The Best Cheap Aquarium Substrate for Your Fish Tank

If you’re on a budget and looking to set up an aquarium, don’t overlook the importance of choosing the right substrate. A quality substrate can make all the difference in the health and well-being of your fish and plants, but it can be a challenge to find one that fits within your budget. That’s where we come in.

We’ve compiled a list of the best low-cost aquarium substrates that provide the necessary benefits without breaking the bank.

In this article, we’ll discuss the factors to consider when selecting a substrate, such as the specific needs of your tank and inhabitants, your budget, and aesthetic preferences.

Importance of Choosing the Right Aquarium Substrate: Even on a Budget

Choosing the right aquarium substrate is crucial for creating a healthy and thriving ecosystem in your aquarium. A high-quality substrate provides the necessary support for your fish and plants, and can also promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.

The substrate you choose also affects the overall aesthetic of your aquarium – perhaps more so than any other choice besides the size and shape of the tank itself. By taking the time to consider the specific needs of your tank and inhabitants, you can find a substrate that fits your budget while still providing the necessary benefits.

Considerations for Choosing an Affordable Aquarium Substrate

When choosing a low-cost aquarium substrate, it’s important to consider several factors:

Type of Tank

The type of tank you are setting up will determine the type of substrate you need. Consider whether your tank will mostly house fish or plants. Some affordable substrates are especially useful for planted aquariums. Also, what type of filtration will you be using? Popular under-gravel filters are only compatible with certain types of substrate.

Specific Needs of Fish

Some fish require certain minerals or compounds in their substrate to maintain a desired pH level. Additionally, certain fish interact with substrates in various ways, so having the right substrate is essential to their health.

Aesthetic Appeal

Consider how you want your aquarium to look. Do you want to create a lifelike ecosystem or match the substrate to your home decor? Substrate comes in many colors and textures.


When furnishing a large aquarium, the cost can quickly add up. Still, it’s important to choose a quality substrate rather than a cheap, low-quality option not intended for aquarium use, which can lead to long-term problems.

The Cheapest Substrate Options for Aquariums

Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the best low-cost aquarium substrates available, along with their pros and cons. Whether you’re setting up a planted tank or a fish-only aquarium, there’s a substrate that’s right for your needs.

1. Gravel Substrate

Gravel is one of the most popular choices for aquarium substrate. It provides a lot of surface area for the growth of beneficial nitrifying bacteria, which helps filter the water in your tank. Gravel is also an excellent choice for many fish species, particularly those from rocky environments. It also makes a good substrate for bottom feeders, as they can turn over small rocks in search of food.

Cost: About $1.25 per pound; use one pound of gravel per gallon of water.

Pros: Provides surface area for beneficial bacteria, is suitable for many fish species, is good for bottom feeders, comes in a range of colors, easy to clean.

Cons: Must be rinsed thoroughly prior to use to prevent the suspension of dust in the water, may not be suitable for certain fish species, and may display visible detritus if proper maintenance isn’t performed.

2. Sand Substrate

Sand substrate is a natural option that some hobbyists consider superior to gravel. It’s aesthetically pleasing and can be easily cleaned with a gravel vacuum since detritus can’t fall into crevices on a flat surface. Some sand marketed as “live sand” has additional benefits, including beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms that help with water quality and reduce the time needed for a new tank to cycle.

Cost: About $1.50 per pound; use 0.5 to 2 pounds per gallon.

Pros: Aesthetically pleasing, easy to clean, suitable for fish species that bury themselves, some types have additional probiotic benefits.

Cons: Tiny particles can become suspended in the water, clouding it and clogging filter media, can harbor pockets of anoxic bacteria or create brown algae outbreaks, the flat surface presents less surface area for nitrifying bacteria.

3. Clay Substrate

Clay substrates are ideal for both planted and fish-only aquariums. Its porous texture affords plenty of surface area for the growth of beneficial bacteria. Red clay is high in iron, which especially benefits plants. Like gravel, clay can be cleaned with a gravel vacuum or under-gravel filter.

