Turtles can be expensive pets. I know firsthand. 

Years ago when I got my first pet turtle, a small female red-eared slider, I figured that the only things that I would need is a tank and some pellet food. 

How wrong was I! 

While reading as much as I could about these awesome little reptiles, bills started to pile up. 

Baby Red Eared Slider 1

"Oh, I didn't know that my tanks is way too small. I need an upgrade. Oh, wow it looks like this is going to cost a few hundred dollars!" 

"Oh, I didn't know I needed a light. Not just any light, but a light that emits both UV-A and UV-B rays. Oh, and you'll need a filter with chemical, biological and mechanical filtration. And you'll need a basking dock. And you'll need a water heater during the winter months. And you'll need....

It seemingly never ended! 

That's why I created this cheap turtle tank setup how-to, to show you that it can be done, and it can be done for very little money. 

My thought process for this how-to article is very simple: 

If I had very little money to work with (let's say, under $200), how could I still absolutely, positively, ensure that my turtle has everything it needs to live a happy, secure life?

Warning!

  •     Because we are working with just $200, we have to throw away certain considerations, such as aesthetics. It's not going to look pretty, BUT it will provide EVERYTHING for your turtle

Let's get started with the most expensive item first. 

Item #1: A Tank 

Tanks are ridiculously expensive. 

I would know, as I've bought 4 of these things over the years. Each one bigger than the last, and each one significantly more expensive than the last. 

If there is any piece of equipment that will eat away at our budget, it's going to be the tank. And since we are working with $200, that means we can't spend more than that because that would leave nothing for everything else. 

Here's the bad news: 

If you want a nice-looking tank, it's going to cost you. Most glass tanks start out a few hundred dollars. 

It gets worse: 

If your turtle is a semi-aquatic species like a painted or slider, it's going to need a lot of space to swim. The general rule here is 10 gallons of water per inch of carapace shell. 

That means if you have a full-grown female red-eared slider, you're going to need at least an 80-100 gallon tank, and I can tell you first-hand that those do not run cheap. Males and painteds will need a slightly smaller tank. 

If I had to do everything all over again, the first thing I would do is ask any of your relatives of friends if they could sell you  an old aquarium that isn't being used. Then check something like Craigslist. 

If I struck out there, the next thing I would do is to get a stock tank

They don't look pretty, but they are excellent habitats for turtles. They look like this: 

turtle stock tank

Here's why these stock tanks work well: 

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    They are very durable, good quality and won't break during shipping or while you are moving them around 
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       They come in a bunch of different sizes, but more importantly are big, wide and deep enough to be used as an appropriate habitat for your turtles 
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    They come with drains on the bottom to make cleaning and emptying water much, much easier than traditional glass tanks 

Here's a few examples of real-life use: 

Note, the video above is a 150 gallon tank, which runs for over $200. 

That is a great amount of space for any semi-aquatic turtle, but that eats up too much of our budget here. Instead, we are left with this 50-gallon stock tank version, which runs for less than $100. 

While the 50-gallon version isn't quite the 60-80 gallons we need, it's pretty close, but more importantly, it will provide plenty of space. It measures 4.3" feet long, 2.6" feet wide and is 12 inches deep, which is just deep enough to provide ample room for any semi-aquatic species to swim freely. 

Money Remaining = $118

Item #2: A UV-A & UV-B Light

Of every item you will need in order to create a proper turtle habitat, this is by far the most important. 

Everything else you can replace by doing a bit more work. You can create your own tank. You can clean your tank's water daily. But, unless your turtle is going to regularly be outside, you cannot replace the UV-A and UV-B light that it needs. 

This is crucial. Without UV-A and UV-B light, turtles can succumb to deadly diseases, and will generally live a much poorer lifestyle. 

However, you don't necessarily need to spend a lot of money here. 

