Cheap Alternatives to an Aquarium Setup

Aquarium setups can be expensive; just ask any aquarist. The tank, decorations, gravel, tank stand, filter, heater, and lighting add up and are often over 10 times the cost of the animals living in it (closer to 20 times in most cases). Here are ways to reduce the cost of setting up an aquarium.

Rubbermaid Option

If dealing with an aquatic turtle tank, a lot of reptile enthusiasts skip buying an expensive tank and buy a Rubbermaid stock tank instead. While a baby turtle can certainly thrive in a 10-20 gallon aquarium, the tank will need to be upgraded to a larger tank as it matures. Turtle owners can avoid spending a fortune on 75-100+ gallon aquariums (along with their equally expensive stands) by purchasing plastic tubs that will do the job fine. The only setback to buying a Rubbermaid stock tank instead of a glass aquarium is the visibility of the animals inside. The Rubbermaid option won’t be as attractive as a glass aquarium and will need to be placed on a smooth waterproof surface.

While the tub is great for turtles or other exotic pets that need a lot of water space, I think small fish ought to be in glass tanks. If the fish have any signs of declining health, it can be masked by the limited perspective of only being able to see them from above. If they have cotton-mouth or shredded fins, it will be difficult to tell. Even a clear plastic tub still doesn’t allow visible clarity like glass.

Big Tanks (and sometimes additions) on Craigslist

Craigslist is a great way to find cheap aquariums; especially the large sizes (50-100 gallons). The best part of all: often owners will include additional items that go with the aquarium, such as the stand, gravel, filters, heaters, décor, fish medicine, and food. Sometimes they even include the fish (if wanted). So if looking for large aquariums, craigslist is definitely a strong choice. Just be sure to inspect the tank for any damage before paying the owner.

Small Tanks and Décor at Garage Sales

I’m a garage sale fanatic. For every 10 garage sales I go to, at least one will have aquarium stuff. The tanks usually range from fish bowls to 10 gallon tanks, but occasionally a big tank and stand will be for sale. Bowls and tanks are often accompanied by a bag of gravel, some décor, and/or LED lights. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across filters and heaters too. So garage sales are another alternative to finding very cheap aquarium accessories. There is a risk of buying faulty products, so be sure to test filters, heaters, and other electronics before adding to the tank.

Altering or Reusing Already Owned Décor

This should go without saying, but if you have décor stored away in your attic or basement, fish them out (ha) and reuse them for a new aquarium. The only reason not to do this is if you think the already existing décor can hurt your animals. For example, Betta fish can hurt their fins and scales on plastic plants, so silk or live plants are ideal. Maybe the existing décor is too large for the setup or it has sharp edges that can hurt your fish. Instead of buying new décor—if you have the tools for it—just alter the ones you have to meet your needs. For example, I bought a fish décor from a garage sale for my Betta, but the edges around the openings were sharp. So I took a Dremel tool and smoothed out the edges. I also had a turtle that outgrew his cave’s opening, so I used an electric saw and carved the opening bigger so he could fit. Otherwise I would have had to buy a new, bigger cave.

I also had a big log décor that had many silk plants attached to it, but I only wanted the silk plants for my Betta’s five gallon. So I just pulled them out and stuck them in the gravel: some silk plants for my betta for $0.00.

You can also reuse aquarium items in ways there were not intended. Box filters (corner filters) not only filter the water, but small animals often like to hide behind or beneath them, creating another sense of security for your animals. I also use a reptile hammock in my five gallon Betta tank to serve as some shading, as well as providing shallow water where he likes to sleep. Floating shelves for turtles can also provide shading over certain areas, and help reduce rapid surface movement if your animal doesn't like strong currents.

Half of plastic vitamin bottle used as cave.
Half of plastic vitamin bottle used as cave.

Using Plastic or Ceramic Items Safe for Humans

Some items not intended to go into aquariums can make for cool and functional décor. Be careful, however, putting anything in your tank. Some people might place rocks they found in the yard (or a raw seashell) in their aquariums, thinking it’s safe because it’s natural. Seashells can increase the hardness of the water to a dangerous level, and some rocks, no matter how washed, can contain high levels of man-made chemicals or dangerous minerals.

There are also some plastic and ceramic items that can hurt your animals. For example, some people make the mistake of putting ceramic flower pots into the water, not knowing some ceramics have dangerous chemicals that don’t affect the soil or the plant (but will affect water and its inhabitants). One sure way to know that a ceramic or plastic item can go into a tank is by following this simple rule: if it’s safe for humans (or pets) to eat off of, then it is safe for aquatic animals.

Betta lid used as an artificial lily pad; adds security and a great place for bettas to build bubble nests.
Betta lid used as an artificial lily pad; adds security and a great place for bettas to build bubble nests.

Examples of these are plastic or ceramic coffee mugs, glasses, plates, and medicine bottles. Companies would not make these items with dangerous chemicals in them. So if you want to add any unconventional houseware into your tank, just be sure they are safe for humans and pets. I would not use anything that is metal though, even if it is safe for humans. Also I have never heard of non-food related glass causing any problems for fish; just make sure there are no sharp edges on the glass.

Be sure there are no stickers on any of these items and the glue has been scraped off completely. This goes for any item you place in your tank, from garage sales to Petsmart: always clean the items thoroughly before placing them in the tank. Always.

