The Problem… I gave away the aquarium

I gave away the aquarium when we moved. Then, I never got them back. Because that’s what parents and teachers do. We wait for kids to forget stuff. Then, we move on to our wicked agenda. “Go clean your room.” “Here’s some more math facts.” If you ask again, I’ve got more work for you, kid…

That’s how we get so much free time to drink coffee and live the life kids think we live.

“Mom, can we get our fish back?”  When a kid asks you something, it’s best to do two things–ignore it, then move on. It’s only after the second or third request you know the kid’s serious at which point you say, “Tell me (much much) more.” You’ve already heard the regular “more” the first time.

This works for pets, activities, passions, sports–anywhere you’ll need to open your wallet or buy a minivan, cancel your life, and drive around.

By the way, this “wait until the third ask” works for schools, too. It took half my career before I realized doing things immediately, to the highest standards, cost me a ton of time and effort. I’d finish up and find the committee disbanded or the initiative changed. Once, I finished my teacher certification portfolio nearly two years early–hundreds of hours worth of professional development, only to find a new system. “Sorry, we can’t use that.” The old one wasn’t going to be grandfathered in. That’s when I learned. If I wait till the third ask, until someone’s jumping up and down, chances are this is an acronym-level education movement that’s here to stay.

Now, back to the fish.

We moved to a house that had no interior wall for the fish. There was one place, but it was a cutout–I’d need a carpenter, plumber, and one of those Animal Planet fish teams to build me a showpiece for the price of a used car. So, we brought the fish to the store, where our fish lady promised to watch them and I waited for Declan to forget.

He never did. After four or five years, I gifted my tanks to a fish-loving senior. She talked to her fish, trained them–she was the perfect person to carry on the mission.

How I got my fish back… for cheap!

Recently, our daughter bought a house. “We can get our fish back. We can get an ocean tank!”  I claimed the room as my “guest room slash office with no television.” Fair’s fair–there was a free interior wall.

“Fine, let’s look.” Fish are expensive. I’d have to start from scratch. It’s a big hobby.

Fishkeeping is what I call one of the golden hobbies. These include photography, exercise, brewing, canning, and outdoor sports. Everyone says they’re going to do these things, but nobody does. Eventually they all land on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.

Before you buy a single thing new, look there. You can find “get this crap out of my house” sized tanks free or cheap. Know your prices, though, because I see people trying to earn their retirement all the time on Facebook, selling junk for twice what it would cost new.

I put out an all-call for an aquarium and did a quick search. Two friends responded with free tanks, one responded with a seventy-five gallon tank I wanted to take so much, but that’s just too big.

I ended up getting a full hex tank and stand setup for $80 on Facebook marketplace. It was exactly what I wanted. When I got there, the 35-gallon tank was really 20, but I took it anyway. I don’t think the lady knew it was smaller (it had a forty-gallon filter), and it was a cute little corner sized. And, it had angel fish, which I wanted. Cost savings: a couple hundred bucks. Stands range from sixty to two hundred, more for a hex tank. Hex tanks cost more than rectangle tanks because they’re a specific shape–these are nice because they’re tall and save floor space, which is what I wanted.

She also included all the equipment I’d gifted away–siphons for tank cleaning, water test kits, breeding equipment, nets, and a filter. Filters alone cost from $30–$100. This was a larger one. And with the fish, rocks, chemicals and food–this was a big win. I brought buckets for the water, and it was good to go.

“Mom, I want an axolotl.” He found them at the expert fish store. I said yes. We bought the tank on sale and a bunch of decorations–for him, it was a gift, so we spent some cash. I could’ve been patient and picked up the friend tanks. We bought the pirate ship, Sponge Bob home, and a big rock with a hiding spot. He’s happy as the clam that’s not in the tank. “You can’t put your sea shells in there. Things need to be treated.”

Freshwater vs. Ocean

Saltwater and freshwater setups are different. The tank is the same but filtering requirements can change. For reefs and saltwater, you need different chemicals, live rock (expensive!) costly lights, a protein skimmer. It takes far more money, expertise, and attention to detail. The good news is you can still find this stuff online free or cheap. The minute people have a problem, they dump their setups. But, you need to commit to the learning curve if this is new for you.

