Zoe, I know you are trying to cut down on money spent with the DIY option, but you can get a 42" staff (called a bo, but hey, that length is doable, if a bit short) for 12.50 online. Bulk orders from a dojo also get a discount, although I'm not sure how much you need to spend to qualify. I'll agree it's tacky and awful, but hey, it's a stick, right?
Also someone else raised the same concern that I had, which was that a dowel is going to be almost too lightweight to use.
Anyway, hopefully these are in your price range. I order all my gi from this supply place, primarily because their shipping is awesomely fast, and I don't like the ones that my dojo orders.
Alright maybe I'm too much of a DIYer but as I keep having to explain to the college kids that we don't have enough jos for the whole club to practice (huge freshman group this year) I keep thinking about dowel rods.
I mean...it's a stick.