Have you ever gone to order custom t-shirts, gotten all the way to the end of the checkout process, and felt your eyes boggle? Was your first thought, "How do custom shirts cost that much?"
You're not alone.
There can be a LOT of sticker shock when it comes to t-shirt printing (and embroidery, too). Some of it is warranted (because you might have a number in your head that doesn't match the industry averages), but other times it could be what we like to call, "Custom Shirt Shenanigans" -- the little tricks that some t-shirt printers and embroiders play to make you think their shirts are a steal when they're the ones trying to rob you.
So, how can you tell the legitimate custom shirt prices from the sketchy ones? And figure out who's on the level? We're going to attempt to demystify the process one step at a time, starting with what you should really expect to pay for a custom shirt and teach you how to price-shop intelligently.
What's a Good Price for a Custom T-Shirt?
While the cost of a custom shirt will vary based on a few factors -- including the type of shirt, order quantity, and number of colors in a design -- there are some common benchmarks between companies.
The best way to figure out an apples-to-apples (or apparel-to-apparel) comparison between companies is by sticking to a few standards, such as a one-color ink design on a common white shirt. (Note: This also means a single location -- since the number of locations will increase your price, too.)
Meet the Gildan Heavy Cotton™ T-Shirt -- better known as the Gildan 5000. It's a 5.3 oz, 100% cotton shirt manufactured by Gildan, a company known for its incredible consistency. Both affordable and of a solid quality, the Gildan Heavy Cotton™ T-Shirt is a fantastic entry-level custom tee for anybody on a budget.
Most custom t-shirt companies carry the Gildan 5000, even if they don't always call it the Gildan 5000 -- instead they could call it the Gildan Heavy Cotton, a 5.3 oz 100% cotton Gildan shirt, and so on. (Just be aware that Gildan makes more than the 5000.)
At Bolt Printing -- as of 10/10/2023 -- you can buy 12 Gildan 5000 white tees customized with a 1-location black ink design for $11.35 each. That price scales down the more you buy, falling to $5.80 on 96 (and gets lower on 144).
Is it our least expensive option? Nope! You can get our BD54 for as little as $10.60 each when buying 12 or $5.05 if you purchase 96.
What's the Average Price of a Custom Shirt?
Again, it depends on how many you buy, the type of shirt, and number of colors in a design. However, if you're buying a single (ie, ONE), basic 100% cotton shirt (which will use digital printing (meaning you don't have to worry about the number of colors in a design)), it's usually going to be between $25 and $35. Right now, you shouldn't expect to pay more than $40 (although some companies will definitely try to charge it).
When ordering 12 white custom shirts with a single-color design, expect to pay $10-20 per shirt, although you should be able to get those shirts for under $15 each (so anything over $20 should raise an eyebrow). Other color combinations may be a bit more expensive, but often not a drastic amount (however, if you choose a light color ink on a darker shirt, that usually requires TWO ink colors -- a white underbase followed by the actual color). Most t shirt printers will still keep it under $20.
With bigger shirt orders come bigger savings. If you're buying 96 custom t-shirts (again, a basic 100% cotton shirt with a one-color design), expect to pay $5-10 each. If a company is asking for more than $15 per shirt, you should ask questions... or just go somewhere else. Especially since a lot of companies will charge under $8 (and still offer free shipping).
However, keep in mind that your shirt choice can MASSIVELY impact the price. For a more expensive shirt, the price of a blank shirt could be $15 or more. In those cases, you won't get a shirt for less than $15.
So, why are custom shirts so expensive?
After hearing those prices, you might be thinking, "Wait... I paid a lot more than that for custom t-shirts!" Or maybe, "If some companies charge that little, why do others charge so much more?"
First, I'd say just make sure that you're looking at comparable products. Tri-blend tees, for example, will (almost) always have a higher price point than 100% cotton. The printing method also impacts the price, since screen printing is usually a lot cheaper than digital printing (because screen printed t-shirt prices scale down on bulk orders; in simpler terms, larger quantities = larger savings). And more print locations or more ink colors means more money.
However, if all of these things are equal and you're wondering why custom t-shirts cost so much more from some shirt printers than others, that brings us to the next section.
After all, while there's a lot of science that goes into creating custom t-shirts, sometimes there's a lot of art that goes into pricing them...
The "Art" of Custom T-Shirt Pricing
As previously mentioned, custom t-shirts -- and customization in general -- can involve a lot of variables. Those expenses aren't always straightforward and can vary company-to-company a lot more so than other products, even if those companies are trying to act as fairly as possible.
Of course, not all custom t-shirt companies believe in upfront, transparent pricing. Some will play games and have their little tricks. Here are just a few of the ways they might try to get you.
"As low as" price on customized tees actually refers to blanks
"As low as" can mean different things to different people. However, most customers think, "This is the lowest possible price for a shirt with my design."
