This page contains affiliate links.  All that means for you is that if you click on one of my links and make a purchase, I receive a small commission.  This helps me keep this content 100% free!  But rest assured, I only recommend products I know and trust! Happy Reefing!

How to Setup a $520 Saltwater Aquarium
-Budget Build Guide

Updated September 2020

By Maxim B.

This $520 Saltwater Aquarium Budget Build list is all about helping you setup a beautiful saltwater aquarium without spending a fortune! But, we don’t want to ignore the aesthetics of a saltwater aquarium setup either. We made this budget build list to find a balance between cost and looks. We also made this budget build as close to plug-and-play as possible so that it is easy for you to setup and maintain.

Innovative Marine 10 Saltwater Aquarium full of colorful corals
A beautiful saltwater aquarium from @nanoreef_co on Instagram that uses the same aquarium we feature in this build guide! 

Table of Contents

(click on a topic to head directly to that section)

We ordered the list in importance and in which order we believe it is best to buy gear.

(using our affiliate links supports us without costing you any extra. This lets us keep making great content for you!)

Budget Build Stats:

Size: 10 Gallon (38 Liters)

Approximate Price: $520 

(With optional items: $750)

Dimensions: 11.8 x 15 x 13 inch (30 x 38.1 x 33 cm)

Care Level: Easy

Style: Cube

Placement: Office, kitchen, living room, bedroom

Saltwater Aquarium IMNuvo 10 gallon
IM Nuvo FusionPro 10 saltwater Aquarium @nanoreef_co (instagram)


The first step in building any saltwater aquarium is choosing the right aquarium itself! We don’t want to go too small, as that makes it harder to maintain good water parameters and severely limits what you can keep inside. On the other side, a big aquarium is more work and money. 

That is why we believe the 10 gallon Innovative Marine Fusion Pro 10 AIO Aquarium is the perfect aquarium for your budget build. The 10 gallon size will allow you to keep a majority of cool beginner coral, fish, and things like starfish, shrimp, and crabs! 

The Nuvo Fusion Pro 10 is an AIO (all-in-one) type of aquarium, which means that it integrates the filtration system into the aquarium with sections for biological, chemical, and mechanical filtration. It even comes with a starter pack of some filtration media. The filtration system is hidden while remaining easy to access and modify to your desire! 

The cube shape of the aquarium will let you create an aquascape with a sense of depth to make the aquarium look bigger than it is. If you want to learn more about aquascaping, check out this article by Reefbum. As well, you can fit the aquarium in most places like a desk, kitchen counter, or any other piece of sturdy furniture that you have. That last part is very important as most larger aquariums require a dedicated stand which ends up costing extra money and taking up space. This would be our go-to choice for a personal office tank.

Once you receive this aquarium be sure to do a leak test right away with tap-water. Things can happen to aquariums during shipping, so be sure to check it right away so you can get a replacement if needed.

10 gallon glass cube aquarium with filtration sitting in front
IM Nuvo Fusion Pro 10 gallon AIO Aquarium


The next important piece of gear for a saltwater aquarium is the light! This can be a complicated topic with multiple types of lights and price ranges from $20 to $1000. For this budget build we are going for a sleek, modern, and easy to use LED light in the AquaMaxx Prism CC LED.

This light will be able to grow any easy corals that you might put in your tank. It is very advanced and offers a ton of features for the amazingly low price!

AquaMaxx Prism saltwater LED light aquarium

Filtration and Filter Media

Saltwater aquarium filtration can be the most complicated and confusing part of the aquarium hobby. How to filter an aquarium and what filter media to use is usually the last thing we fully understand as hobbyists. However, an experienced hobbyist will tell you that filtration really can be easy and simple.

And so, without getting scientific, there are three types of filtration that work together to complete the total filtration of your saltwater aquarium. These types of filtration are:

  • Mechanical filtration
  • Biological filtration
  • Chemical filtration

I HIGHLY suggest that you watch the following video for an in-depth explanation on how filtration works, as it would require a whole separate article for me to explain it here. 

But, there is good news! This saltwater aquarium already comes with a starter kit of filter media, and has a built in filtration compartment that is nicely tucked into the aquarium.

These kinds of aquariums are called AIO (all-in-one) as the filtration compartment is within the aquarium itself, so you do not need to buy any extra filters! As well, if/when you add gear (such as a heater) you can hide it within this compartment so that it does not clutter up the display portion of your saltwater aquarium! 

If you decide that you want to get the highest quality filter media instead of the things that come with the aquarium, we have listed what we think are the best options for the three types of filtration! Also, you will need a filter media bag to put it in, you can buy that here.

