How to Beautify Your Aquarium for Less than $50

Owning a colorful freshwater aquarium is a dream for many people: the delight of tropical fish in their varied patterns, the soothing sound of water bubbling in the tank, and the excitement of setting up a tank from the very beginning. However, the expense of a fish tank can sometimes feel daunting, especially when it comes to beautiful decorations.

How to set off the beauty of your fish without breaking the bank? Luckily there are low-cost options available to allow you to create a stunning aquarium while still protecting your budget.

Beautify Your Aquarium: Substrate

Starting from the ground up, the substrate can end up costing you an arm and leg, especially if you have a larger tank. Pet stores sell a variety of substrates for aquariums that come in different colors and sizes, but they also come with high price tags.

If you’re willing to compromise on that bright blue and green gravel mix, you can find ready substitutions by thinking outside of the box.

Pea gravel is gravel typically used in gardening and landscaping. It comes in natural stone colors that are still attractive in an aquarium. Lowe’s or Home Depot carry 50-pound bags for just $10, and a local gardening center may have bags for less than that. Make sure you rinse the gravel well before adding it to your tank to remove the dust.

Play sand or Pool sand won’t come in bright colors (the first is tan, the second is paler – almost white), but if you have catfish, cichlids, or loaches, they’ll love either option. Again, Home Depot or Lowe’s can hook you up with a 50-pound bag for around $10. The sand will need a thorough rinse or you’ll end up with a thick “haze of doom” in your tank.

River rocks are larger than pea gravel and they have a little more coloration. Due to their size, they aren’t the best choice for the only substrate (the space between the rocks is just too large), but they make great accent pieces. Your local garden center, Home Depot, or Lowe’s usually carry bags for $10. A thorough rinse is needed to remove accumulated dust.

River rocks (Flickr, Marco Verch)

Glass beads or marbles aren’t the most practical option for the entire substrate, but they make great accent pieces. If you skip the pet store and hit up Joanne’s or Michael’s, they carry the same product in a larger variety for a lower cost (a 12-ounce bag of mixed colors runs about $2).

Beautify Your Aquarium: Natural Options

You can find beautiful additions for your aquarium out in nature or at gardening and landscaping centers. The former won’t cost you anything except a little work, and the latter usually isn’t expensive. Either way, you can create a beautiful, natural-looking aquarium for your fish.

Driftwood is easy to find near any body of water, with varieties in shape, size, and appeal. Pet stores do carry driftwood (Mopani and Malaysian options are your best bets as they won’t degrade in the water; grapevine will, and you’ll need to replace it), and some online suppliers offer discounts and sales at different times of the year you can watch for.

If you opt to collect driftwood, you need to do some work before introducing it to your aquarium to prevent accidentally introducing any mold, fungus, pollution, or disease:

  • Make a visual inspection for any eggs.
  • Using a bucket NOT used for your aquarium, fill it with water and hydrogen peroxide.
  • Place the driftwood in the solution and let it soak for at least 24 hours.
  • Rinse it thoroughly afterward.
  • Alternatively, you can boil or bake the driftwood to sterilize it.
  • Keep in mind that it can take a while for driftwood to sink, so if you want your piece on the bottom, drill some holes in it.
tanks with plants and driftwood
Tanks with plants and driftwood (Flickr, David Hinchcliffe)

Rocks make a great addition to aquariums, and they come in a variety of colors, patterns, and sizes. They not only add dimension to the tank, but they can also provide hiding places for your fish and substitute for those expensive caves and decorative castles found at the store.

The colors and types of rock you choose can help set the tone for your aquarium: dark rocks (lava rock and slate) set a serious tone while lighter rocks (pink quartz) suggest a cheerful atmosphere. Pet stores sell rocks – both real and fake – but you can also find them out in nature (free!) or check out rock quarries and landscaping businesses for great prices.

There are just a few things to keep in mind when selecting your aquarium rocks:

  • You don’t want any sharp edges that could potentially cut your fish. Using river rocks that have been worn smooth is a good way to avoid this problem.
  • Some rocks dissolve over time (limestone); be careful the rock’s composition won’t affect the pH in your tank. There are two ways to check this:
  1.  Add a couple drops of vinegar onto the rock and see if foam appears. If it does, consider using a different rock.
  2. Test the pH of dechlorinated water in a bucket (again, not your aquarium bucket). Soak the rock in that water for at least a week and test the pH again to see if it changes. If it does, the rock isn’t a good choice.

Artificial rocks (made of ceramic or synthetic) have a natural appearance, and they don’t cost as much as the real deal. It’s always an option when you’re counting your pennies. You also won’t have to worry about them affecting the pH of your tank.

Plants make a great addition to any aquarium, as well as providing the benefit of aiding your tank with its cycling process. Your local aquarium club likely conducts regular auctions where members provide items to help benefit the club and plants are frequently on the list. There are also online forums that provide sources for obtaining live plants (the freshwater aquarist group is a tight knit community and members enjoy helping each other out):

Amazon frogbit
Amazon frogbit (Flickr, Carnat Joel)

While collecting plants from the wild isn’t a great idea, obtaining them from a fellow aquarist is fine and isn’t likely to break the bank. Often, they can provide cuttings from their aquariums; just consider “paying it forward” once your plants are well-established. Some of the easiest freshwater plants to care for include:

  •  Java moss
  •  Amazon sword
  •  Java fern
  • Vallisneria
  •  Amazon frogbit
  •  Anubias
  • Cryptocoryne wendtii
  • Anacharis
  •  Bucephalandra

If you’re hesitant about the work involved with caring for live plants (or the concern with needing to replace them down the road), there’s nothing wrong with choosing artificial plants. They come in realistic and fantastic colors, they won’t die or degrade on you, and they are less expensive than their live counterparts – usually under $10, even at the pet store. Just make sure that you look at your chosen options carefully: they need to be designed for a fish tank and should not be molded around metal. If they have metal, it will eventually rust in the aquarium and release toxins that could kill your fish (some discounts aren’t worth it in the long run).

