What is it going to cost? Setting up a saltwater tank or slice of coral reef in your living room.
Are saltwater tanks and reef aquariums expensive? This is a highly debated topic and while this can be done cheaply, representing a saltwater or reef aquarium as a cheap or inexpensive hobby is a disservice to anyone considering it. A majority of new hobbyists will spend over $1000 in the first year and it is much better to be prepared for this before getting into it.
A good way to look at it is you are creating an artificial environment in a place that is far from these animals’ natural habitat. Reef tanks are filled with fish, coral and invertebrates from tropical locations like Indonesia, Australia, Fiji, the Caribean and various others which are very likely a far cry from your living room in Minnesota or any other US state for that matter.
This is exactly what makes reef tanks so cool, you will likely be one of the only people you know who is keeping these animals at home.
This isn’t a goldfish bowl so don’t kid yourself in terms of cost but it also doesn’t have to completely break the bank. Generally speaking the larger the tank, the more you will spend so start with something reasonable and go from there.
The reality is we all invest in the things that enrich and bring joy into our lives and the more you enjoy the tank, the more you will naturally want to put into it.
How much does it really cost to start up a saltwater tank?
The correct answer is the tank can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. We realize that answer really doesn’t help you calculate a budget but it does help you determine your path, here is how.
Ask yourself, is keeping a dog expensive?
There are ways to get adult dogs and even puppies for free. After that, the ongoing costs could be as little as food and water. It could also, however, be a purebred puppy somewhere in the ballpark of $2,000 for the dog alone, then a natural raw food diet, annual vet bills, pest-control medications, beds, toys, treats, professional training and maybe even new infrastructure at your house like a new fence or dog run. Point being, there is no precisely accurate or correct answer to the question “Is a dog expensive?”.
With that in mind, there are essentially two paths you can take when you decide to build an aquarium. Most people will probably spend $500 to $1000 for a brand new saltwater tank and all of the necessary supplies within the first year. Over the next 12 months, you can double that start-up cost to budget for fish, corals and new equipment. More precisely, you are looking at $1K - $2K within the first two years for a reasonably sized tank (less than 120 gallons).
Remember, this is a hobby and much of the joy comes from exploring new things and growing as a hobbyist. As we mentioned earlier, people like to invest in the things that enrich their lives so don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to upgrade soon after that first couple of years.
If keeping costs down is the primary goal, then your second option would be rehoming an existing aquarium. Check out local classifieds or marketplaces like Craigslist, OfferUp or even the Facebook Marketplace. Another great resource for previously owned tanks and equipment is a local reef club or an online forum like Reef2Reef.
Buying used will almost always save you 50% - 70% or more compared to purchasing brand new and is an excellent way for someone to enter this hobby. Used equipment doesn’t last as long as new but in terms of just getting your feet wet, long-lasting may not be a priority.
The best advice we can give for those of you shopping for used tanks and equipment is that clean is synonymous with well cared for. Most people will gladly pay more for gear that is well kept and was cleaned before storage with no signs of leakage, damage, rust, salt creep or calcareous build-up.
Download: New Aquarium Shopping List
Want to learn more? Watch the next episode in which Ryan explains the best tank sizes to start with and why.
Looking for a different topic or have questions? You can binge the entire 5 Minute Saltwater Aquarium Guide playlist right here on our website. We also invite you to join the #askBRStv Facebook Group which is a free resource for you to ask questions, get advice, interact with other hobbyists and get your daily reef aquarium fix.