Freshwater tanks need this: a tank, a stand, a filter, a heater, and some fish. There are incidentals–a siphon to clean, some dedicated buckets, and some chemicals. If your fish get spots or sick, you’ll get them some fish antibiotics. You could get a timer for your lights if you’re too lazy to push the button. All in all, it’s cheap if you salvage the tanks.

Keeping your costs down

Salvage the equipment

Look on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Put an all call out to your local friends on social media. Someone’s got this stuff taking up a ton of real estate in their basement. Trust me.

Source your plants and be patient

I found very inexpensive plants on eBay. I wouldn’t have thought to look there. They were expensive on Amazon, and the specialty store I found in Florida had great prices and an amazing selection, but since plants are live, they cost a ton to ship–$45. You want plants from a snail-free, reputable place. Lots ship from overseas, which can be good, but you need to know your sources. You want healthy, disease-free stuff or your’ll ruin your tank and kill your fish.

Smaller plants are less expensive. Remember, they’ll grow and you’ll have to share or throw them away. Getting smaller ones saves you money and lets you enjoy the process of crafting your tank. If you get plants that are too small and you have some larger fish, they may uproot or eat them, though.

One way to get free stuff is to trade and share. Fish people are pretty gung ho. You probably have a group around you that has fish. Swap plants. It’s fun.

Saving money on the extras

You’ll want to upgrade your setup fairly quickly. Things like driftwood, petrified wood, live rock, and advanced light sets cost a lot. But, you can make driftwood (I’ll write more on that soon). You can also get used live rock from former fishkeepers. Ebay is a great source for petrified rock, too.

Making money with fishkeeping

I discovered this–the eBay people were often home fishkeepers cleaning out their tanks. You could even set up a second (got-online-free) tank for your extra plants and sell them to stores or trade them for fish. We used to bring in our plants and get fish or sale prices.

You can also breed fish if you become an expert. We bred zebra danios. These are small, striped tropical fish. They’re pretty prolific–you’ll start to see their eggs in your big tank. If you scoop them out and set up a small breeder tank, pretty soon you’ll get to see the eggs form–two little specs will be the eyes and head. Then, they hatch and grow. It’s fun, especially if you bring them into school or do it with kids.

You’ll teach the cycle of life–the big fish will eat the eggs, and their own young. Frame that lesson well, “Do your homework or…. ” might be a bit harsh.

When the fish get fish-sized, you can trade or sell those back to the store, too. You won’t make a ton, but you might pay for your costs.

Get some fish for your class

Fish are fun, educational, and calming. They’re great in schools–I set up a 30-gallon tank salvaged from the science department and ran it for years, until a guest fish I was fish sitting ate the silicon seals and it leaked during final exams. “I’m going to clean this. You’re not going to cheat. That is all.”

Kids begged to sit near the fish. They got up during class and watched the fish. They took care of them after a while, changing the tank, feeding them. One threatened to put pencils in there, but the kids took care of the situation, I never had to.

A class tank:

  • teaches responsibility. Kids take care of it.
  • encourages calm. Fish really do calm people.
  • fosters curiosity. I never thought about fish until I got my first one (story below).
  • teaches about nature, life cycles, science, ecosystems, and the environment.
  • is a good lead in to stewardship–there’s an ocean crisis with plastics today.
  • looks cool. Families and kids remembered me for the fish. Classes have whiteboards, not fish tanks. Setting up a home environment really lifts the spirits of the class.
  • I could go on and on…

The story of how I got my first fish.

Tim gave it to me. Tim was a freshman. He put a Nalgene bottle on my desk. In it–one goldfish.

I felt bad for the thing. I went to the store and got him a 1-gallon tank. Then, I learned that goldfish are messy. He needed at least a five-gallon tank. I got him one. And a friend. Which meant I needed a ten-gallon tank.

You see where this is going. Before long I had three tanks ranging from goldfish to tropicals, both at home and school.

It’s addictive. And fun. But it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Consider setting up a home tank for your inner peace, or a school tank for students.

But… don’t pay a ton. Because here’s an area where you don’t have to.


(Today’s photo: An Aqueon tank setup via Aqueon is a a good entry-level equipment and good fish food. Tanks often go on sale for a dollar a gallon. Neither company sponsors me, but they can if they want. I was just too lazy to get out the Nikon and take my own picture for this post so I used theirs).