Finding and Killing Nemo along with my Debt Snowball

By glblguy

Reef Aquarium

About 4 months ago, I found a 75 gallon tank, wooden stand, glass tops and light for $150 on Craigslist. New, this equipment would cost close to $800.00. Using my Craigslist tips, I purchased it for $100, a steal. I had always wanted a salt water aquarium, and thus began my quest to set-up the salt water aquarium of my dreams, or so I thought.

By the time I bought all of the necessary equipment, chemicals, salt, and test kits my $100 dollar aquarium was now a $500 dollar aquarium.

Downside #1: Salt water aquariums require lots of high-tech and expensive equipment

We then purchased 3 fish (blue damsels) to let the tank begin maturing in preparation for larger and more exotic fish. All three died within 3 days. The water tested fine, so I headed to the pet store to get replacements, just like I would with my fresh water fish. The store quickly informed me that there is no guarantee on salt water fish.

Downside #2: Most stores don’t guarantee salt water fish

I went home and hit the internet, reading as much as I could about salt water aquariums. A few weeks later, we were ready to try fish again. My wife purchased a fish my children creatively named “Dory”. Yes, a Regal Tang just like Dory from the movie Finding Nemo. Dory set us back $30, but it was worth it, the kids loved her. She was very healthy and doing great. We waiting a few weeks and decided to add another. Now here is where things get fun. We discovered this incredible fish store that had anything fish you could ever want. We thought we would take a look there for our next fish.

We came home with a $40.00 high hat, 15 pounds of live rock (real rock from the ocean already populated with coral, sea anemones, feather dusters and other misc “critters”) at $9.00 per pound. Total, about $180.00.

Downside #3: Salt water fish and “critters” are expensive…very expensive

Within a few days Dory wasn’t acting herself, she was lethargic and not swimming much. Bruce (the high hat) was covered in white spots and various red blotches. A little research on the internet showed that Dory and Bruce where infected with a disease called Ich (a parasite). I bought medicine for them but it was too late, within 2 days both Dory and Bruce died. $70 worth of fish gone, not to mention the kids were a little upset.

Turns out their death was my fault. I had added some water, but it was too cold. Doing so causes the fish to become susceptible to Ich. Hard lesson learned.

Downside #4: Salt water fish are very sensitive to water fluctuations and if the water isn’t perfect, they get sick and can die, rather quickly I might add. Medication is expensive, especially for a large tank like we have.

After some discussion with the local pet store and some more internet research, I learned I really needed a quarantine/hospital tank. This tank would be pre-medicated and allow me house sick fish so they wouldn’t contaminate the tank. I could also quartine new fish before placing them in the main tank. Quarantine tank and accessories, $100.

Downside #5: See downside #1

A week or so later, we returned home with 2 clown fish, one named “Nemo” the other “Marlin”. $14.99 each. Nemo died that night. Not only had I killed Dori, but now the star of the show…Nemo. Not really sure what happened to Nemo (maybe that one small fin finally got him), but Marlin did great. He’s a friendly and active little fish that seems to be enjoying the aquarium. We made sure Marlin would survive for a few days, and decided to pay the incredible fish store another visit. We came home with a beautiful red sea sailfin tang, on sale for only $35.00 and another 15lbs of live rock. Total bill: More than $200. Bringing the total up to more than $1,300!!!!

Since then “Tang” and Marlin are doing great. No signs of disease and they are eating well. I think the tank might have finally stabalized. Either that or I know more about what I am doing. Unfortuntely, learning cost me a good chunk of money. The tank is gorgeous and has become on the focal point of our home. We love sitting and just watching the fish and all the various “critters” that live in the live rock.

Downside #6: Having a salt-water aquarium requires you to really know what you are doing.

Would I do it again?
No, I don’t think so, not at this point in my financial journey, it’s just too much money.

Now that we have it though, it’s just too much money to throw away and I think we would all really miss it. The good news is, we never spent more than we make, and we budgeted all the expenses. It did take a chunk out of our debt snowball though for the past 2 months. From this point on, we are going to just gradually add fish and more live rock. Maybe one fish or one piece of live rock per month. Salt water aquariums are gorgeous, but a very expensive endeavor. I’ll keep you posted…

Have an aquarium? Is it salt or fresh water? Do you have any frugal tips for having and maintaining aquariums? Let’s hear from you!

48 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Finding and Killing Nemo along with my Debt Snowball”

  1. Randall Says:

    I went through this a few years back when a friend ‘gave’ me his tank. Approx. $400 later, it ended up in the basement, and hasn’t seen the light of day. It was nice while it lasted, but the upkeep was more than anyone in the family wanted to do.

