I spend my free time (and spare cash) working on my freshwater aquariums.
Setting Up a Cheap Fish Tank
Starting a new hobby can be really expensive, especially if you buy everything new. Or worse, you have the dreaded fishkeeping disease MTS (multiple tank syndrome) and want to add one or five new aquariums to every room of your house.
Luckily, there are some easy, cheap ways to set up a new aquarium without breaking the bank.
Purchasing a Tank
Undoubtedly, the tank is going to be the bulk of your purchase. Good brand names are All Glass and Oceanic, but Top Fin is merely All Glass with a generic label, and most tanks aren't labeled at all, so don't worry too much about the brand.
What's Important to Look for in a Tank?
The seal. Check all the sealant for cracks or missing pieces inside and out. Pay attention to the seal down by the trim especially. You do NOT want to reseal a tank. It takes hours of swearing and scraping with a razor blade if you end up resealing the whole tank.
Check the glass or acrylic. Small chips and scratches in the glass usually aren't that big of a deal. Deeper chips and cracks, especially on the corners, are red flags. Acrylic scratches much easier than glass. Little scratches are easy to buff out with toothpaste, but deep scratches are usually permanent.
If possible, see the tank filled with water. Either a picture of it with a date or in person. If you can't do that, set the tank up half full in your tub or on your porch for a day. If it passes, fill it up all the way for another day. It's much better to find a leak outside than all over your carpet.
Where to Find Good Deals
- craigslist.org: You can find some smokin' deals on CL, especially if you type the keywords aquarium, tropical fish, or fish tank into the side bar. Don't like the selection, wait a few days. See something you like, but it’s out of your driving range? See if they’ll deliver or meet you halfway for gas money.
- Garage/yards/moving sales: People frequently buy tanks then stop using them because they got frustrated or moved or had some life changes. Years later, they clean out the garage and go, oh wow, I forgot about this . . . well, slap a price on it and put it in the yard sale. These tanks are usually extremely cheap because they just want them gone.
- Dumpster diving and peoples' porches: I'm sure I'm getting some weird looks, but I've picked up several perfectly good tanks off the curb. Nothing was wrong with them other than someone didn't want them and threw them out. Sometimes they don't make it to the curb. Sometimes they sit on the porch. If you don't mind knocking on the owner's door, go ahead and see if the tank is for sale. They might give it to you for free if you haul it!
- eBay.com: eBay is a great place to get tanks too. Just remember that tanks do not ship well, and local pick-up is needed!
- Petco's $1 per gallon sale: Every year, Petco puts their 10, 15, 20, 29, and 55 gallons on sale for a dollar a gallon. They don't come with lights or stands, but the price for a new tank can't be beat.
What's a Fair Price?
Used tanks, like used cars, drop in value the minute it leaves the store. A good general rule is $1 per gallon. For example, if you're looking at a 55-gallon tank, then $55 is an appropriate price. The price may go up a little for odd shapes like hexes or bowfronts.
- Does it have a stand? If so, tack on $20-50 more depending on the quality of the stand and if it's a hex or bowfront. Check stands for rust and water damage thoroughly. Don't buy too little stands where the aquarium hangs over the edge-- this distributes the weight incorrectly and can weaken the tank.
- Does it come with a filter and/or heater? If so, tack on $20-50 more depending on the quality and condition of the filter and/or heater. A little knowledge about brands will help a lot in determining if you really want the equipment or not.
- What's all this other stuff? Aquariums often come with other junk. You should throw away excess food and chemicals that are open. You don't know how they were stored or when they were purchased. Fish food does expire just like people food! Nets and decorations and other goodies are pennies on the dollar. Not really worth adding to the price.
- Does it have lights and a top? If so, tack on another $20-50 dollars depending on the quality of the lights and condition of the bulbs. Glass tops are generally of better quality and look nicer. Know the difference between fluorescent and incandescent light fixtures. Plug lights in before purchase to make sure they work properly and don't need a new bulb or starter.
