There are many enjoyable hobbies that don’t cost a dime. Reading, running and fantasy football (unless you’re gambling) are a few examples.

Aquarium keeping is not one of those hobbies. Bills begin to accumulate rather quickly once you factor in the cost of the tank, your equipment and livestock purchases.

No matter your income level, the goal most of us share is we want to produce a beautiful and healthy aquatic environment for our wet pets. Perhaps you have even discovered some money-saving tips along the way to becoming an advanced aquarist.

I know I’ve learned a few, so my goal here today is to share some of my favorite ways to improve your reef tank without breaking the bank.

Tip #1: It starts with the money we initially spend on the tank

If you already have all your equipment, hopefully you were able to find some good deals and did a little research prior to buying. But if you are in the planning stages, this is where you can save money now as well as down the line. The two “big” expenses besides the tank itself tend to be water pumps and lighting.

  • Water flow: Water circulation is key to a healthy reef tank. In most cases, these pumps are running 24/7. You should therefore look for pumps that are energy efficient and built using high-quality materials. You may even spend more than you’d like to get a quality pump but, in the long run, it should save you money on your electric bill as well with longevity/life of the pump.

    Protein skimmers also run 24/7, so don’t forget to check out the pump(s) they use before you buy one.

  • Lighting: I have been in the hobby a long time. Yet it still amazes me how far aquarium lighting has advanced, especially in regards to LED light fixtures. I personally feel metal halide lights remain the best reef aquarium lighting option, although LEDs are getting awfully close! However, I can’t deny that running a metal halide light often costs more when you factor in how much energy they use and the fact you have to replace the bulbs every 12-18 months for optimal performance.

    In warmer climates, excess heat from metal halide lights can cause tank temperatures to rise to dangerous levels. A fan or chiller is often necessary in these scenarios to keep aquarium water stable and within ranges safe for livestock. More equipment equals more money, not to mention the additional cost of running that equipment. Are you beginning to see the dollar signs add up?

    The price of a mid to high-end LED aquarium light is probably going to cost more than a metal halide system. The benefits, however, cannot be ignored. LED lights run cooler, so you most likely won’t need a fan or chiller. The wattages are often less, so you’ll save money on your electric bill. You won’t have to replace the bulbs annually. Plus all the other perks, like infinite control options and color combinations. So look at it this way: investing in a nice LED aquarium light will eventually pay for itself.

Tip # 2: Buying used equipment—is it worth it?

“Will I save money by purchasing used equipment or should I spend a little extra to get something shiny and new?”

This is a question that comes up quite often, actually. There are pros and cons to both, so the decision of whether to buy new or used aquarium supplies must be weighed carefully. 

New Equipment

  • Pros: New products include full factory warranties. ReeFlo pumps, for example, are backed by the manufacturer for a generous three years. AquaticLife offers a standard one-year warranty but also backs their light fixtures with a limited lifetime repair policy. Online aquarium supply stores usually have their own return policy in place (ours is 60 days) to help ensure you are completely satisfied with your purchase.

    When you buy products new from an authorized retailer, you also get peace of mind knowing the equipment hasn’t been misused or contaminated (with copper, for example). You will receive products in their original packaging along with all the accessories, warranty cards, instruction manuals, software and cables.

    New products will look and operate as the manufacturer intended. A new powerhead won’t be coated with calcium deposits, a new protein skimmer won’t have sludge splattered inside its body or collection cup and a new aquarium won’t have walls covered in coralline algae.

  • Cons: The main drawback of purchasing new aquarium supplies is that you are likely to spend more money.

Used Equipment

  • Pros: The biggest benefit of purchasing used aquarium equipment is they cost less than new equipment. Sometimes the savings can be quite substantial. You might score a $500 Deltec protein skimmer for a 1/3 of the cost.

    It’s not out of the ordinary to find used equipment in like-new condition. Sometimes hobbyists will purchase a product and, for whatever reason, it just didn’t work out the way they’d hoped. Maybe the fancy LED light they bought isn’t achieving the same coral growth as their old trusty T5 fixture or they simply didn’t like the color it cast into their tank. Perhaps they are up or downgrading to another tank size and have priced their old equipment to sell fast so they can use it to help fund their new build.