    One thing I thought about doing, but didn’t, was to see how expensive one of those services (the one you see coming in to service professional tanks at restaurants and offices) was. If I had a salt-water tank, and some more expensive fish, I might have gone that route.

  2. PaulaB52 Says:

    My dh had a co-worker who was really into salt water tanks. He had a huge one in his office, beautiful. I used to visit his office every time I brought the kids to see dh at work. He had like 5 tanks at his house too.

    Unfortunately, he transfered and no one wanted to take over the upkeep of the tank at the office.

  3. Lynnae @ Being Frugal Says:

    I have two goldfish in a freshwater tank, and I’m amazed at how much work there is in keeping goldfish alive! We’ve already killed two, as well as our two snails. Thankfully Happy and Bubbles are thriving.

    Fish can be expensive, and I’m sure it’s much worse with saltwater fish!

  4. April Says:

    I have had a 30 gallon freshwater tank for about 6 years. We got the tank as a Christmas gift because the kids won some goldfish at a fall festival. We had almost all of those goldfish for 5 years and they were healthy. When we moved out of state, I had to give them to someone who had a 500 gallon outdoor pond! (They grew to about 5-6 inches long!)
    When I first started with the tank, the water was continuously cloudy. Someone told me to clean the tank out only once a month. My fish tank has never looked better. Since our move 2 years ago, we graduated up to some freshwater tropical fish, but I really miss those goldfish! Feeder goldfish are SUPER cheap in the pet stores. Baby goldfish are brown – and they will eventually turn gold. :)

  5. paidtwice Says:

    My dad has about 13 tanks. It becomes addicting I swear.

    All over my parents house are these big pitchers of water sitting out “aging” before he adds them to the tanks. It seems crazy but now I know why.

    He loves his fish. I will never get fish. lol

  6. Randy Peterman Says:

    GLBL, my wife’s cousin is into aquariums of the salt water variety. She’s spent a lot of money on them, no doubt, but she keeps her costs down by being part of a club in her metro area. If you’re in a metro area you could consider joining such a group where you might be able to get things from friends in the club for free or for really cheap.

    I stay away from the stuff because my music hobby keeps me looking for free or cheap instruments… my wife wonders why I need so many guitars.

  7. plonkee Says:

    Wow, that’s a lot of money to spend on fish. Perhaps you should stop spending on it for a little while – I’d be scared of killing more fish.

  8. Mats Says:

    Can I interest you in a very frugal recipe? Back when the Scandinavian countries were still poor and had a large rural population, a popular everyday-dish consisted of boiled salted herring served with potato.

    You might be in the right mood for it now:)

  9. Pinyo Says:

    That’s a great story. I am sorry about all the dead fish and money that you spent. I am glad everything is working out now.

    I used to have a fish tank too, but got tired of watch the little gold fishes do somersaults and barrel rolls.

  10. Bob Says:

    Wow – I thought I spent/wasted a lot of money on my freshwater tank! You win :) Needless to say, if you can’t keep freshwater fish alive, you are going to have quite an adventure with salt water fish.

  11. mapgirl Says:

    Saltwater aquariums are the worst hobby ever. One small thing and the whole ecosystem collapses. It’s a wonder that our oceans survive at all considering the crap we dump into it. Perhaps it’s a teachable moment about the environment? (And I’m sorry it’s turning into an expensive lesson! Poor Nemo.)

    Everyone I know has pretty much abandoned the hobby.

  12. Money Blue Book Says:

    My old roommate had a nice large fish tank with a collection of fish for a while..that is until they started turning on each other. It was quite sad to watch her as her pets were basically eating each other. The bigger fish basically nibbled on the smaller ones…well you get the idea. :(

  13. glblguy Says:

    Wow, lots of comments…

    First, let me provide a little history on myself. My first job was at a mall pet store when I was 15. I was the primary maintenance person and salesman for the fish area on the weekends. I then moved to another pet store and worked part time through high-school, and became assistant manager while in college. I’ve had aquariums since I was 15, and tried a salt one time. Have had freshwater aquariums ever since. Fresh water and salt water are COMPLETELY different.

    @Randall – I actually don’t mind the maintenance too much and honestly enjoy it. Those services aren’t too bad, but more than I would want to pay, especially since I don’t mind doing it.

    @PaulaB52 – I would LOVE to have one in my office…not going to happen though unless I get self employed.

    @Lynnae – Goldfish produce a lot of ammonia, so you have to change the water often. Glad to hear Happy and Bubbles are doing well ;-)

    @April – I prefer tropical fish. I love angel fish, as they have a great personality. Your right, with a freshwater the trick is the change the water. Same with saltwater, it’s just much harder.