Keep in mind, these are just basic guidelines and you are free to make a lower offer (just make sure you have counterpoints as to why they should lower their price). Also, be prepared to walk away if the seller won't come down. There are other deals and next time your score might be bigger and better!
Unless you are a breeder or like bare bottom tanks, chances are you want some substrate for your new, cheap trophy tank. Since you want 2–3” of substrate on the bottom, buying five 10# bags of gravel from the pet store will run you around $25.
- Colored gravel: Unfortunately, the only price break you will get on colored gravel is if the pet store is putting it on sale or is reducing it to clear (usually a red or yellow tag! Keep an eye out for these). If it is reduced to clear, don’t wait around; it means they aren’t going to stock it anymore and may not have more in the backroom.
- Colored or clear glass beads or marbles: Hobby Lobby, Michaels, or Joann’s all have these for much cheaper than the pet store and probably have a better selection. You can use this as a whole base or just embellishments for interest in the tank. This works best in small tanks.
- Pea gravel: Pea gravel is natural colored gravel that is used frequently outdoors in gardens and landscapes. You can purchase 50# bags from Home Depot or Lowes for less than $10. Your local garden center may be even cheaper than that! Remember to rinse well.
- Play sand/pool sand: Play sand is finer than pool sand and a tan color. Pool sand is coarser and generally paler. Both make excellent substrate for catfish and cichlids and loaches. A #50 bag of sand is under $10. I personally used Quikrete All-Purpose sand. Make sure you rinse sand very well before adding it to your tank or face the haze of doom from all the fine powder.
- River rocks: Bigger than pea gravel and different colors, river rocks look really nice as accents. It can be used as a single substrate but is difficult to keep clean because of the large cracks between the rocks. Again, Home Depot or Lowes should have it in their Garden Center for under $10.
The Fun Part: Adding Decor
Once you have that covered, you need to fill the tank. This is a little trickier than substrates because everyday objects can be extremely toxic to fish. Please only use inert plastics or decorations made specifically for aquariums for your castles and skulls and pirate ships.
You can collect driftwood from local bodies of water, yes. Make sure they sink. You may have to sink them yourself. You should definitely disinfect them because you don’t want to introduce mold, fungus, pollution, or diseases to your tank.
Drs Foster and Smith frequently run specials on free shipping and real driftwood—this is the route I go. Another place to look is in the reptile sections of the pet store. “Mopani” and “Malaysian” wood are great for fish tanks. Grapevine is not as it rots in water.
Rocks, rocks, everywhere. Can you collect them from outside? Yes, but you should test them to make sure they won’t change your tank composition and disinfect them. For example, limestone dissolves over time and raises the pH, making it a favorite of African cichlid keepers but not used by discus keepers.
Research some aquarium safe rocks then visit your local landscaping rock quarry for some awesome pieces. Lava rock is completely inert and great for beneficial bacteria. Slate is also inert and comes in different colors.
There are a lot of places to get cheap plants. Most local aquarium clubs have “mini auctions” where items are auctioned off to benefit the club. You can pick up a bag of healthy, local plants for a few bucks. You can even ask the donator for tips on growing them. Other places for live plants are online forums such as aquariacentral.com and aquaticplantcentral.com and plantgeek.net/forum.
Purchasing the Right Fish
Okay, so we’ve got the tank looking good, time to add some fish, right? But we don’t want to pay the 200% markup pet stores slap on their fish.
- Breeders: Chances are that if you want cichlids or livebearers, there’s a breeder nearby. And they’ll be more than happy to sell you some cheap juveniles to clear out tank space. Angels and guppies are good bets for breeders, as are African cichlids.
- Local fish clubs: Most clubs run a huge auction 2-4 times a year. You can find a wide assortment of fish at these auctions and if you’re lucky, snag them for cheap (as in $1 for 6 cories or kribensis cichlids). Plus, it’s a great way to meet some fellow hobbyists and support your local club. Club forums usually have a buy/sell section where you can pick up some good deals as well. Sometimes clubs work with local stores and give out discounts if you’re a member.
