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Genealogical Research on a Budget

Updated on July 3, 2016

Before You Begin, Know What You Want

Many begin researching their ancestry with no expectation that it will become a lifelong hobby (or, for some of us, obsession!), and so do not put a lot of thought into preparation. Whether you intend to devote a lot of time and effort to your research or not, it's a good idea to give a little thought to what exactly you are wanting to get out of it, so that you can choose sites and resources ideal for you. Are you only interested in a single branch, or your entire tree? Are you hoping to collect photographs and documents, or are you happy just knowing names and dates? Do you want to be able to share your findings with others, or is it for you alone?

If you already know you want to delve deep, or if you are concerned about cost (or both!), it's also a good idea to ask yourself how much you are willing to spend every year. Some sites require costly subscriptions to be of much use, and it can be easy to overspend if you're not careful. Knowing how much you are willing to invest will make it easier to choose your subscriptions wisely.

Setting Up Your Tree (for free!)

One of the mistakes people often make in the beginning is spending a lot of money on tree-building software, only to find out it either doesn't have a format they like, or that they could have used a free site to get similar features. There are numerous free tree-builders, all with useful features and pleasing layouts. TribalPages, Ancestry, and FamilySearch are just a few sites that allow you to build a tree for free. Each has different pros and cons, however, so it's important to research the site itself before deciding which to use. TribalPages, for example, is completely free to use, but has very limited design options. Ancestry allows you to build a tree for free, but requires you pay to connect with other members or see any documents. FamilySearch is free to both build a tree and research on, but your tree is automatically connected to every other member's.

A simple Google search brought up this image of my 3xgreat-grandparents, and helped me connect with a relative who had tons of information to share.
A simple Google search brought up this image of my 3xgreat-grandparents, and helped me connect with a relative who had tons of information to share.

Learning How to Research for (Almost) Free

Collecting information on ancestors can often be an expensive ordeal. Subscribing to online newspaper and research sites, ordering birth/death/marriage certificates, traveling to relevant cities and historical sites, and fixing/framing photographs can add up, really quickly. Here are a few ways to reduce that cost, without having to sacrifice any information:

  1. Morbid as it may sound, tons of information can be found in graveyards. Dates of birth and death, names of spouses and children, military information, religious affiliation, and much more are often on display, for free. If you live in the same general area your ancestors did, visit local cemeteries - many even have maps and directories. For cemeteries you cannot easily visit, see FindAGrave. They have amassed a more than impressive database of graves, photos, and information from all over the world, and share it all for free.
  2. Census records, along with birth and death certificates, are by far the most useful documents the genealogist can find. They are also, sadly, rather expensive to order, and sometimes difficult to find online. FamilySearch (linked above) is the largest free resource for these documents, and allows you to download and print them off for your own records.
  3. As genealogy is not exactly considered a social hobby, it can be easy to forget that one of your best resources is other people! Interview your elder relatives, ask them if they have photos stashed away, go to family reunions. Join social media groups dedicated to genealogy, as well - many groups are happy to pool their resources and look things up for people who cannot afford to subscribe to every site out there.
  4. Get a library card! Larger libraries often have whole sections dedicated to family history and related topics. Books featuring relative biographies, the history of towns your families are from, religious migrations, and much more can lead you to huge discoveries. Better still, most libraries have subscriptions, so you can use their services for free.
  5. Sometimes, the simplest actions prove the most fruitful. While typing an ancestor's name into Google may seem like a desperate last attempt, it's actually one of the first things a frugal genealogy buff should try. Googling names can lead to finding invaluable photographs, connecting with distant relatives who are also doing research, discovering informative books and articles, and much more.

Choosing Where and How to Spend

As shown above, it is entirely possible to do most of your genealogical research for free. Some of us, however, will eventually reach a point where we want more than free sites and sources can offer, but still can't, or don't want to, spend large stacks of cash. As there are many resources that cost money, it's important to research them all before deciding which are worth our hard-earned money. (linked above) is often the go-to for those willing to spend a bit of money on their research. While a bit costly (Canadians like myself can expect to pay nearly $300/yr.), they unquestionably have a ton of useful documents and photos, and can help you connect with unknown relatives. But, it should be kept in mind that much of what you'll find on Ancestry can be found on FamilySearch for free, so unless you are desperate to connect with other relatives, this isn't necessarily the best way to spend your money.

Sites like are fantastic for finding obituaries and articles about relatives (once upon a time, local newspapers focused less on global news, and much more on the goings on in town). While a little on the pricey side ($8-$20/mo.), for those wanting to really get to know their ancestors, it is a highly useful resource. is perfect for those who have a lot of military men and women in their ancestry - they offer numerous records and tons of information it would be difficult to find elsewhere.

And these are just a few options. Those willing to spend a little money have countless options, so, again, it's important to ask yourself what you most want access to, and how much you are willing to spend. I highly recommend checking out this Family Tree Magazine article, as well as Cyndi's List for more options and information.

Also keep in mind that you may decide you want to order physical copies of birth, death, and marriage certificates, which will also cost you. So, you may ultimately want to forgo any subscription, and instead set aside money for ordering certificates you want to own instead.

I had never seen a photo of my 2xgreat-grandmother, until I typed her name into the free FamilySearch engine!
I had never seen a photo of my 2xgreat-grandmother, until I typed her name into the free FamilySearch engine! | Source

It Is Possible to Research on a Budget

It can be overwhelming to begin your genealogical research, knowing you do not have a ton of money to spend. Countless sites and resources are designed to get your hopes up, only to inform you - after you've signed up and begun entering information - that you must commit to a monthly or yearly subscription. Don't let them discourage you, and don't feel you have to pay each and every site for the information you desire! As shown here, and in the articles I've linked to, researching on a budget is entirely possible, and can yield just as many results as paid subscriptions would. Happy searching!

© 2016 Robyn J Williams


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