- Buy Used - Getting a brand new tank or brand new equipment may be appealing, but it often costs a fortune. Most of the money in an aquarium is devoted to lighting, filtration, and the actual tank and stand itself. Finding these used can save you a fortune. Sure, you'll have to put up with some scratches in the tank glass or maybe a somewhat noisy filter, but they'll still function just the same. Just make sure everything is in working order before you pay. The best part of this though, is that even if it doesn't work, you end up spending 1/10th what you'd spend on it new, so you can either throw it out or fix it up. eBay, Craigslist, and the For Sale section of fish forums are the best places to look.
- Smaller is Cheaper - We all know deep down we want a 120+ gallon tank so we can have a sweeping aquascape with hundreds of fish and plant species. Heck, who wouldn't want to follow in Amano's footsteps and create a whole room sized aquarium? The problem is, as the size expands, so does the price. Exponentially, in fact. To support that bigger tank you need a bigger stand (or even a bigger room/apartment/house!), more light, bigger filters, more power to run all the equipment, more substrate, and more money spent on stocking it with fish and plants. Compromise on size. In fact, look at a smaller tank as a challenge. Aquascaping a nano is much, much harder than a large tank. As a benefit, the maintenance won't take a whole day either!
- Do It Yourself - Love that fancy glass CO2 diffuser? Oops, it costs more than you paid for your second-hand tank! Not to worry, there are often many simple, quick, and best of all FREE (or really really cheap) ways to improve your aquarium. DIY CO2 can save you hundreds of dollars and DIY lighting is effective as well. You can even make a DIY filter if you've got the right tools and don't mind troubleshooting a few leaks and issues (trust me, I've done it). Although some of these DIY adventures will often result in just a temporary solution (like my DIY filter that was replaced by a second hand Eheim after a month) they can be a lot of fun and with persistence can save you money. Check out the DIY section for some example projects. DIY can also apply to the hardscape in your tank. Why buy rocks and wood when you can find it outside for free? Granted, not everyone can find appropriate rocks and wood locally and you have to be careful in what types of wood and rock you put in your tank and what it might introduce. With proper procedures though, you can get an awesome, natural hardscape for free!
- Be Patient - Sure you can rush out to the fish store and buy 20 tetras and splurge on 4 or 5 of each exotic high-light plant and your tank will look pretty good...for a few days. However, very soon you might be faced with a mass die off as ammonia levels spike and plants wither and rot. It's the ultimate tank meltdown as you watch all that money you spent on plants and fish melt into goo. Be patient and hold off on fully stocking your tank and don't get difficult plants right off the bat. Add new fish gradually and fill the tank up with cheap, fast growing, hardy plants to fend off algae and absorb the ammonia. These cheap plants can often be found for free, which brings me to my last point.
- Leverage the Community - There's a huge community of fish keepers and aquascapers out there. You can find them in aquarium clubs or online in fish forums. Most, if not all, have members who are willing to give away excess plants and fish for FREE. These are usually easy to grow starter plants or fish that are hardy and multiply quickly: perfect for a start up tank. Then, once you get established, you can return the favor and give away your excess and move on to the harder varieties. Once you have an excess of these, you can even sell them back to the community, generating some revenue to offset the cost of the hobby. Try Aquabid for cheap plants and fish; you can sell your own plants and fish there too. You probably won't break even, but it'll help mitigate the ongoing maintenance costs associated with an aquarium.
Hopefully these tips can help you achieve a beautiful aquascape without spending thousands of dollars. Although it can be an expensive hobby, you can get just as much enjoyment out if it for a fraction of the price.