Because we are working with a budget, we need to look for a light that fits our criteria: 

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    Provides UV-A and UV-B light 
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    Is not expensive 

This 50 watt UV-A and UV-B light from Gacent that goes for less than $10 would work here. 

gacent light

Not only does it provide both UV-A and UV-B light, but it's 50 watts, which means you won't be forced to place it extremely close to the basking area (I wrote about this here, but the wattage doesn't matter, it's the temperature that is important). 

Now, anyone that has had any experience with these types of lights knows that the filament inside often breaks, they can suddenly burn out and their strength drops dramatically after several months of use. 

This is why it is always important to make sure (as best you can), that whatever product you end up buying has some sort of warranty. Especially when it comes to UV-B lights and filters. 

Luckily, this Gacent light comes with a 30-day warranty (for anything), so although it isn't quite as strong as some of the other more powerful brands, it will at least hold you over for a solid month. 

Money Remaining = $108 

Item #3: A Light Fixture  

That UV-A & B bulb that we just got isn't going to hang and light itself, so we need something to fix it to. 

If we had more money to work with, I would recommend a UV-A & B bulb lamp stand and dome fixture, but due to our hypothetical budget, we can opt for something that is almost as good. 

A simple clamp lamp fixture will suffice here. 

A lamp clamp fixture was what I used to point and fix my UV-A & B lighting for my turtles for years and years. It is limited in that the you will need to clamp it somewhere, and wherever you clamp it will limit where you can have your basking area, but it will get the job done. 

You don't need anything fancy here, just something that will light up the UV bulb and be safe and secure. 

This Nomoypet clamp lamp fixture is a replica of the exact model I personally used for years with my sliders. 

It's also rated for bulbs up to 110 volts, which can handle the 110 volt Gacent UV-A & B light bulb that I recommended above. 

lamp clamp fixture

Money Remaining = $92 

Item #4: A Filter  

If the UV-A & B bulb was the most important piece of equipment in your habitat, your filter would be a strong second. 

Turtles are much, much messier animals that fish. Anything that is in your tank they will eventually climb on, move or knock over. 

They often tear apart food instead of swallowing it whole, leaving little chunks and bits floating around the tank. 

They constantly defecate (yuck!), again leaving bits and pieces floating everywhere. 

And if your filter isn't strong enough or properly cleans the water, a number of things occur: 

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    the ammonia level in your tank can build up to potentially fatal levels 
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    the water will not be clear, pristine and clean 
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    you will need your tank much, much more often 

Now, here is where a lot of pet owners tend to skimp and save. They will spend a lot of money on the tank, or the heating, or even the dock, but they don't want to splurge on the filter. 

I understand this sentiment, as I did the same thing when I first had my turtles. 

I thought I a simple waterfall filter or underwater filter could properly keep everything clean.

The truth is you need a powerful filter, especially with anything 55 gallons and over. A simple waterfall, underwater or even power filter isn't going to cut it. 

Instead, I would recommend that you get something called a canister filter, which is a filter that sits outside your tank. 

Now, I wrote about this elsewhere in more depth, but basically your filter will need to do a few things: 

  • Mechanically, biologically and chemically filter your tank water 
  • Be powerful enough to thoroughly clean the water 
  • Be relatively easy to set-up and not break down 
  • Not be too noisy 

That's it. If it does these 4 things, you are good to go. 

The problem however is that we need a good filter, but one that isn't going to suck up our remaining budget. 

That's going to be difficult because any of the good brands, such as EHEIM, Fluval and Plenn-Plax, will totally consume every last cent and then some. 

Luckily, there is a good alternative. One that I have used in the past for a few years without any problems. They are from a company called SunSun. 

This SunSun HW302 Pro Canister Filter Kit would fit perfectly here. 

