I am pretty sure that this is one of my most controversial blog posts to date.
Someone has to say it. May as well be me:
This hobby isn't cheap, huh?
I mean, it's not necessarily expensive, either. It CAN be. Filters, fishes, plants, aquariums- all that stuff can add up.
It's downright pricy.
And there are ways to save some money, and not all of them involve waiting for the LFS to have a big sale. There are ways to do "DIY" things- and those are great. Over the years, hobbyists have been very good at being resourceful about how to make their hobby more affordable.
Yet, I still go back and forth with this stuff- I sometimes have mixed feelings about the idea of "saving money and doing stuff quickly." However, I continue to see a lot of articles, forum discussions, Reddit posts, and hear podcasts which spend a ton of time and bandwidth helping hobbyists find cheap alternatives to some typical hobby industry products and DIY-type, or "Amazon-generic-substitution-type" versions of things you'd purchase from hobby-related companies.
Before you accuse me of being some butt-hurt vendor calling out everyone that wants to make their hobby more affordable as "cheap", let me clarify: I think it's pretty cool that we are so resourceful as hobbyists, and I'm absolutely, 100% for keeping your hobby as affordable as possible. And sometimes, that does mean utilizing substitutes and alternative stuff for more expensive hobby equipment and such.
Who the hell am I to judge this? I mean, for goodness sake, I sell twigs and leaves and some stuff that you can collect yourself from the empty lot down the street! In fact, on several occasions, I've recommended that you do so right here in this blog! So, even though the tone of this article might be bit slanted towards a slightly less sympathetic position, rest assured that I'm approaching this from a hobbyist position, not a vendor's point of view.
Looking for ways to save money on your hobby, particularly in financially challenging times, is never a bad thing. However, I think it's in the "how and why" part of this approach where I sometimes get wrankled. There is like a whole subculture in the hobby of people who will go out of their way to develop "hacks" to save money above almost all else.
I'll come out and say it...Some-not all, so-called "money-saving" ideas and approaches are just stupid and cheap. Examples? I've literally heard recommendations to utilize table salt instead of marine salt mix for brackish water tanks. Like, why would you do this? To save a few dollars, you'll skip over a carefully formulated, batch-tested, aquarium-specific salt, designed to precisely replicate the composition of seawater, with its compliment of trace elements and minerals, in favor of something that you'd use in...cooking. Sorry, I think that is just short-sighted and well...stupid.
Like, how much money will you save using table salt over the long run, when you're essentially short-changing your fishes by not providing them with the levels of trace elements and buffers and such which are found in the marine salt mixes. Exchanging their health to take some half-witted "shortcut" goes against so much of what we in the hobby claim to value.
I hear the angry rebuttal:
"But yeah, Scott- that's all well and good, but not everyone can afford to pay $15 for a bag of marine salt mix when the table salt is more affordable, and makes the hobby more accessible to a wider range of hobbyists."
Again, I kind of call bullshit on that.
I dare say that the hobby IS kind of pricy. And quite frankly, if you can't afford to do it right- to create a system that provides for the basic health of your animals correctly- just don't do it.
I know, it sounds like "vendor-hate speak", but it's reality, IMHO. And again, I'm thinking as a hobbyist here.
Yeah, I'm sympathetic to the economic realities of the hobby and its place in our lives. I've been in it literally since I was a toddler. Like so many, I've faced economic challenges before. I understand. I've felt the frustration of not being able to afford stuff in the hobby that I wanted at the time. And guess what? I learned one thing in decades in the hobby that is consistent:
The hobby is pricy.
Sometimes, I feel that it's simply better to wait until you can afford to do things right before you jump in with some partially-funded, incompletely equipped aquarium effort.
Shortcuts in the hobby almost always have a tradeoff. And the tradeoff is often success and the danger to your fishes' lives.
I saw this in the reef side of the hobby a lot.
I saw many, many cobbled-together "reef tanks" over the years that were simply fundamentally under-equipped to properly maintain live corals on a sustainable basis for any length of time. And the owners continuously had challenges and issues with their systems, and more importantly- with their animals. And in many cases, ended up re-doing their systems expensively down the line to get it right. Or they simply quit.
The underlying narrative people love to push about the reef aquarium hobby is that it's "super expensive." Well, yeah, it can be. That's a fact...if you go for the highest-end protein skimmers, pumps, controllers, etc., you can spend as much as you would on a new car. That's no exaggeration. On the other hand, you can absolutely properly equip a reef aquarium by simply buying good-quality equipment and employing it correctly. Or, you can opt for a 50-gallon reef tank instead of a 180-gallon reef tank.
Or, you can study, learn, and save the many until you can afford to do it correctly. I know, that's the least attractive approach, but it makes a lot of sense. "Study" is never popular with some people, either. A lot of hobbyists simply want to skip "step 1" and go right to "step 3."
And then there is this "extremely downsized" idea...
The old idea of a "nano reef" was to me, an absurd exercise in trying to put a "square peg in a round hole": Under-equip an already too-small-for-most-hobbyists-to-manage-successfully system in an attempt to make the hobby "more accessible" to hobbyists who can't have a larger, pricier system. I mean, I get it- it's great to give lots of people an allegedly affordable entre to the hobby.
It's also great to teach them how to responsibly care for their animals in a sustainable manner.
Predictably, the old ways of doing "nano reef" tanks didn't do much to achieve either. Fortunately, manufacturers eventually caught up to the idea and created properly equipped systems, which, although more expensive than their "death trap" ancestors- actually DO accomplish those things. Today's "nano reef" systems are actually a viable, less expensive alternative to a huge, pricy system.