Now, this can be something of a tricky subject (and not always because somebody is trying to trick you). For example, because of the nature of advertisements on Google -- where Google's rules discourage nuance and make accurate head-to-head pricing difficult -- companies will have listings for blank garments which they sell as samples. Although an industry-wide practice among shirt printing companies that use Google's merchant center, it can be confusing and off-putting to customers.
However, it's why you always need to check what the lowest-possible price refers to, since it could be the blank shirt (ie, the customizable t-shirt without the customization).
For example, if you see t-shirt printing company charging $17.99 for a white Gildan Heavy Cotton Tee (aka the Gildan 5000), all you might actually get is the plain, white Gildan tee without any decoration. (Which, by the way, is ALREADY more than many companies charge for a customized Gildan 5000.) Want that customization? It could be another $3.49 or even as much as $14.99!
So that "As low as $17.99" is actually as low as $21.48, depending on the quantity being ordered. Although they don't list it (which they should), it could be a lot more.
In fact, how much would you guess that "$17.99" is if you just wanted one shirt? The company in question (again, not naming names) charges another $14.99+ for the customization... and then hits you with their set-up fee (which applies to orders under 6 pieces), which is an additional $49. All in all, you'd be paying $81.98 for that "$17.99" shirt before shipping (yes, SHIPPING, too!) and taxes. In fact, counting what the company charges for shipping on ONE SHIRT -- which is ANOTHER $17.99 -- you'd be paying $99.97 before taxes.
-> Why do custom tee companies do this?
In some cases, a t-shirt printing company's prices aren't competitive so they have to rely on tricks to make their prices look lower. Because $17.99 is around or less than other competitors charge for customized t-shirts, that's what they set their blank at.
However, certain advertising platforms and other services force t-shirt printing companies to name actual prices instead of letting them say, "it depends on several factors," or letting them list a range of prices based on those options. In those instances, a company might not be trying to deceive you, but they're forced to adhere to certain rules -- even though the rules themselves don't make much sense (and if everything doesn't match, it's a violation that can bar the company from advertising on that platform).
There's nothing wrong with selling either samples or blanks (so customers can know how a shirt fits or feels before ordering a lot of them). However, it's important that customers know what refers to what, which is why things should be as clearly labeled as possible.
They don't use all-inclusive custom t-shirt pricing
When companies bundle everything -- where there aren't any fees (and you even get the option of free shipping) -- it's very easy to compare custom shirt pricing from one company to the next... which is why many screen printers don't use it.
Instead, they'll suggest you can get something for one price but, when you factor in all of the fees, it's a completely different, much higher cost -- sometimes even 2-3x what the original number was!
If a company produces good-quality customized tees at a good price, they shouldn't be afraid to let people know what that price is. And, if they're competitive with their prices, they'll make the total number as clear as possible.
Dragging out a custom t-shirt quote
Some companies will be very upfront with what you can expect to pay for a shirt -- either listing typical prices on their page or having an easy quoting tool -- while others will make you sign up for an account or log into their system first.
While not an overtly deceptive practice like many of the others on this list, it's still used as a tool to hide a company's real price. There's also a little bit of psychological manipulation involved, since the further somebody goes through a process, the more willing they are to put up with additional costs to just be done with it.
Is there a legitimate reason for custom shirt companies to do this? No. While there are some very narrow circumstances where it might make sense -- specifically when a company needs a rep to finish the quote -- most of the time it's not being used for that. The system can already generate the quote, but the company in question is creating gates around that quote to limit access.
In some cases, a long checkout procedure is there to encourage you to click through windows faster, automatically opting into a company's hidden fees. In fact, you might suddenly discover your order has gone up by another $20-100 by the end (or even more, depending on whether it's a per-item fee and the fee itself).
-> Why do t-shirt printers do this?
Basically, think of it as an "add to cart to see price" feature then amplify the aggravation by a hundred. The biggest reason companies do this is to conceal their prices, making it more difficult to price shop (which customers SHOULD be doing). However, it has other benefits as well.
First, by making it aggravating to check a price, the process subtly discourages customers from looking elsewhere because they might assume everybody engages in similarly scummy behavior. And if it takes you ten minutes to get one quote, how many quotes do you think you'll try to look up?
Second, there's psychological manipulation involved. The further somebody gets through the process -- and the more time they sink into it -- the less likely they are to abandon it because they've already spent so much time (ie, the sunk cost fallacy). If you tell somebody, "It's going to cost $40 to print your shirt," right at the beginning, that customer will likely immediately look somewhere else. However, if you start at $17.99 then add another fee and another fee and another, suddenly that same $40 doesn't look as bad.
Third, a long checkout process makes it a lot easier to sneak in added fees. When you're trying to get through something, you aren't going to be looking as closely.
The other benefit -- for the company -- is that they have your email address.
Changing or hiding SKUs on customizable tees
An honest company who isn't afraid to have customers compare their prices to the competition makes it easy for customers to figure out 1:1 (a.k.a. apples-to-apples) comparisons. But many companies whose prices might not be so competitive really don't like that.
