I’m an Aquarist: The Best $100 You Can Spend On Your Tank

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton


best $100 you can spend on your aquarium

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Purchasing an aquarium setup can be a daunting task. First, you need to choose the right tank, then the right substrate, lighting, heater, and filter before you can even consider plants, invertebrates, and fish! If all of this seems like a bit of a headache, you may be happy to hear about all-in-one aquarium kits!

Today’s complete aquarium setups can be remarkably affordable. In this brief guide, we’ll look at the best small aquarium kits for under $100, as well as suggest some alternatives if you have a slightly bigger budget for a larger tank.

Here are the best options on the market!

Aqueon 10-Gallon Aquarium Starter Kit With LED Lighting

Aqueon Aquarium Fish Tank Starter Kit with LED Lighting 10 Gallon
  • Low profile full hood contains vibrant cool white LED lighting
  • Filter has a red LED light that flashes to indicate when it’s time to change the cartridge
  • Preset heater will keep your aquarium temperature at a constant 78 degrees
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The Aqueon 10-gallon freshwater aquarium starter kit offers newcomers to fish keeping one the most complete setups in its price range. The kit includes a hood with LED lighting, a QuietFlow LED PRO filter, an aquarium heater, and a thermometer.

Thoughtful features such as the low-profile hood for energy saving, and a 5-stage filter for extra-clean water indicate that Aqueon has taken significant care with the design.

While a 10-gallon tank is too small to keep schooling fish, it’s a perfect size for a betta fish, or a pair of dwarf gouramis, and large enough for some shrimp or snails to be included, too.

This package offers excellent value for the price, but we must add that this is still a basic aquarium with no adjustable temperature control or advanced features.

What’s Included:

  • 20.25 x 10.5 x 13.31-inch glass tank with a 10-gallon capacity
  • Low profile full hood with cool white LED lighting
  • 5-stage filter with various mediums: Floss, activated charcoal, bio-holster, bio-media grid, and 5th-stage filter pad
  • Preset aquarium heater set to 78°F – appropriate for most tropical fish
  • Filter cartridge, submersible preset heater, premium
  • Aquarium thermometer, fish net, fish food sample, water conditioner sample, and setup guide

Things We Like:

  • Includes a heater, thermometer, and most accessories needed for tropical fish-keeping
  • Vibrant, cool white lighting in an energy-saving low-profile LED hood
  • Most customers report satisfaction with value for money

Things We Don’t:

  • Some customers have reported issues with the filter and lighting
  • The preset heater has no adjustable temperature control

Tetra Complete 10-Gallon Aquarium – Including LED Lighting, Filtration and Accessories

Tetra Complete LED Aquarium 10 Gallons
  • Glass aquarium kit with low-profile hinged hood houses energy-efficient white LEDs
  • Comes with the Tetra Whisper PF10 Power Filter
  • Kit includes a fish net, Tetra AquaSafe water conditioner sample, TetraMin food sample
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The Tetra complete 10-gallon LED Aquarium is similar in many ways to the Aqueon aquarium starter kit, except that it lacks a heater and thermometer.

These omissions immediately may make the tank less enticing for those looking to keep tropical fish, although reliable heaters and thermometers are fairly affordable accessories that can be purchased separately.

If a 10-gallon capacity doesn’t feel sizable enough for you, you could consider upgrading to the 29-gallon version. While this will offer you the opportunity to keep schooling fish, there are also more affordable medium-sized tanks on the market, such as the Tetra Colorfusion aquarium that we’ll describe in a moment.

What’s Included:

  • One 20 x 10 x 12 inch (length/width/height) glass aquarium with a 10-gallon capacity
  • Tetra Whisper PF10 Power Filter with Tetra Medium Bio-Bag Filter Cartridge
  • Fish net, Tetra AquaSafe water conditioner sample, TetraMin food sample, and set-up guide

Things We Like:

  • A decent starter kit for a coldwater nano tank
  • Color-enhancing LED lights with natural daylight effect
  • Low profile, hinged hood for energy-saving

Things We Don’t:

  • A few customers have complained about faulty lights and filter
  • The filter can be noisy with no adjustable flow
  • No heater included

Fluval SPEC 2.6-Gallon Freshwater Aquarium Kit Including Concealed 3-Stage Filter

Fluval SPEC Freshwater Aquarium Kit
  • 2.6-gallon etched glass aquarium with aluminum trim
  • High-output 7000K LED with all-aluminum, waterproof casing for enhanced plant growth
  • Powerful 3-stage filtration for superior water quality
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Now for the baby of our budget all-in-one fish tanks! The Fluval SPEC 2.6 gallon nano aquarium measures just 10.8 x 11.8 x 8.7 inches making it perfect for squeezing on top of a small desktop or countertop.

