Two blue betta fish dancing.

Is Fishkeeping Expensive: Breakdown and Examples

As far as pets are concerned, fishkeeping is one of the most tech-heavy hobbies. For the inexperienced, it seems daunting and complex, a plunge into the unknown the cost of which is hard to predict.

All these gizmos cost money, right?

And little things surely add up, eh?

Is it expensive to have fish?

Fishkeeping is quite an affordable hobby to maintain, but it requires heavier investment when starting. Fish food and electricity expenses are negligible, but acquiring all the equipment could be costly. For brand-new gear, the starting price is around $400, but it can easily grow to $1000.

Yes, I know, such a wide range of prices is not very helpful.

The thing is, aquariums vary wildly in size. That impacts heavily on the equipment necessary to maintain a healthy biodome. The fish tank size changes the total expenditure much more than the size of a small dog compared to a big dog, for instance.

Remember, fishkeeping is a tech-heavy hobby.

Let’s break down the starting cost in detail, before moving on to the negligible maintenance expenses.

The Cost of Setting Up a New Aquarium

The prices quoted here are for a 20-gallon or 75-liter aquarium. The latest fishkeeping statistics state that this is the most common size beginners purchase. Just as well, as smaller units are harder to maintain.

A functional fish tank consists of eight necessary components:

  • Tank
  • Light
  • Heater (occasionally optional)
  • Filtration
  • Substrate
  • Plants (live or plastic)
  • Fish
  • Maintenance kit

Most starting fishkeepers will benefit from two additional things in the form of test kits and water conditioners.

Here is a quick exemplary breakdown of the initial setup and 12-month maintenance. The prices will vary over time and from one location to the next (especially electricity). They also don’t include a stand for the tank.

20 gallons30 gallons40 gallons
Maintenance Kit$40$40$40
Testers and Conditioners$40$40$40
Total Setup$340$470$610
Food for 1 year$25$30$40
Electricity for 1 year$45$55$70
All total for 1 year$410$555$720
Exemplary breakdown of the initial investment and fishkeeping expenses for one year.

The Most Accessible Gateway into Fishkeeping

Purchasing a fully-equipped aquarium is by far the easiest way to dip your toes in the hobby. They come with the right light, heater, and filtration system (some packs include substrate and artificial plants too).

Usually, they look pretty good too, and, as a rule of thumb, are priced very reasonably.

You can get a 20-gallon tank for less than $120.

Aquarium Components

If you assemble the tank by yourself, here are the expenses to consider.

The Tank Itself

Modern fish tanks are made of glass or acrylic. Glass tanks are cheaper, heavier, and more scratch-resistant, whereas acrylics cost more, weigh less, and can have unusual forms.

A 20-gallon glass tank will set you back around $50. Acrylic will be around the $70 mark.

Aquarium Light

There is a huge variety of aquarium lights, including some excellent DIY solutions.

I’d recommend buying a model with a timer. This will add $10-$15 to the total cost but makes the lives of your fish and yours much easier.

A decent light for a 20-gallon tank costs between $25 and $35, but you can get reliable models (without a timer) for as low as $10.


Heaters are optional in certain parts of the world and for cold-water species. If you need one, there are reliable options for around $20.

If you have tropical species, even if you live in a warm climate, it is best to procure a heater at some point. The climate seems to be changing and a heater guards your wet friends from temperature shocks.

Filtration System

A 20-gallon tank doesn’t really need a canister filter. The options for submersible or hang-on filters are plentiful.

Their prices vary between $12 and $20. I’d recommend going for a larger, more powerful filter than a 20-gallon tank strictly needs. Chip in $5-$10 more, if you can afford it, and buy a filter for a 40-gallon aquarium instead.

Your fish can thank me later.


The substrate cost varies tremendously. There are inert substrates and special aqua soils that help plants grow. For optimal value for money, I’d mix the two, using enriched soil where plants will go, and pretty inert sand or gravel to make the tank look more natural.

You can go with as few as a single inch of substrate but the more the better for the water chemistry. The general consensus suggests one pound of substrate per gallon of water per inch of thickness. I’d double that, at least, or triple it, if possible.

You can get 15 or more pounds of an inert substrate like river pebbles for about $25. Two of those will set you back $50 and if you toss in a bag of aqua soil, you will end up paying $65.

Keep in mind that you can collect pebbles from a river by yourself or get gravel (or fine sand) from a hardware store too. Just make sure to wash them thoroughly and disinfect the stones.


Live or plastic plants is the first question. I always recommend live plants as they add so much vibrancy and dynamic to the aquarium. You can supply a 20-gallon tank with plastics for less than $20.

$20 worth of live plants probably won’t be enough to cover it as their fake counterparts. Not at first, at least. But with a bit of aqua soil and patience, you will have your underwater garden fairly soon.

Go for fast-growing plants first, then consider adding slower ones.


The expenditure on fish is nigh impossible to calculate, but there are two things to consider:

  • A 20-gallon aquarium shouldn’t house more than 20 small fish.
  • Buying fish is an activity that spans weeks if not months.

Calculating how many and what kinds of fish you can house safely in your aquarium is not a precise science, but 15-20 is a good number for a 20-gallon tank.

You shouldn’t go crazy and buy them all at once. Especially when starting, buy a school of one type of fish and see how they settle. Then enjoy every trip to the fish store and marvel at the beauties swimming around. Your heart and growing experience will tell you what the next acquisition should be.