    @Paidtwice – 13!!!! No thank you…2 (one fresh and one salt) is plenty enough! I need to do that too…age the water that is. I would like to have a Cichlid tank though…

    @Randy – That is an awesome idea. Not only could it save me money, but it could educate me and just might be fun! I’ll have to look around. Thanks!

    @plonkee – Good advice, we’ve slowed down. I really think it’s doing better now, I think the real problem was I just didn’t know what I was doing. Thought it was easier than it really is. Live and learn I guess.

    @Mats – LOL – You made me laugh out loud. Kids are upset enough, not sure if having fresh Tang and Marlin would be a good idea ;-)

    @Pinyo – Thanks, and yes somersaults and barrel rolls are a bad side…not near as bad is floating at the top upside down though…trust me ;-)

    @Bob – Uh…thanks ;-) I am a very competitive person and love winning; however in this case, I think I’d rather lose! Freshwater I have no problem with…this salt water though…man their tough!

    @mapgirl – Not sure about the worst hobby, but it is expensive. I do agree though on the “one small thing, whole ecosystem collapses”. Makes matters worse when the tank is small. Your point on the ocean is very thought provoking. I completely agree on the teachable moment, great point. Not ready to abandon yet…we’ll see how it goes ;-)

    @Everyone – Thank you so much for all of the great comments, I really appreciate it!

  14. glblguy Says:

    @Money Blue Book – Thanks for visiting! Yep, if you aren’t careful they can be incompatible. You have to really be careful that you get fish that are compatible with each other. Even the little fish can be really mean sometimes. It’s generally territory issues that cause the fighting.

  15. Erin Says:

    Is it bad that this article made me laugh? First, you are a great dad to keep going after the first couple of incidents with the fish. And I had NO idea that having fish was that expensive. I thought fish were one of the easier, cheaper pets to have. The only fish I had though as a kid were goldfish that all went to fishy heaven via the porcelein trashcan…

  16. Patrick Says:

    I’ve always wanted a saltwater aquarium, but I haven’t done it – for all the reasons you just laid out! I’m happy for you that you got it all sorted out. :)

  17. Margaret Says:

    We got a fishtank last summer from our neighbours, and we still haven’t set it up. Any good websites out there for easy beginner fish? I have no idea what I am doing. Plus we live 3 hours from the city, so there is no knowledgable pet store nearby, unless you count the walmart that is an hour away. I told the kids we were going to get this done, but I think we need to do it right away before temperatures start going regularly below freezing.


  18. Dizzy Says:

    I haven’t tried a saltwater tank- I am just too cheap, and I can’t always be sure that the animals were farm raised. Too many saltwater animals are collected using destructive/non-sustainable methods.

    But I have had a freshwater tank (50 gal)for many years. Only recently did I add an actual filter when I got a free one. Before that the water was circulated using a small powerhead, and never heated. It was well planted and only held a few fish. No problems to speak of until I moved and upset the balance. A few weeks later, good as new. This site has a lot more info.

  19. glblguy Says:

    @Erin, not not at all! I actually wrote it to be a little humorous :-) Thank you for the compliment on being a great Dad, that is by far the best compliment anyone could ever give me. Well, if it makes you feel better Dory and Nemo are in the porcelain trashcan with your goldfish now.

  20. glblguy Says:

    @Patrick – Thanks! If you decide to, just read a lot before you jump in. In hindsight that was my big mistake.

  21. glblguy Says:

    @Margaret – Not sure, as I just did lots of google searches and read lots of different sites. One site I liked was If you have specific questions, just use my contact page and drop me an email. Try to help you as much as I can. Good idea for another blog though ;-)

  22. glblguy Says:

    Well there you go Margaret, Dizzy gave you a link.

    @Dizzy – Thanks for the info Dizzy. I’ve heard that a well planted tank (live plants that is) doesn’t really need a filter. Never had much luck getting live plants to live though. Heck, I’m lucky to get regular house plants and my grass to live ;-)

  23. Jessica Says:

    In college one of my part-time jobs was for one of the large pet store chains, and I hated dealing with the fish tanks the most. Ok, so cleaning ferrett poop isn’t fun either.

    People tend to think fish are the easiest pet to maintain, but really they’re not. You’re not just maintaing the pet, but their ecosphere. Fish will die easily and it’s actually expected. I remember part of the pet store training on the fish (freshwater at least) was that X amount of fish will die after a month because the amount of fish excrement changes the ph levels in the tank (or something like this, forgive me it’s been a few years.) will spike after a month. Some die, some adapt.

