5 Ways to Save Money When Starting a Marine Aquarium

How much does a saltwater aquarium cost?

Saltwater aquariums can be expensive, but you can save money by making informed decisions at the beginning

A top-of-mind concern for virtually every first-time saltwater aquarium keeper is the high price tag that can accompany marine systems. And there’s no question that the saltwater aquarium hobby can get pricey.

Every piece of equipment you shop for produces a greater state of sticker shock than the last, especially if you’re setting up a reef system. And there seems to be no end to the equipment you need to buy for even a basic fish-only setup:

The cost of marine fish and other livestock can also come as quite a shock to the newly initiated hobbyist—particularly those accustomed to the relatively low cost of freshwater specimens. Let’s face it, if you’re used to paying somewhere in the vicinity of $5 or less for “bread-and-butter” freshwater fish, having to cough up $20, $30, $40 or more for a single marine specimen can be a tough pill to swallow.

Of course, when planning your new system, you have to keep in mind not only the initial setup costs, but also those unavoidable ongoing operating expenses for items such as synthetic sea salt mix, replacement light bulbs/tubes, filtration media, water test kits, the occasional replacement heater or water pump, utility costs, etc.

But don’t let all this talk of high prices discourage you! You can enjoy a thriving marine aquarium in your home without breaking the bank! Here are five tips for trimming your expenses:

1. Start small (but not too small!)

Chris and I are big proponents of starting off with larger aquariums for the stability and margin of error they afford. But that doesn’t mean your system needs to be in the hundreds of gallons. After all, larger systems are commensurately more expensive to set up, stock, and maintain than smaller systems. Something in the 30- to 55-gallon range will not only offer an adequate degree of stability, but will also be reasonably affordable to set up and maintain.

2. Go fish-only or FOWLR

Starting with a fish-only or FOWLR (fish only with live rock) system versus a reef tank can save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars in initial and ongoing costs. Reef systems come with some significant added expenses, such as the price of the special high-intensity lighting that corals and other photosynthetic invertebrates demand (which can really give you palpitations) and the ongoing supplementation of calcium and alkalinity.

3. Buy used (but with caution)

People who are upgrading their system or getting out of the hobby are often looking to sell their used equipment. You may be able to take advantage of these circumstances to get some pretty solid deals. Do proceed with caution, however, by purchasing used items only from trustworthy sources, such as a hobbyist friend, reliable local dealer, or reputable online auction site, so you can be fairly confident the equipment isn’t damaged beyond repair or contaminated.

4. Stick with essential equipment

If you plan to purchase every high-tech gadget available and automate your system to the greatest degree possible, you can expect to part with a lot more cash than someone who’s content with a simple, low-tech system and is willing to invest a little more “elbow grease” on maintenance tasks.

5. Buy the best equipment you can afford

This point might seem counterintuitive, but it’s probably the best piece of advice we can give with respect to cutting costs. Cheap equipment invariably underperforms and/or breaks down very quickly, which means you’ll ultimately have to spend more money to replace it. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive gear on the market, either. Research various brands, and consult with fellow hobbyists to determine which products offer the best performance for a modest price.

Share your cost-cutting tips!
There are plenty of other ways to save money on a saltwater system. If you’ve got a cost-cutting suggestion to add to the mix, please don’t hesitate to share it with your fellow salties in the comment section below.

Photo Credit: Tracy O


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. This is a helpful post, thank you. Another way to keep costs down is to buy energy efficient pumps and powerheads to save money on electricity

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Great point, Al! Anything that helps defray those ongoing (but unfortunately unavoidable) utility costs can make a major difference.


  2. Great post, thank you guys.
    Another tip is also to avoid supplements in the beginning. While some of them do have their uses, most of them are high-priced products with little effect.

  3. Lisa Foster says

    I will never purchase a used acrylic aquarium again. My Dad had one blow out the back panel, one of mine was bowing so badly I was advised to empty it because it was about to break, and another split a bottom seam. Especially beware acrylics stored anywhere that gets hot, like outdoors. Acrylic tanks and intense sun do not go well together.

    Glass, on the other hand, has held up every time, though I still check the seams thoroughly first and give it a leak test.

    My current tank is a used glass setup my Daddy got me for $2000 (a real shocker to me…he spent that much on me…though this was after I lost pretty much everything after my husband dumped me) and I LOVE IT. Pricing it out, the same setup new would have been in the ballpark of 4k-5k.

    My advice would be to buy the real setup you want, the first time. Upgrading basically forces you to buy a new setup, and you’ll never sell yours for what you paid.

    QUARANTINE EVERYTHING. One sick fish can cause the death of all the fish in your tank, and if you aren’t home to catch it in time the resulting ammonia may kill everything else.

  4. Is that a typo in section 2 where it says synthetic invertebrates?

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      He he! Yep! It’s supposed to be “photosynthetic” (although synthetic invertebrates certainly would be a lot easier to care for). Thanks for catching that, Tommy.

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