The latest model in the popular SPEC nano series boasts 20% brighter lighting that produces bolder colors than previous versions. A sleek design featuring an aluminum trim and concealed filter compartment make this a modern-looking tank with a stylish aesthetic.

Our only quibble with a tank of this size is that it’s too small to keep fish. Even betta fish which are well-adapted for small tanks need at least 5 gallons of swimming space, so we’d only recommend this tank for invertebrates.

Although this may seem like a significant drawback, invertebrate tanks are becoming more popular than ever. A well-designed aquascape of elegant plants with cherry shrimp and nerite snails might just be one of the most attractive options for a desktop tank.

For those looking to make a bigger investment in the larger version, you can check out Fluval’s 5-gallon SPEC model here.

What’s Included:

  • A 10.8 x 11.8 x 8.7 inch tank with a 2.6-gallon capacity and aluminum trim
  • High-output 7000K LED lighting with all-aluminum, waterproof casing, crafted to enhance plant growth and fish colors
  • Superior 3-stage filtration system concealed by sleek ‘honeycomb wrap’ from a leader in the filter industry

Things We Like:

  • A sleek, stylish nano tank from a reliable brand
  • Compact design makes the tank perfect for small desks or countertops
  • Concealed filter compartment for an uncluttered, natural-looking tank
  • Excellent for shrimp and snails

Things We Don’t:

  • The 2.6-gallon capacity is too small for fish! (Consider spending a little extra for the 5-gallon model)
  • No aquarium heater included
  • Very small sizes can lead to water chemistry fluctuations

And One More for a Little Extra…

Tetra ColorFusion Aquarium 20 Gallon Fish Tank Kit, Including LED Lighting, Heater, Filter and Decor

Tetra ColorFusion Aquarium 20 Gallon Fish Tank Kit
  • Dynamic Color Fusion LED Lighting Experience
  • Interactive Anemones for Natural Hideaways
  • Vibrant Tetra Plants Illuminated by Color Fusion LED
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Okay, we confess that the final item on our list doesn’t quite fall under the $100 setup category, but we couldn’t resist including it for its amazing value!

While most medium-sized tank setups cost multiple times more than the other tanks on our list, this 20-gallon tank setup provides a generous package even for those on a modest budget. Not only does Tetra throw in a Whisper20 Filter, but also an aquarium heater.

We often recommend that beginners choose medium-sized tanks over nano tanks for the more stable water chemistry that the additional water capacity provides. Additionally, it’s only in 20-gallon tanks that schooling fish such as tetras will exhibit proper schooling behavior.

While the tank comes with extravagant color fusion LED lights and synthetic plants and anemones, these can be customized or left out for a more natural look.

What’s Included:

  • A 24.2 x 12.4 x 16.7 (length/width/height), 20-gallon glass aquarium
  • Aquarium hood with customizable color fusion universal LED lighting
  • Tetra Whisper 20 Filter
  • A UL Heater
  • Two Wonderland Plant multipacks and one Blooming White Anemone synthetic ornament

Things We Like:

  • Outstanding value for a complete medium-sized aquarium kit
  • Includes a heater for immediate tropical setup
  • 20-gallon tank offers better water chemistry and opportunities to keep schooling fish

Things We Don’t:

  • Unsurprisingly for a budget kit, the equipment is medium-grade
  • Some customers have reported that the filter can be noisy

Good to Know When Buying a Complete Aquarium Kit

Tank Size

It’s important to understand that most budget aquarium kits are going to be for small tanks. Aquariums that are of 10-gallon capacity or smaller are often referred to as nano tanks, and while cute, they do have some limitations.

The Downsides of Nano Tanks

While small aquariums may seem like the best choice for beginners, they’re more difficult to manage than medium or large tanks. With less water capacity, nano tanks are more prone to sudden fluctuations in water chemistry – one of the leading causes of fish mortality.

little girl looking at fish in nano aquarium

Additionally, tanks that are smaller than 20 gallons don’t have enough horizontal swimming space for schooling fish to engage in regular schooling behavior. Instead, they will ‘bob’ or ‘hover’ around, becoming stressed, and often aggressive due to the confined space.

While 5- or 10-gallon tanks are suitable for betta fish and invertebrates, be cautious of guides that advise keeping tetras or rasboras in such an environment. If you’re looking for a community tank for schooling fish, always go for a tank that’s of 20-gallon capacity or larger.

‘Complete Kits’ Are Not 100% Complete!

Freshwater aquariums consist of numerous components, and so-called ‘complete kits’ vary in how many of these they include.

While most kits will include a tank, hood, lighting, and a filter, other components that aren’t included could be considered hidden costs – so let’s uncover them.