    Whatever the case may be, from messages boards and craigslist to frag swaps and even our own occasional “Scratch & Dent Sale,” there is never a shortage of used aquarium treasures waiting to be discovered.

  • Cons: Used products are generally sold as-is, so you aren’t likely to get any sort of backing from the manufacturer or store where the item was originally purchased. There are some exceptions, but most companies do not allow the transfer of warranty coverage from one owner to another.

    Another disadvantage is you often have no idea of how the product was used before it came into your possession. If you are buying a used item from a friend, you may have the good fortune of already knowing how they treat and upkeep their aquarium equipment. If you’re buying from fellow message board member you’ve never actually met in person, all you can really do is hope what they choose to relay to you about the product is factual and that they’re not just a swindler out to make a quick buck. Most aquarists are good people, in my experience, but there are outliers in every community.

    Used products may not include all the original accessories, like plumbing parts, power supplies or manuals (we usually have instructions embedded in product descriptions as PDF files if you’re ever in need).

    Finally, used products may no longer look nice and new. It may not matter as much with, say, a protein skimmer or media reactor. Scratches inside an aquarium or dings and dents on a stand, however, may not be something you want to live with for the life of your tank.

Tip #3: Take advantage of FREE information

One thing I would like you to take away from this article is that you are not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of aquarium hobbyists around the world and many are more than happy to share their knowledge with you.

Here are some places where you have a very good chance of communicating with experienced aquarists:

  1. (we’re always here to help!)
  2. Aquarium Clubs

We have a link to our aquarium club directory above (so you can find a local chapter), but it’s worth noting many of us half-jokingly refer to aquarium clubs as “support groups.” Being around advanced aquarists is only going to make you better. There is a wealth of knowledge you can tap into prior to making equipment or livestock purchases that will undoubtedly save you time and money down the road. If you’re not convinced hanging out with fellow fish nerds is worthy of your time, read my Top 7 Reasons to Join an Aquarium Club to be thoroughly persuaded.

Tip #4: Reuse items whenever possible

There are some things in the hobby people choose to simply throw away. Figuratively speaking, they are also throwing their money away.

Filter socks, for example, can be used over and over with proper care. Just place them in your washing machine with a half-capful of bleach (no soap) to make those dirty filter socks clean again. I like to turn the socks inside out and run them on the hottest, largest cycle. Afterward I’ll do another cycle without bleach then place them in a bucket of RO water to soak for 24-48 hours before I let them air dry.

If you’re uneasy about using your washer to clean filter socks (say you live in an apartment with a community laundromat or wifey/mom says NO!), you can instead soak them in a 5-gallon bucket of water with some bleach for a few hours (or up to a day’s time) then rinse them really well afterward, ideally under high-pressure to help removed trapped particles.

Mechanical sponges can, for the most part, be used until they are practically falling apart. Give them a good rinse about once a week to help release any trapped particles within them.

If you find yourself burning through GFO (like Phosban or ROWAphos), try recharging it to get more uses out of it rather than just one-and-done. Read Regeneration of Granular Ferric Oxide Media with Sodium Hydroxide on Advanced Aquarist for a breakdown on how to do this.

There are other popular filter medias available you may not have realized can be recharged and reused multiple times. Seachem’s Purigen (Best Filter Media of 2013) and Kent Marine’s Phosphate Sponge are prime examples.

You can also repurpose old equipment for a new tank build or to set up a separate quarantine/hospital tank. Selling or trading old equipment for new gear is another way to help cut your losses.

Tip #5: Take advantage of coupons, sales and bulk buys

Coupons aren’t just for the grocery store.

By the way, have you signed up for our email newsletter? Probably. But if not, we highly recommend you do! How else will you know if we have an incredible site-wide sale or when highly sought-after products that NEVER go on sale finally do?

We also offer bulk buy discounts on hundreds of popular items when you purchase them in larger quantities. Select filter media, socks and pads plus RO cartridges, food, supplements, calibration fluid and more can each be bought in bulk online or over the phone from our store. Keep an eye out for the “bulk buy” insignia next time you’re perusing our print catalog (not on our mailing list? click here).


Thanks for reading! I hope these tips have helped you in some way. There are no doubt countless other ways one can save money in this hobby we love so much. If you have a money-saving tip, please let us and your fellow reef enthusiasts know in the comments below. We all appreciate it! 

Until next time… take care and happy reefkeeping.