundation. I can’t live without tinted moisturizer. Regardless of what kind of foundation or price of the product you’re using, the way for your skin to exude a rich healthy glow is all about the application. To start, mist a fluffy full brush lightly with water and put a dab of product on the back of your hand. As make-up artist Katrina Borgstrom says, you have to warm up the formula to make it absorb better. Swirl the brush in it and buff into your skin in a quick circular motion. At the moment I’m into Glossier Perfecting Skin Tint, $26. It leaves a dewy finish and it’s quite sheer, so my flaws still shine through, in a good way.
  4. The Glow Getters. Blush, bronzer and highlighters may seem like a splurge, but are, in fact, a gold mine. And a little secret — cream blush is better for us not-as-young-as-we-feel types. It absorbs into skin, while powder is a dusting that tends to sit on top. At this point, I use cream formulas exclusively so I swear by Rose Marie Swift’s RMS Beauty Signature Set Pop Collection, $44. The palette includes bronzer, luminizer and two shades of a lip2cheek formula, plus a lip and skin balm. It’s my new one-stop shop. And, I’m psyched because it speaks to my desire for purity — all of the products are organic and filled with optimally harvested oils and minerals. Win, win.
  5. Bronzer. See above.
  6. Highlighter. See above.

Elaine Farley is the former Beauty Director of Self Magazine, and prior to that the Beauty and Fashion Director of Cosmopolitan. This is the second in a series on budget-friendly beauty, makeup and skincare tips from the front lines. Prices quoted may fluctuate.