Prefilter Pad for mechanical aquarium filtration
LifeGard Prefilter Replaceable Pad for mechanical filtration
AquaForest Life Bio Fil Aquarium Biological media
AquaForest Life Bio Fil Aquarium Biological media for filtration
Chemi-Pure Blue chemical filtration in nano packets for saltwater aquarium
Chemi-Pure Blue nano 5-pack for chemical filtration of aquarium

Gravel Vacuum / Siphon

A gravel vacuum is a must in this hobby for water changes.  It is the easiest way to start a siphon and drain your water, while at the same time allowing the vacuuming of your sand bed to remove detritus.

For this aquarium, I suggest buying the 5″ medium size.  If you get the mini it will drain water too slowly while the large will drain the tank too quickly! This piece of equipment is pretty universal, cheap budget build or expensive build, the only thing that changes is the size. 

Siphon gravel vacuum in original packaging
Aqueon Gravel Vacuum/Siphon for aquarium cleaning


Following the lights, heaters are another crucial piece of gear as most saltwater aquariums house tropical organisms that need a stable temperature between 77-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless your house is constantly in that temperature range, you will need a heater to keep you aquarium inhabitants healthy and happy. You can also hide the heater in the filtration compartment of the aquarium!

Based on personal experience, reputation, and cost we recommend the Eheim Jager TruTemp 50 Watt aquarium heater. The thing about aquarium heaters is that they all fail eventually, so keep that in mind. It would be a good idea to eventually have two heaters, with the second being a spare for emergencies.

Glass heaters are perfect for a budget build as they are inexpensive and heat the water quickly, but they are also easy to break and I’ve shattered at least two! Thus, be careful with heaters and make sure to follow manufacturer directions.

Aquarium Heater Eheim Jager
Aquarium Heater Eheim-Jager-TruTemp-50-Watt-Fully-Submersible-UL-Approved-Heater


Thermometers are crucial in a saltwater aquarium as you need to make sure your heater is actually keeping your water at the desired temperature!

We have owned about 10 of these thermometers in the past several years, and they work well for how inexpensive they are. We tested three of these at a time in the same tank, and they were off by no more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is a 2-pack because we found it is never a bad idea to have an extra thermometer (or two) on hand! If you are mixing your own saltwater, you will need an extra thermometer to make sure the temperatures are consistent. 

two small waterproof digital aquarium thermometers on white background
2-pack aquarium digital thermometer


Every saltwater aquarium hobbyist needs a refractometer. This is because a refractometer is way more accurate than a hydrometer. Even if you are committed to the cheap budget build, this is a good investment.

Keeping your saltwater salinity at a stable and constant level is important when keeping corals or animals like shrimp and crab. Unlike fish, invertebrates are much more sensitive to drastic changes in water parameters like salinity. 

It is important to know that a refractometer does need to be calibrated. But, rather than buying an entire bottle of calibration fluid, just go to your LFS (Local Fish Store) and ask to use a few drops of theirs!

new refractometer out of package sitting on white background
AquaMaxx refractometer for saltwater aquariums

Water Test Kit

A basic test kit is a must have tool for your saltwater aquarium.  It is most useful when you are starting your tank so you can test for when the nitrogen cycle is complete.  This test kit is not the fanciest available, but it is affordable and will give a ballpark reading which will be good enough for most hobbyists.  

front view of api saltwater test kit in original packaging
API Saltrwater Aquarium Master Test Kit

Reef Rock

Rock is very important in any saltwater aquarium as it provides: 

  • A place for beneficial bacteria to live
  • Hiding spots for your aquarium inhabitants
  • A place to attach coral.

To understand the importance of rock in a saltwater aquarium, watch this video. There are many types of rock, but this rock is cheap, looks great, and is perfect for a saltwater aquarium budget build. 

pile of dried out porous rock made from dead coral skeletons
AquaMaxx Saltwater Aquarium Reef Dry Rock

Algae Scraper

An algae scraper is a simple and important tool. No matter how well you take care of your saltwater aquarium, algae will grow on your aquarium glass. The cheap scraper is the easiest way to remove the algae without getting wet and messy! 

We went for the common option in this saltwater budget build, but you may eventually want to also get the Flipper magnetic algae scraper to make your life easier!

Algae Scraper Flipper Nano Budget Build
Flipper Hand Held aquarium cleaner for glass or acrylic

Fish Net

Every saltwater aquarium hobbyist needs a net, and they cost almost nothing! A net is just one of those tools that you always want to have present.