SKUs, product numbers, and other universal identifiers are great for making sure you're looking at the same thing wherever you go. In many cases, these companies use this information for blank garment orders (ie, when they buy the undecorated tees that they customize and sell to you). And although there can be times when a t shirt printer might call a product by a different name (particularly if the name is generic or confusing), there are fewer reasons to change the SKU or product number.
That said, there CAN be legitimate reasons for changing a SKU.
1) If a company uses a SKU internally in different ways, they may need multiple SKUs for the same item. In Bolt Printing's case, we sometimes need to break apart SKUs to work with our design studio. Therefore, a product that we either print or embroider will have two SKUs instead of just one (generally the normal SKU and then the SKU with either a "P" or "E" at the end, depending on which listing is created second). Other companies likely have similar logistical issues -- but, again, the SKU is the same in most cases and even the changes help to maintain it.
2) The product for a listing can vary -- ie, the manufacturer and garment can change without warning. Some customers know exactly what they want, others are less specific.
Here are Bolt Printing, we have our "BD" -- a.k.a. "Best Deals" -- category. These are garments we can source cheaply (while passing along the savings to customers), but they won't always be from the same manufacturer. And while Bolt only works with quality manufacturers, not every company has "name value." That said, keep in mind most of Bolt Printing's product listings -- probably at least 90% -- are for normal product and usually have the normal SKUs. We aren't afraid of customers shopping around. And, to our competitors, we say, "Bring it."
"Premium" custom clothing that isn't actually premium
What value is there in a word? When it comes to words like "premium," "limited edition," and "new," sometimes the answer is an extra few bucks.
This is probably one of the weirdest examples of an upcharge. Some custom clothing companies will take a product (a single SKU) -- one where they're paying the same price from the manufacturer for all of the times -- and break it into multiple listings or categories so they can charge more for certain items.
Are there actually some premium products and services? Sure. Just make sure those services are special. The easiest way is to look at what a company's competitors charge and their price breakdown.
Their "discount" custom t-shirts aren't really a discount
When you're charging more than the competition, you can afford to "discount" t-shirts more than the competition -- while still keeping your prices higher than those competitors!
For example, if a company -- any company -- offers customized shirts for $11.35 each and then another company offers to customize t-shirts for $20 each, that second company could turn around and offer a 25% discount with a super-limited-edition coupon if you order today. What are they charging after you apply that discount? $15, meaning it's STILL more expensive than the $11.35 charged by that other company.
So, the next time you see an offer for 25% off, ask yourself, "25% off what?" Because the person getting the great deal might be the company instead of the customer.
Easy to pad prices on custom t-shirt orders
The underlying theme between all of these things is the fact that it's VERY easy to pad prices when selling custom t-shirts. By default, there's a lot more gray area and customers have less idea as to fair prices.
Custom clothing companies that want to charge more are great at finding creative ways to do it.
Why are custom t-shirt printing companies so greedy?
Some companies will charge excessive rates just because they can get away with it (or believe they can). However, the fact that some t-shirt printers sell their custom shirts for so much more isn't just because they're greedy (although a lot of them might be).
One of the biggest factors is a company's business model. Depending on a business model, a custom clothing company's expenses can vary dramatically.
Some custom shirt businesses charge a lot of money so they can afford a much larger ad budget, so a lot of what they're making goes right back out the door. Many of the biggest-name custom clothing and promotional merchandise companies have massive advertising and marketing budgets. This allows them to bring in a lot of revenue, but it can be at a high cost. However, it gives them a massive competitive advantage -- smaller companies could spend themselves into bankruptcy trying to keep up with certain big name t-shirt printers and still not manage to break into that space.
A company's structure is another potential issue. A company might be run inefficiently or, because custom apparel can be seasonal, may be set up where the most profitable months of the year subsidize the slower times.
Expertise is definitely a factor. If a company's employees are capable, work can be accomplished with a smaller staff, faster, and with fewer errors. When an custom shirt order is printed wrong or ships wrong, the mistake chews into the profits. Companies have to budget for a certain margin of error.
Other companies are middlemen -- meaning they don't handle their own production, which adds a layer of cost. You pay them, they pay somebody else, and then get those shirts to you. Because they have that added cost, they pass it along to you.
While there are certainly greedy clothing companies, the reality is that custom apparel is an inherently complex business.
Want honest prices on custom shirts? Stick with Bolt
When you're looking for the best deal on custom t-shirts, Bolt Printing will make it easy for you -- by raising our hand.
Besides offering some of the lowest prices online, we list what popular competitors are charging, too. In fact, we check those prices every month you don't have to (but feel free to, if you don't believe us -- and there's always the chance a price changed in the middle of a month).
But the best way to see if our prices are legit is to order from us -- go ahead, I double-dog dare you!