How Much My Budget-Friendly Saltwater Aquarium Cost Me? (Maintenance Cost Included)

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Earlier this year, I’ve decided to set up a budget-friendly saltwater aquarium. The goal was to create a beautiful and fully functional reef tank with minimal cost. 

This project was a crash course in quickly learning how much it costs to set up a reef tank plus the additional accessories to maintain the aquarium.

The first thing I did was list all the essential things I needed, including additional accessories to help me make my journey easier. However, I didn’t anticipate this saltwater aquarium setup would cost me more than I thought. But I didn’t want to keep the cost down because all the equipment I purchased is essential if you like to set up a saltwater tank.

This detailed saltwater aquarium cost post will be based on my purchase and may vary for you. However, every product will have a range, and you can choose what is best for your needs.

Image by Marcelo Kato from Pixabay

Saltwater Aquarium Cost Short Answer:

  • saltwater aquarium setup cost: $655 (highly variable number depending on the setup you want)
  • saltwater aquarium maintenance cost: $15 (salt, food, additional accessories)
  • livestock cost: pending

TOTAL COST SO FAR: $67O

NOTE: I will update this article on regular basis.

Saltwater Aquarium Setup Cost

The initial setup cost me the most, but in my opinion, this is a long-term investment, and most of these things I will probably use on future builds. Let’s see what the individual costs are. 

Aquarium: $85. I’ve decided to purchase a custom-made tank. It’s a 20-gallon(75 liters) lagoon tank. I didn’t want to go too big, but I didn’t want to set up a small tank, either. It is hard to control the parameters in smaller tanks, and the equipment for larger tanks is too expensive. A 20 gallon is a perfect tank size for my goals. The cost of a tank may cost you anywhere from $50 to $1000 based on your goals.

Stand: $80. Initially, I planned to build the stand by myself. I’ve built stands before, and although they served the purpose, they didn’t look good. For this project, I wanted a stand that would be aesthetically pleasing. My LFS makes aquarium stands that look incredible, and most importantly, they are pretty cheap. In the end, I’ve decided that it’s best to purchase from them.

Dry Rock: $70. There isn’t much choice in my area when it comes to dry rocks. The best-looking ones are Marco rocks. It doesn’t matter to me, in fact, I like the look of those rocks. I bought around 16 lbs (7kg) of Marco rocks, and it cost me about $70, approximately $10 per kg. The price of rocks will depend on many things, mainly on your needs and the type of rock you want to buy.

Circulation Pump: $25. There are a lot of different brands of wavemakers on the market, and they all pretty much do the same job. I didn’t want to break the bank, so I purchased a cheap wavemaker that only cost $25. My thoughts were if something goes wrong, I can always buy a better product later on. After two months, the cheap wavemaker is still going strong.

Heater: $30. Initially, I’ve bought a cheap heater that cost me only $10. However, it didn’t last long. Lesson learned! I bought another one, this time for $30. The heater is a piece of equipment you don’t want to go cheap, especially in a reef tank. Buy a reliable heater, spend more if you can.

Sand: $25.  The sand is optional in a reef tank, but I never liked the look of bare bottom tanks. In addition, the sand will serve as another surface for the beneficial bacteria to populate. In my opinion, it’s a win-win situation. I bought about 7kg of Aquaforest Bio Sand, which was more than enough for my tank size. The sand came with two bottles( starter bacteria & food for the bacteria) which is neat. 

Salt: $25. I use Aquaforest reef salt, and so far, it’s excellent. It dissolves fast, which is nice because I can make the water ready for my tank in no time. However, later on, I might switch to a different brand to see what others can offer. Overall, I am pretty happy about it.

Reverse Osmosis: $100. My tap water is terrible, so using it for a reef tank was out of the question. My first thoughts were to use distilled water, but when I made the calculations, it was not worth the effort, and in the long run, it’s best to purchase a reverse osmosis system. I bought a cheap RODI system that cost me around $100. There are many different reverse systems on the market, ranging from $100 to $500 based on different needs.

HOB Filter: $20. To be honest with you, to this day, I have never used the HOB filter. It’s staying right there in case I need to run chemical filtration. Other than that, it serves no purpose. But I suspect it will come in handy in the future.

Nitrifying Bacteria: $20. I wanted to kickstart my cycle, so I bought a bacteria in a bottle. It is unnecessary, but if you do not use it, you need to wait a lot longer for your tank to cycle. 

Lights: $100. If your goal is to keep only fish, then you don’t need a light. However, if you want to keep corals as well, you should invest in a good light. My goal is to keep mostly soft corals, so I don’t need to break the bank. I purchased a cheap light suitable for my needs. It did cost me around $100.

Refractometer: $25. Do yourself a favor and buy a refractometer, not a hydrometer. It’s, without a doubt, the single most important equipment for your reef tank. We are keeping organisms that live in saltwater and depend on stable parameters. Refractometers used to be expensive, but today you can find them for as little as $20. Make sure to calibrate it first before usage.

Test Kits: $50. I think I spent about 50 bucks on test kits; I can’t remember for sure. I bought a test for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. Before introducing the first coral, I plan to buy more tests (alkalinity, phosphate, calcium, pH). Test kits are important in the saltwater aquarium hobby, and I don’t want to save on them.

TOTAL SALTWATER AQUARIUM SETUP COST: $655

NOTE: Obviously, the amount you spend on your saltwater aquarium setup will vary tremendously. It might be a few hundred for a simple tank to thousands for a high-end reef tank. 

Saltwater Aquarium Maintenance Cost

Like many costs mentioned in this article, the maintenance cost will depend on various factors. Here are my calculations:

Reef Salt: $10. I don’t have a protein skimmer because I think it is unnecessary on this tank size; who knows, I might buy one in the future. I will depend heavily on water changes, so buying salt regularly will be one of the highest maintenance costs. Based on my calculations, I will spend around ten bucks per month (ESTIMATED).

Fish Food: $5. I won’t have a lot of fish, so buying food won’t be a considerable expense. I estimate that it will cost me five bucks a month.

TOTAL SALTWATER AQUARIUM MAINTENANCE COST: $15

Saltwater Aquarium Livestock Cost

I will leave this section empty because I am still in the cycling process and don’t have any livestock. As soon as I buy fish and corals, I am going to update this section.

Hidden Cost

This is not a hidden cost by any means, but I know how we often overlook certain aspects of this hobby. 

The saltwater aquarium setup, maintenance, and livestock costs are one part of the equation. The other part is electricity and the water we spend. 

This will depend on many factors, such as where you live, how big your tank is, and what kind of equipment you run.

Saltwater Aquarium Cost Recap (Setup, Maintenance & Livestock):

Saltwater aquarium setup cost: $655 (highly variable number depending on the setup you want)

Saltwater aquarium maintenance cost: $15 (salt, food, additional accessories)

Livestock cost: pending

TOTAL COST SO FAR: $67O

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