    Another issue is the weight of the water in the tank. People don’t always understand the kind of pressure a 50 gallon tank of water will put on their home.

    Fish are a LOT of work and that surpises many people. You can’t just take one home in a bag, plop it in some water and expect it to thrive.

    Personally, fish just aren’t worth it. I’m happy with my cat that I adopted (for free), who is in very good health after 7 years with no major vet bills. What can I say, it’s just a lot harder to cuddle a fish!

  24. glblguy Says:

    Hi Jessica thanks for visiting. Right there with you, I hated ferret cages!

    Good point on weight, water is 8 lbs per gallon plus the weight of the tank itself and the rock. I’d guess my tank is around 1,000lbs all said and done.

    As for cats, I’m allergic to animals with hair, so fish make my sinuses much happier ;-)

  25. Chester's Clean House Says:

    I always knew that salt water aquariums where expensive, but I didn’t really have any idea. Thanks for sharing your story. I’ll just have to stick with my salt water aquarium, the only problem is that it keeps disapearing whenever I move my mouse! :)

  26. glblguy Says:

    LOL…you have the best kind Chester, easy maintenance and cheap ;-)

  27. Fabulously Broke Says:

    Preachin’ to the converted.

    Husband had 120GAL and 90GAL of saltwater tanks and we went through TOO MANY critters because we didn’t research the stores that were selling them. We’ve put it all in storage for now, and when we get a HOME, we’ll have a tank when we can properly take care of them.

  28. glblguy Says:

    Hi FB, learning that same lesson. Really pays to find a good shop that carries high quality fish. They might be more, but it’s worth it.

  29. debtdieter Says:

    Ouch, substitute fancy goldfish for salt water and that’s my fish tank experience down to a tee, except I gave up and sold my tank on ebay for $800.

    I do love tanks though, maybe one day…

  30. glblguy Says:

    Hi debtdieter, love the name! I’m not ready to give up yet. It’s actually done very well this week, fish are healthy and the water tests are perfect. So hoping things go well from here on out…we’ll see. If not, probably end up doing the same thing you did.

    Thanks for visiting and for commenting.

  31. Siena Says:

    I can relate. I have 3 tropical aquariums–all of the tanks were free, some of the fish still in them, but I had to buy new and replacement equipment as well as stands–so my 3 free tanks have cost me $400-$500. I also have calculated that the cost to feed all my fish is more than what I pay to feed 2 60 lb dogs each month. I have freshwater and while I long for a salt water tank–I know the cost is high and the maintenance difficult. People think fish are cheap but they aren’t. I’ve heard the an aquarium uses as much electricity a year as a fridge (not sure on this but wondering).

    In fact, now that I think about it, all my pets were expensive, though they were free.

    I’ve had 3 dogs–all free because they were abandoned/shelter dogs. The costs of medicins (including flea meds), shots, vet visits, groomers, obedience school for one, toys, equipment, food–I’m sure it has to be in the tens of thousands. In fact one dog who recently passed, became ill and I had a $1200 vet bill due to her illness. I also had a free tortoise–until she needed shell surgery after one of my dogs got into her enclosed area. And now I have my free aquariums and fish, and I’ve spend more money that I ever planned to. Sometimes I think when trying to get out of debt, pets are a luxury I can’t afford (and neither can a lot of people because look how many are free) but in a way they are worth every penny.

  32. Siena Says:

    And also, as another fish person, check out other aquariums. I will buy supplies from the 3 aquariums closest to me (all are aquariums and not pet stores), but not fish. I’ve had bad experiences with them. I drive 60 to 90 minutes to go to two fish stores who I have had great fish buying experiences from. My fish don’t die. I only buy fish from either store and have never had a problem.

    Because you’re dealing with saltwater, you’re right most aquariums will not offer guarantees, but I do know of 1-2 aquariums who will offer money back guarantees for 24 hours on saltwater fish. Not a lot but better than nothing.

  33. glblguy Says:

    Hi Siena, thanks for visiting Gather Little By Little! I agree with you, our tanks are expensive, but I really do enjoy keeping them. Salt water has been a real learning experience for me. I agree on aquarium stores, the only one we’ll buy fish from going forward is really nice shop about 1 hour from our house. They offer a 3-day guarantee.

  34. glblguy Says:

    All, have an update. If you are thinking about salt water or have one, found an awesome forum for saltwater fish called Have found an incredible amount of information over there.

  35. Pathen Pros Says:

    I just spent over a year designing and building a 215 gallon aquarium from scratch. Cost me about $800. I was going to go with a freshwater aquarium. Now I’m thinking of going with saltwater just for the reefs and cool fish. I want to see the corals in action.