Hidden Costs – Aquarium Items That You May Need to Purchase Separately

Aquarium Heater and Thermometer

A corner of aquarium with water filter and electric Heater

If you’re interested in tropical fish keeping, you’ll need to either buy a kit that includes a heater and thermometer or buy them separately.

We’ll discuss the pros and cons of tropical vs unheated aquariums in the next section.

Aquarium Gravel

The most glaring omission of most ‘complete tank setups’ is gravel. Although some types of breeding tanks and hospital tanks don’t require gravel, in every other instance, gravel is essential!

Gravel can easily be sourced from most pet stores and online retailers, but it’s worth shopping around for the best quality and price.


Once you have your gravel installed, your next step is to add some aquarium plants. Whether you choose real aquatic plants or synthetic alternatives is up to you, but we tend to recommend at least a few live plants.

aquatic plants

Not only do live plants help to filter and oxygenate the water, but they’re also fascinating to grow and easily outdo plastic or silk imitations with their elegant beauty.

If you’re looking for bomb-proof, easy beginner plants, you can’t beat Java fern, Java moss, and Amazon Sword. For an easy floating plant, consider Amazon Frogbit.


In addition to plants, you’ll also almost certainly want to adorn your tank with eye-catching rocks and perhaps some pieces of driftwood. Not only do they look attractive, but rocky caves can provide invaluable hiding places for many fish species as well.

If you don’t want to shell out for expensive versions in aquarium stores, you can also collect your own. We discuss which rocks and crystals are safe for freshwater aquariums in our detailed guide here.

Fish and Invertebrates

tropical freshwater aquarium

One last cost that you’ll definitely need to factor in is your tank’s inhabitants!

Thankfully, the most popular freshwater fish and invertebrates are extremely affordable, but if you want an extra special breed of betta fish or cherry shrimp, they could add to your total bill significantly.

Do I Need a Heater? Coldwater vs Tropical Setups

Whereas some aquarium kits come with a heater included, others don’t.

Whether or not you choose to go for a heated, tropical tank or a coldwater setup is a personal choice, and many people aren’t well informed about the scope of coldwater fishkeeping.

Pros and Cons of Coldwater Aquariums

While most people associate coldwater tanks with goldfish and guppies, there are many more options out there.

Zebra danios, Medaka rice fish, paradise fish, several barb species, and many other fish can be kept in unheated tanks as long as the water temperature doesn’t fall below 65°F. In most heated rooms, a heater isn’t necessary for these fish.

Other advantages include lower electricity bills, higher levels of dissolved oxygen for fish to breathe, and less equipment to go wrong. Many fish species also live longer lives at the lower end of their preferred temperature range.

The main drawbacks of coldwater setups are the lower diversity of fish you can keep, and the lack of temperature control which could deny some fish the chance of breeding.

Pros and Cons of Tropical Aquariums

Colorful exotic fish swimming in deep blue water

While many types of fish can survive in unheated tanks, tropical aquariums provide far more possibilities.

Since many of the world’s most colorful fish come from tropical regions such as the Amazon basin, East African lakes, and Southeast Asian floodplains, it’s understandable that most people opt for a heated tank that can accommodate these species.

Additionally, an adjustable thermostat on a tank’s heater can allow you to control the aquarium water temperature which may be crucial if you’re looking to breed certain species of fish.

The main drawbacks of heated tanks are the additional electricity costs and the possibility of equipment failure which could cost your fish’s lives.

Our Top Picks

Having carefully weighed up the pros and cons of each kit, we’ve come to the following conclusions about the best complete setups on the market:

Best All-Rounder

Our top pick for the best all-round aquarium kit for $100 has to go to Aqueon’s 10-gallon Aquarium Fish Tank Starter Kit.

Not only does the setup include a 5-stage power filter and attractive LED lighting, but it also boasts a heater and thermometer which other similarly-priced models are missing.

If you’re looking for an all-in-one 10-gallon tank to keep betta fish, dwarf gouramis, or invertebrates, this package offers an extremely affordable option.

Best Nano Tank for Invertebrates

If you’re looking for a tiny tank to enjoy watching shrimp cruise around on your countertop, it would be hard to beat the Fluval SPEC 2.6 Gallon Freshwater Aquarium Kit.

With a sleek, contemporary look and thoughtful features like the hidden filter compartment, this kit from a trusted brand offers excellent value for money.

While not large enough to keep fish inside, Fluval also offers a 5-gallon version that is large enough to host a betta fish with some snails.

Best Budget 20-Gallon Setup

While there aren’t any examples that fit under the $100 bracket, 20-gallon aquariums have numerous advantages over smaller tanks, especially for beginners or those looking to keep schooling fish.

The Tetra ColorFusion 20-gallon Fish Tank Kit offers a generous package including a filter and heater for those looking for a medium-sized tank on a smaller budget. You can check the latest prices and reviews by clicking here.

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