The hobby IS pricy.
Yeah, I sell leaves and other natural things- none of which are "made" in a factory. Leaves are one thing you can collect yourself, of course, if you have a source. Yeah, you can and should gather your own when you can. It makes sense. Yeah, that's pretty easy to understand. Of course, if you don't have a source, you can always buy it from us! 😆
Of course, when you're talking about trying to adapt equipment and such which was intended for uses other than aquariums, which may not require the level of accuracy, long-term reliability, or durability that our hobby requires, it's just not always such a great idea.
Again, you can adapt all kinds of "stuff", such as plastic containers, furniture, even lighting in some instances, for aquarium use. Culturing live food or making your own frozen fish food is a good idea. We all do these kinds of things. Even me. And that's fine. However, you need to think "big picture" when doing this, and make sure that what you're using can work safely and effectively for an extended period of time.
Equipment is one area where "cheap is dear" more often than we'd like it to be.
Yet, the over-riding attitude- the "bigger picture" which prevails in this kind of approach is way scarier to me.
I see this attitude on forums and other hobby groups all the time: Hobbyists with a mindset which justifies entering into an area of the hobby as inexpensively as possible. No, let's call it what it is- as cheaply as possible. For example, African Rift Lake cichlids, Discus, or reef aquariums are not something you go into on the "cheap"... Because when you do, the long-term results almost always suck. And "suck" in this instance usually means dire consequences for the fishes themselves. To ensure proper care of your fishes, you need to make some "infrastructure investments" to do it right.
To try to "cheap out" and not make these investments not only is a bad mindset- it simply sets you up for potential difficulties. It perpetuates the idea that you can sort of get an "easy in" to otherwise "investement heavy"areas of the hobby by going cheaply and skipping over some of the expensive infrastructure required to adequately ensure success.
You wouldn't use a length of velcro in place of a seatbelt on your car, right? Nor would you extract your own tooth, although, hey, you just grab a household pliers and pull, right? So why would you take big shortcuts with your fishes' lives?
"To save money, Scott, you f----ing idiot!"
Sure. You'll save money in the short term. And risk fishes' lives continuously until you do it right. And prohably spend more money simply trying to fix things that should have been done correctly in the first place.
Is that a good trade-off for you?
My advice- er, my plea:
Just wait until you can afford to do it right before you venture into those speciality areas of the hobby that require serious cash outlay for proper equipment. Patience, again.
Why not slow down, save the money required, and/or acquire good used equipment from a fellow hobbyist to get started correctly? What is the rush? Besides, buying used, quality stuff is a great way to get equipment/supplies affordably, and has the added benefit of helping out a fellow hobbyist who's moved on to something else.
I hate to be the person shouting this on stage, but someone needs to put this thought out there.
Saving money is good. DIY is good, when you can do it correctly. However, taking every possible angle to do stuff cheaply and quickly is a bad strategy for long-term success in the hobby, IMHO.
Because the hobby IS pricy.
Properly designed equipment, quality aquariums, and carefully-selected fishes DO cost a lot of money sometimes. High-tech powerheads or water pumps often contain pricy technological components which make them work well. Low-iron glass aquariums cost a lot of money to procure the raw ingredients for and manufacture properly.
Healthy, attractive, properly handled wild-caught fishes cost a lot of money to import, ship, and maintain before they get to you. Fisherfolk in the countries where our fishes come from need to be paid properly for their work. Championship guppies, shrimp, bettas, and Discus cost a lot of money, time, and effort for the breeder to produce. Mass-imported, poorly handled, genetically inferior specimens don't.
A strange hypocrisy emerges at times.
Hobbyists will scream about the plight of natural habitats and how it's bad to "rape the reefs" to collect fishes or corals, yet they simply won't pay $30 for a captive-bred version of the wild fish they can get for $16. Sort of a hypocrisy, really.
These are realities.
This isn't something that I'm thrilled to push in your face, but it's important to say it. We've all spent a fortune over the years on our fave hobby- and that's part of the game.
Sure, there are always ways to do it right and still save money, for those willing to do the research, and put in the time and work. However, for those who are not, you have two choices: Take the cheap, easy route and use some shortcuts, and understand that you may not get great, long-term results (and may ultimately have to replace your inferior choices)...Or, you can save up until you have the means to do it correctly. Or we we can "downsize" our ambitions to meet our resources of time and money...
I know, to many, I sound like a complete ass here.
But you know what?
That's okay. Personally, I'm kind of tired of having to "fix" problems caused by completely avoidable mistakes and "unforced errors" made by hobbyists who, eyes wide open, knowing the downsides, made the conscious choice to take the quicker, easier, less expensive route.
That's not going to make me popular with many. I'm sure I could have been a bit more deft or soft in my argument. However, I want to go on the record, and state this without ambiguity:
The hobby is pricy.
Yet, so are a lot of things we love, collect, and play with. And so are many endeavors that we engage in. Most worthwhile things are. We may not like it that way, but that's a reality.
Those of us in the hobby and industry need to do a better job of painting a realistic picture of how to do things correctly in the hobby. And sometimes, that's NOT doing stuff the cheapest, fastest, easiest way. Sometimes, it involves hard work, expensive equipment, and patience to achieve good results. Because when we continuously push the narrative of doing stuff as inexpensively and quickly as possible, we potentially damage not only the "culture" of the hobby- we risk losing the very hobbyists that we're trying to welcome into it.
THAT, to me- is truly pricy.
Stay diligent. Stay optimistic. Stay enthusiastic. Stay educated. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.