Cheap Gravel and Sand for Large Aquariums

An aquarium doesn’t have to have gravel or sand, but for appearances, giving your animal a more natural setting, and a place for harboring beneficial bacteria, most aquarists buy substrate. Aquarium gravel is not that expensive to begin with, but there is a cheaper alternative for those buying in bulk. Pea gravel is often used for landscaping, but it is safe for aquariums. A lot of stores, like Menards and Lowe's, will have pea gravel; compared to the weight and cost ratio, you are getting more for your buck than in pet stores. So if setting up a natural-looking environment, pea gravel is definitely the way to go; the gravel is earth-toned with a mixture of off-white, brown, and grey pebbles.

Aquarium sand is a bit more expensive than gravel. Pool filter sand is pale and looks natural in aquariums. Just like pea gravel, they are sold in bulk and a lot cheaper than those meant for aquariums.

The only downside to both of these alternatives is that they are dirty and have to be cleaned a lot before placing in the tank. Also, pea gravel may contain calcium. It may be a very low amount, a high amount, or none at all. So if pH increase is a concern, look into the brand's information before buying.


I think it’s silly that pet stores still sell aquarium backgrounds (at least for small tanks), when a person just needs Google Images and a printer to create their own. I use multiple pieces of stock paper (or regular paper taped to poster paper) and place them behind the aquarium, either taped or propped by an item behind it. Looks fine to me.

Printed out background, reptile hammock, pea gravel, shipwreck decor bought at garage sale, silk plants that had been part of bigger decor, and marimo moss ball lid.
Printed out background, reptile hammock, pea gravel, shipwreck décor bought at garage sale, silk plants that had been part of bigger décor, and marimo moss ball lid.
Menards cheap wire shelf with added nylon string to keep it in place.
Menards cheap wire shelf with added nylon string to keep it in place.
Another creative alternative by using nylon string, screws with plastic holders, and a light item to prop behind it.  Make sure everything is tied and screwed tight, or it will be a disaster.
Another creative alternative by using nylon string, screws with plastic holders, and a light item to prop behind it. Make sure everything is tied and screwed tight, or it will be a disaster.

Light Holders

You may have the light bulb and the fixture, but do you need a hood? A hood primarily serves two functions: to hold the light over the aquarium and to keep animals from jumping out.

Let’s assume you just need a way to keep the light over the aquarium. The hood’s cost really depends on the brand. One 20 gallon tall hood can be $24 while a 10 gallon hood from another brand is $40.

There are many creative ways of placing lights above the aquarium. If you have any sort of screen meant for aquariums, than just simply place the light fixture on top of it (and it would also prevent animals from jumping out--if that's a concern).

Long, flat-surfaced items can be placed across the aquarium where the fixture can sit; for years I used two long wooden blocks to support my fixture (but you must replace them after a while).

If dealing with a large (and particularly long) aquarium, you don’t necessarily need to buy a really long hood. Menards and Lowe's sell cheap painted, metal "wire" shelves that can be placed over the aquarium. Either use it as an actual shelf over the aquarium or (as I had to do) set it on top of the aquarium. If it just barely stays in place on top of the tank, you need to secure it (which case I used nylon string, and the screws that came with the shelf). The shelf I purched was only $8, as opposed to paying $30+. [Edit] The only downside: if it's coming into contact with water (via airstone), it will form little rust spots after a while. It'd be better to place it up high or find ways to protect the area gettting wet (such as coating it with liquid rubber found in any hardware store).

If there is a concern about animals escaping the aquarium, just keep the water level lower, or create your own screen using plastic mesh screens at hardware stores. Without a solid cover, water will evaporate, but just simply add dechorinated water from time to time. In fact, the lowering water will remind me of how long it's been since a water change, so I find it beneficial.

And of course, if dealing with a small aquarium or a bowl, a cheap table lamp (with an aquarium bulb) will suffice as a light holder. Since lowering the water in small tanks can rob your animals of space, buy cheap plastic mesh screens from Michael's (60 cents each) and place over the opening.

Small to Medium Aquarium Stands

Lastly, aquarium stands can be pricy in pet stores. Small stands are only needed if there is no furniture in your home with enough space for a tank. Anything up to a 10 gallon can be set on a small dresser or end table and will hold up fine. Anything higher will need to be placed on something sturdier, like a decent size desk or a long dresser. It’s important to remember that not all desks are created equal; even two desks made from the same material with the same weight may not support the same tank because of their designs. For 20 gallons, I recommend wooden furniture with drawers, so it has multiple wooden walls supporting it. The more support, the better.

20 gallon long. Notice how the tank is on the side with the drawers, where there is more support than on the left.
20 gallon long. Notice how the tank is on the side with the drawers, where there is more support than on the left.

Anything higher than 20 gallons will be risky; most furniture isn’t going to support 340 pounds (the equivalent to a 30 gallon). Large metal desks are safer bets, but there is a huge difference between steel and aluminum legs. In fact, for 20 gallons and up, I wouldn’t set them on anything with legs, but walls (as they give more support).

When dealing with a 50 gallon or more, odds are you’re just going to have to buy an aquarium stand. Again, craigslist often has large stands for cheap, but their tanks are usually bundled with it.

As for furniture in general, the cheapest prices can be found at local thrift shops (Goodwill, Salvation Army), craigslist, and garage sales.

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EricDockett profile image

EricDockett 3 years ago from USA

Good advice. I'm going to be resurrecting my 29g soon and I'm trying to think of an alternative to the crummy stand I have for it in the basement. I've come to the same conclusion, that it's probably risky to set it on anything but a heavy piece of furniture with multiple walls. I'm probably going to have to use the stand or get another one.

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 3 years ago Author

Good luck with your 29. Thanks for commenting.

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