Cost: $2.00 to $3.35 per pound; can be used alone or mixed with other gravels.

Pros: Porous texture for beneficial bacteria growth, high in iron, suitable for planted and fish-only aquariums, easy to clean.

Cons: Most expensive option, some clays must be mixed with other substrate types, and water should be added slowly to avoid excessive cloudiness due to particles.

4. Dirt Substrate

Dirt is a substrate that some hobbyists use in heavily planted aquariums, mimicking the rich silts and soil deposits of natural rivers. It can be free when acquired from your backyard, but avoid using store-bought potting soils that may contain fertilizers that cause algal blooms and poison fish.

Cost: Free

Pros: Suitable for heavily planted aquariums, mimics natural environment, free.

Cons: Dirt can easily discolor the water, and tiny particles of dirt may never “settle out,” not returning to the bottom after being disturbed. Dirt can also clog filter media.

5. Peat Moss Substrate

Peat moss is an inexpensive plant substrate that provides essential nutrients for aquarium plants.

Cost: About $16.00 for 8 quarts. The amount needed varies according to use; some aquarists use peat moss as the complete substrate, while others add just a few cups to adjust pH.

Pros: Peat moss is an affordable substrate that can be purchased at most garden centers. It is ideal for aquarium plants and provides them with essential nutrients. Cons:

Peat moss is one of the most difficult substrates to clean and can cause the water to turn brown. It is not recommended for tanks with delicate fish as it may lower pH levels too much.

My Personal Favorite Low-Cost Aquarium Substrate

Generic Blue Gravel

For purely aesthetic reasons, blue aquarium gravel is my top pick for a low-cost substrate. Water is often associated with the color blue, as it absorbs the red portions of the visible light spectrum while reflecting blue and green light for us to see. Therefore, blue aquarium gravel, often a mix of shades, fulfills this expectation of blue water and adds a bit of whimsy to the tank design, even in an otherwise naturalistic environment.

In addition to its aesthetic appeal, blue gravel is a practical choice for aquarium enthusiasts. It is a dark enough color that adaptive species, such as shrimp, will maintain their rich colors rather than lightening their shades to blend in with the environment. The surface area of gravel facilitates plenty of nitrifying bacterial growth and it is relatively easy to clean with a gravel vacuum. Even my Labradensis cichlids love to “redecorate” by slurping up a mouthful of gravel and spitting it out elsewhere in the tank.

Blue gravel is also affordable, typically priced at $5.99 for a 5-pound bag, and easy to find at pet stores, department stores, or online retailers. If you wish to use this gravel in a heavily planted tank, you can secure the plants in aquarium pots filled with peat moss and then bury these pots beneath the gravel. Overall, blue gravel is a great choice for aquarium enthusiasts looking for a low-cost substrate that offers both practicality and aesthetics.

Where to Buy Low-Cost Aquarium Substrates

Pet stores and online retailers are the most common places to find aquarium substrates such as gravel, sand, or clay. Buying substrate online can be a convenient option, especially if you can find a good deal or have trouble finding the substrate you need in a local store. However, it’s important to make sure that the substrate is safe for aquarium use and appropriate for the needs of your tank and inhabitants.

If you prefer to buy in person, local pet stores and fish stores are great places to find a variety of substrate options. Buying in-store also allows you to physically examine the substrate and get expert advice from store employees.

When purchasing aquarium substrate, regardless of whether it’s from a local store or online retailer, it’s important to thoroughly wash it before adding it to your tank. This helps remove any dirt, debris, or other contaminants that may be present in the substrate.

After washing the substrate, it’s recommended to let it sit for a few days before adding it to your aquarium. This is to ensure that the water parameters, such as pH and hardness, are not drastically altered due to any residual substances that may still be present in the substrate.

Arif H Fahim

Welcome to PetFishTank! My name is Arif. I make an effort to publish educational articles using my many years of expertise as a fish owner.

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