- Online forums: not just for plants. There are many members that breed cherry shrimp, endlers, guppies, snails, and a variety of other fish. If you’re interested in something bigger and more exotic, try monsterfishkeepers.com.
- Aquabid.com: This is the fish equivalent of eBay. It is not the cheapest option, but it may present you with some rarely seen fish for much cheaper than in-store. Remember, most sellers request you use overnight, so budget shipping into your total cost.
- Local fish stores: Check them all out. If nothing else, see what they have. Find one you like and support it. Tell the owner/staff why you like it and what you feel they can improve on. Cultivate a relationship with the owner/staff. I’ve gotten several free or reduced fish just because I was a “loyal” customer even though I wasn’t the biggest spender. Plus, you're supporting the local economy and business climate.
- Petco and PetSmart: If they have clean, healthy stock and clean tanks, feel free to take advantage of their dollar sales. Most of these fish are marked down to a dollar for a month’s time. Supplies can be limited, so find out when their fish shipment comes in and plan to go shopping two days afterward (to let the store take the loss for a fish in poor condition from shipping).
Filters and Heaters
Heaters and filters. If you did not get them with the tank, you will need to purchase them. This is where I would NOT skimp on the cash. $5 can mean the difference between life and death for your fish when your heater malfunctions and cooks them because the temperature gauge was made of cheap plastic in China. Good filters keep the water clear and house your “good” bacteria, which keeps your tank from smelling like a sewer.
Ways to get deals on new filters/heaters?
- Sales in local stores
- Price matching: Both PetSmart and Petco price match local ads as well as THEIR online prices. Sometimes you’ll get a manager that’s a jerk about this policy. If so, go again later and get a different manager, or ask them to explain their policy on price matching. Be polite!
Filters I Recommend
Heater Brands I Recommend
$30 Aquarium and Fish
You Can Do It!
Think this is utter bull? I recently set up a tank on a budget of approximately $30. I do admit, I cheated a little because I had some of the material already. But I could've easily done it under $50 still if I weren't making it a planted tank. How'd I do it?
- Tank: 15-gallon breeder for $5 from the local fish club ($40 retail)
- Substrate: 16# of substrate for $10 reduced to clear at Petco ($20 full price)
- Plants: clippings from my other tank and free from my local fish club ($5 per plant)
- Lighting: reused an old incandescent hood and put in two 26 watt compact fluorescents from the grocery store for $5 ($20 for the hood; $20 for the bulbs)
- Filter: Aquaclear 20 for $5 from the local fish club ($30 retail)
- Fish: 5 rasboras for $5 on sale at Petco and moved some fish from another tank that I bought on a forum years ago for $2/piece ($2.69 per fish and $10 per fish, respectively)
- Heater: not needed for this set up (but would have run me another $20)
- Décor: driftwood I already had ($5-15 per piece)
- Stand: dual iron stand free from the garbage ($50 retail)
Do you have an unbelievable score you want to brag about? By all means, tell me about it. I love living vicariously. I'll admit it; I'm a bargain hound and love to hear about other peoples' deals and success.
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korkee on August 12, 2013:
75 Gallon with 2 60 gal filters a current generator and 2 30 gallon heaters for free just had to buy gravel and plants and feeesh
eveliens (author) from SK on September 27, 2010:
csalter, that's awesome. Great deal! I hope the article helped with the set up a bit. You could do a lot with that much space ;)
csalter on September 27, 2010:
I just got a 350 gallon aquarium with stand, canopy, lights, and a 60 gallon bio filter. I picked it up used from a chinese buffet. Paid $600 for everything. I just set it up and it looks great. Thank you for your very informative article.
eveliens (author) from SK on August 19, 2010:
Thank you taty96. Sorry about the layout mess up. Hopefully it's fixed now!
taty96 from Ecuador on August 19, 2010:
Very informative article.