SUNSUN 75 GALLON FILTER

Here's why: 

  • It's rated for 75 gallons (ideally you'd always get a filter that is rated for more gallons than is inside your tank) 
  • Can filter up to 265 gallons per hour 
  • Comes with filter carbon, ceramic rings and bio balls for immediate mechanical, chemical and biological filtration
  • It's priced at quite a bit less than its immediate competitors (less than $60) 
  • Has over 4-star rating with over 300 reviews on Amazon
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     Comes with a warranty 

Personally, Fluval filters are my favorite, but in terms of value for money these SunSun filters might just be better, considering how much cheaper they are. 

Money Remaining = $39 

Item #5: A Water Heater   

This is an item that often gets left out by new pet turtle owners, but it's still necessary. 

Because turtles are cold-blooded animals, their metabolism changes with their environment. When it gets too cold, their metabolism and movement slows way down. 

If the water in your turtle tank gets too cold, you will notice this when you go to feed it and it appears to be eating and moving in slow-motion. 

A slider or any other species of turtle that swims in water that is too cold, for too long, is liable to contract a bacterial infection, or worse yet, a deadly respiratory infection

For red-eared sliders, the water temperature should be between 76 and 84 degrees. 

For painteds, keep it between 75 and 80 degrees. 

The water heater that we are going to need here needs to be able to do a few things: 

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    Able to heat up 50 gallons of water 
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    Able to heat up 50 gallons of water from 75 to 84 degrees.
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    Be safe for use and easy to use 

Luckily, we have a ton of good options here. 

This Aqueon Pro 150 Watt Underwater Heater would be perfect for the habitat we are building here. 

Aqueon Pro Heater

It can easily heat up our 50 gallon tank as it's rated for 55 gallons. It also has a temperature dial on the end to let you set the temperature, and a light that switches green to let you know the water has reached the set temperature. 

It's not fancy, and you'll have to stick your hand down into the water after fastening it to the tank to set the temperature, but it will heat up everything to a nice, snug 80 degrees. 

Money Remaining = $14 

Item #6: Food     

Now that all of the equipment is out of the way: 

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    the tank 
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    the UV-A and UV-B light 
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    the UV light fixture 
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    the water filter
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    the water heater 

That leaves us with just one more thing that we absolutely, positively need; food! 

One of the staples for your turtle will be protein pellets. They are inexpensive, easy to eat but most importantly, will be a pillar of your turtle's diet. I wrote about this elsewhere, but basically you want pellets to be high in protein, and low in carbs, fats and phosphorous. 

These ReptoMin floating food sticks are my go-to brand here, and fortunately, because it already is rather inexpensive, it can easily fit into our budget. 

reptomin turtle food

Now, a lot of pet turtle owners go about this entirely the wrong way. 

Turtles need balanced diets.

Just giving turtles nothing but protein pellets is actually very harmful to them. Although juvenile turtles need more protein than anything else, too much (or only) protein can lead to shell overgrowth. Most older turtles, in particular sliders and painteds, are grow more herbivorous as they age. 

Thus, it's important to feed turtles a balanced, but nutritious diet that isn't lacking in any one particular area. 

I have an article about this elsewhere that goes further in-depth, but basically, for most turtle species a well-rounded diet will be comprised of: 

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    protein pellets
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    insects, crayfish, shrimp and the proper feeder fish 
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    leafy green vegetables, such as lettuce (not iceberg) and kale

Typically, after a turtle grows to its full size (which it will reach after a few years), protein pellets can be given every 2 to 3 days, with things like crayfish, insects, shrimp and feeder fish given once a week or a few times a month. Leafy greens should be given daily. 

This more accurately reflects a turtle's diet when in the wild. 

Money Remaining = $10 

That leaves us with $10 left, which should just about cover most of the shipping fees for these products. 

Hopefully, this article gave you an idea of how to construct an inexpensive, but fully-functional, healthy turtle habitat. 

Turtles can be very expensive pets, but you don't have to break the bank just to give them everything they need. Is this set-up perfect or ideal? No. But it will give your turtle everything that it needs, and allow it to live a healthy, prosperous life.