To get idea, sturdy pretty little fish for beginners cost about $2.50 on average. To fill up the tank, you’ll pay about $50 for them.

Maintenance Kit

To properly clean your aquarium, you will need:

  • Algae scraper – $10
  • Net – $5
  • Siphon – $10
  • Potentially a glass cleaner – $10 (has to be ammonia-free but you can clean the glass with an old newspaper pretty well too)

In total, the maintenance kit will set you back $25-$40.

Test Kits & Water Conditioners

Sometimes, checking and adjusting the water parameters is a matter of necessity. Some places across our beautiful planet have excellent water that requires no treatment. Others need purification, to one degree or another.

The most useful testers are for pH and ammonia. When starting, you can ask your local fish shop to do the first testing for you. Bring them a sample of the water you’re planning to put into your tank.

The water at your place may very well be within liveable range for most fish and then you don’t have to test its pH levels all that often.

It is always a good idea to monitor ammonia levels, though.

There are various testing kits. An all-purpose kit costs around $35-$40. Those have hundreds of tests, which will suffice you for years.

Ammonia removers cost $6-$10.

An all-purpose water conditioner would set you back about $10 for 250ml, but that’s enough to treat 2,500 gallons of water. It lowers ammonia and removes nitrates, chlorine, heavy metals, and more. And lasts a long, long time.

Average annual expense: $15-$25

The above price is spread across the usage of the entire test pack and water treatment you buy. However, often you’d have to purchase a larger pack than you’d need for a single year, so you’ll pay more upfront.

Are Testers and Conditioners Necessary?

Generally speaking, yes, it is better to have testers and conditioners.

But can you do without them?


Before buying any chemicals, check with other fishkeepers in your area (the closer they live to your place, the better). They could verify whether the fish from the local shops actually need treated water. If fish are bred locally, they may be perfectly well-adjusted to the water in your area, regardless of what you will read on sites like mine.

Virtually all online resources — and there are plenty of excellent sites out there — quote averages of the water parameters needed for a species to thrive. In reality, decorative fish are many generations removed from their natural habitats and are accustomed to whatever the local water conditions are.

Quite often, they are bred in fish farms or by local fish keepers. Whatever water is used there is the right water for a fish.

The water in my favorite local shop stands at 5.5 pH.

Is that optimal for most fish they have?

According to the books, no.

Are the fish they breed and sell healthy?


Do I use a quarantine tank as my water is 7.5 pH (well, it’s 8.5 from the tap but I lower it)?

Yes, I do.

Information, obtained through online groups and live interaction, will teach you a lot and will likely save you a few unnecessary expenses.

The Stand

You must place your aquarium on a flat, sturdy piece of furniture. The larger the tank, the better it is to get a specialized stand that will support its weight. But for medium or small aquariums the options are plentiful.

Wood looks better but costs more (and doesn’t like to get wet), metal is strong and functional but might not fit your house well.

I am not going to include the price for a stand in this evaluation as it varies too wildly to predict. And if you are getting a relatively small tank, you probably already have a piece of furniture that can support it.

The Cost of Maintaining a Healthy Fish Tank

There are two chief monthly outlays in the fishkeeping hobby. The price of food and energy varies according to the number of fish you keep, the size of your tank, the quality and amount of equipment, and the energy cost wherever you live.

Regardless of size and locality variations, the overall expenditure is negligible.

High-quality flakes cost less than $10 per 2 oz. Pellets that sink to the bottom and feed your bottom dwellers are half that. So, for $25 you can have three types of foods that will last more than six months each, probably close to 10.

The electricity bill will vary from one place to the next. Modern filters are extremely power-efficient and so are the LED lights. If your house is cold and the heater is on most of the time, then you might see a small increase in your bill.

If the energy price is $0.15 and the aquarium consumes about 300 kWh per year (that’s on the high side), the annual expense will be about $45.

So, food and energy combined will cost you about $80.

For comparison, a monthly supply of dog food starts at around $65 for smaller breeds.

Is Fishkeeping an Expensive Hobby: Bottom Line

So, there you have it. If you assemble an aquarium by yourself, you can end up paying as little as $300 for the initial setup. Of course, if you go for all high-end products, the cost will raise accordingly.

Still, an initial investment of around $400 will supply you with a reasonable 20-gallon starting system. A $100 will add a solid for it, if you need one.

If you buy an equipped aquarium, you can reduce this outlay significantly. There are sweet deals out there.

Of course, buying secondhand is also a budget-friendly option, but it isn’t for inexperienced fishkeepers. Once you know what to look for in gear and what you need, you will be able to discern between quality second-hand items and barely functional ones. A knowledgeable friend could be of great use if secondhand is the only starting option.

All in all, over the long run keeping fish could be considerably cheaper than owning most other pets. Assuming your tank doesn’t suffer any major damage — and picking the right place for it helps massively in that regard — the annual cost could be about a third compared to owning a dog.

The heavy upfront investment is what skewers the perspective that fishkeeping is expensive. But that’s the thing, it is pretty much a one-time payment. Or, more precisely, several payments of various significance adding up. These payments can be spread across the span of weeks or even a couple of months.

Afterward, how much you spend on livestock and plants is easy to align with your monthly budget. Nothing will happen if you don’t buy the charming little kuhli loach at this very moment. Hopefully, it will wait for you next month, when you can afford it.

Starting investment aside, fishkeeping can be very inexpensive and rewarding.

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