Not only is it good for catching and transferring fish, you can also use it when thawing frozen food to help get rid of any fillers or phosphates!

black fish net with long handle on white background
Aquarium Fish Net

Optional Items

Temperature Controller

A temperature controller can be a life saver for the saltwater aquarium hobbyist. It is not a necessity, but for around $35, you can control your tanks temperature to within 0.1° F.  I live in the desert, so in the summer I run a fan to keep my aquarium cool.  I plug my fan into the “cooling” outlet and my heater into the “heating” outlet, and my tank stays a constant 78° F all year round. Plus, this controller has a built in alarm which alerts me if my heater or fan ever fail. Quite amazing for a $35 device and it still fits within the cheap budget build!

black and grey temperature controller with probe sitting on white surface
Temperature controller for aquariums


Sand is not essential by any means. There is even a trend in the saltwater aquarium hobby being a bare bottom tank. That being said, sand completes a genuine aesthetic to make your aquarium really feel like its a slice of the Ocean. As well, sand aids in biological filtration while providing a refuge and food source for certain creatures. This video is good to watch if you want to learn more before you make a decision!

You only need a 10 lb bag for this aquarium. There are many types of sand to choose from but we would stick with the CaribSea brand.

Fiji pink sand in 20 lb bag with close up of grain size
wet live sand for saltwater aquariums
hawaiian black sand in 20 lb bag with close up of grain size

RO/DI Water Filter

The RO/DI filter is a water filtration unit that takes your tap water and purifies it to be as close to pure water as possible. It stands for Reverse Osmosis Deionization, and if you would like to understand how it works, read this article

You might hear from hobbyists online that an RO/DI filter is a must for any saltwater aquarium, but that just is not true. It does have benefits, and is mathematically cheaper in the long run. But, for small and beginner saltwater aquariums, there are other options that can be easier and simpler.

Firstly you could just go to your local fish store and buy pre-made saltwater and purified water. As well, you could get tap water conditioner and use tap water, but this is the most risky option and makes it more likely that you may run into problems with your saltwater.  

If you want to go ahead and take the plunge, there is a small and cheap option available, which will work perfectly for this cheap budget build and small saltwater aquarium. 

RODI filter from Aquatic Life with 4 cylinders for saltwater aquariums
AquaticLife RO Buddie Four Stage RODI system with DI included

Salt Mix

Most saltwater aquarium hobbyists start out by buying saltwater at our LFS (local fish store). This is because purchasing distilled water from the grocery store is expensive, and setting up the necessary RO/DI filter can be complicated

But, you can save a bit of money and hassle in the long run by mixing your saltwater at home. There are so many different types of salt mix on the market, and I’ve tried a ton of them!  They all work fine, but they vary depending on your livestock plan.

For this aquarium budget build I recommend this salt mix, as it is good for FOWLR (Fish Only With Live Rock) systems, or tanks with a light stocking of corals.

two red sea salt mix buckets side to side new in packaging
Red Sea Salt Mix for Saltwater Aquariums

Calcium / Alkalinity Test Kit

If you are only planning on keeping fish or soft corals in your saltwater aquarium, then you don’t need to worry about calcium and alkalinity.

But, SPS (small polyp stony) and LPS (large polyp stony) corals, as well as invertebrates such as snails and crabs, need calcium and alkalinity to build their skeletons. This kit will let you know the ballpark values of these parameters in your saltwater. Thus, you know when you might need to dose extra or when you have been over-dosing. 

Reef Tank test kit new in packaging on white background
API Reef Master Test Kit for Reef Aquariums

Power Strips

This is a piece of gear that you potentially already own, but if you have not realized it already, you will need a power strip to accommodate all the gear of your saltwater aquarium. This is not somewhere you want to be cheap, as the dangers of electrical accidents or fires should not be taken lightly. At best, your gear will turn off and your animals may get harmed. At worst, your gear will be destroyed and a fire might start!

We suggest getting this surge protector/power strip because it also has the ability to turn off individual pieces of gear without having to unplug them. This is very useful for saltwater changes, when it is recommended to turn off the heater so it does not get exposed to air while on and damaged.

7 outlet controllable surge protector and power strip
Tripp Lite 7 Outlet (controllable) surgeprotector powerstrip

Magnetic Algae Scraper

This is one item in the cheap budget build that is not a budget item! While there are cheaper magnetic algae scrapers, in my opinion, none of them even comes close to what the Flipper offers. I’ve owned the same one for several years, and the fact that you can switch between the stainless steel blade and the soft felt side without getting your hands wet is just too good for a saltwater aquarium hobbyist to pass up!

Flipper nano Algae Scraper out of packaging on white background
Flipper Nano 2-in-1 Magnetic Algae Scraper for Aquarium Glass or Acrylic


This is the end of how to build a $520 saltwater aquarium budget build guide! We provided you all the necessary items in order of importance, and even some optional items that would improve your saltwater hobby experience. We hope that you found this article helpful and informative, and if you decide to buy anything, please use our provided links! This costs you nothing extra, but helps us keep working, supporting you, and making great content. Feel free to look around the website or YouTube channel  if you have any questions about the hobby!

About the Author