Plastic plants
Plastic plants (Pixabay, jurgko)

Beautify Your Aquarium: Other Ornaments

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and depending on the look you want for your aquarium, there are plenty of options available for decorations – some of which you may already have around the house. With a little imagination – and a little bit of work to ensure things are safe for your fish and the tank environment – the options for decorating your tank on a budget are endless.

Terracotta or unglazed ceramic pots add great touches of color, and they shouldn’t affect the conditions in your tank. They’re available in a variety of sizes and shapes, and they’re not expensive; you can find them at Michael’s, Lowe’s, Home Depot, or your local gardening store (a succulent size is around $1, and a 4-inch pot around $5).

Scalar in a tank with a ceramic piece (Pixabay, Miroslavik)
Scalar in a tank with a ceramic piece

To make sure the ceramic is safe, you can run a similar test to the one you conducted on the rocks:

  1.  Dilute a solution of vinegar to match the pH of your aquarium and add it to your test bucket.
  2.  Submerge the ceramic in the bucket and leave it for at least a month.
  3.  Check to see if any of the shine is coming off or deteriorating; if so, this means it’s leaching into the water, and it isn’t a good choice for the tank.

If you turn the pot on its side, it creates a perfect cave for your fish. Just make sure to check that any holes in the object are large enough for your fish to swim through – you don’t want anyone getting stuck! Also check for any sharp edges and smooth them down with sandpaper or seal them with aquatic silicone. Shards of smashed pottery can add a dramatic look to your aquarium, but make sure those edges are sealed to prevent injury.

Glass bottles or jars are a great way to not only add color, but to upcycle! Green and blue, in particular, add a beach-like feel to your aquarium. Best of all, you won’t have to worry about the glass degrading or causing changes to the pH in your tank. You will need to clean the glass thoroughly, though, and if there are any labels, you need to remove them and all of the glue’s residue. Glass is another great option for creating caves or hiding places for your fish.

Believe it or not, some of your collectibles (if you feel you’re too savvy to call them toys) can also find their way into your aquarium. Plastic toys (Legos, action figures, etc.) make the best choices as they don’t contain metal, but the same vinegar and soaking test should be conducted on anything you choose. You can build caves, set “scenes,” and add touches of fun or color, all while utilizing those dusty collectibles in a new way (upcycling to the rescue again!).

TIE Fighter collectible in an aquarium (Flickr, Marco Verch)
TIE Fighter collectible in an aquarium

Tank ornaments come in a variety of options, from the grand to the small, and the materials used vary. For those on a budget, sticking to synthetic materials and plastic are your best bet. This doesn’t mean you can’t still find great options for adding a touch of beauty to your tank. You just want to read the label carefully: make sure there’s no metal used, and make sure it’s listed as non-toxic. Don’t feel bad at choosing this route – manufactured ornaments are easy to clean, they’re long-lasting, they don’t impact sustainability, and they won’t affect tank chemistry. Plus, you can have a lot of fun going this route.

Beautify Your Aquarium: Out of the Tank

The inside of the tank isn’t your only option for decoration; you can add color and beauty via the outside of your aquarium. Adding to the outside of the tank with objects you already have around the house can not only save the budget, but it can also carry the theme of your aquarium into the immediate area, providing a small decorated pocket to catch the eye and invite commentary from visitors.

Backgrounds already serve a practical function – hiding electrical cords and hoses – but they can also add dimension and color to your aquarium. Changing the feel of your fish tank with a background is both simple and inexpensive. You can create your own background with little trouble, or you can use items you might already have around your house: posters, pictures, magazine images, etc. A little double-sided tape or Velcro, a little creativity, and your fish can end up swimming through the forests of the Amazon, the sandy beaches of Fiji, or even distant galaxies.

Maybe you added slate to your aquarium – think about adding a few larger pieces around the tank to continue that theme in the surrounding area, especially if you have a smaller tank sitting on a desk or counter.

If you went with a pirate theme, with a treasure chest bubbling inside of the tank, consider adding a pirate hat at the front corner of your aquarium, or hang a Jolly Roger on the wall above it to draw the eye – especially if you already own those items (a true pirate fan usually has paraphernalia hanging around).

If you discovered you had collectibles that didn’t work in the tank, but they matched the theme, set them around the tank. You won’t need to spend any additional money, but you’ll still add color, intrigue, and interest to your aquarium.

Desktop tank with store bought ornaments.
Desktop tank with store-bought ornaments (Unsplash, Vikram Mudaliar)

 Conclusion

There’s no wrong way to add beauty to your aquarium, but there’s also no reason to spend a fortune decorating your tank. You can easily add substrate ($10), driftwood (potentially free), rocks or glass beads (free to $10), terracotta ($5), plants ($10), and other ornaments (free or around $10) without spending more than $50. The result is a beautiful tank that is still safe for your fish yet reflects your personality. With a little imagination, the possibilities for decorating your aquarium are truly endless – and your budget won’t need to be!

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