The Zero Dollar Genealogist - How to Avoid Spending Money on Family History Research

The Zero Dollar Genealogist: How to Avoid Spending Money on Family History Research

Thanks to the wide availability of online records and easy-to-use family tree programs, genealogy has become an incredibly popular hobby. It’s also one of the most rewarding. But many people feel frustrated by the costs. Depending on the types of records you are accessing, and programs you are using, fees can add up quickly.

If you’ve been reading Family History Daily for some time you know we love free records and programs so, to help you save costs, we have gone over the top four expenditures most family historians encounter and provided free alternatives you can start using instead.

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Of course we do also love and use many paid resources – like MyHeritage and Ancestry – but, the truth is, paid services are simply not a necessity in many cases. Yes, they are convenient – and if you can afford them they can be a big help – but many genealogists get by without spending a cent. Read on to find out what you can get at no cost and when it is worth spending some cash.

Top 4 Costs Family Historians Face and How to Avoid Them

1. Access to Genealogy Records

By far, the largest costs most family historians find themselves faced with is access to records – and this mostly comes in the form of record subscriptions. While there is no doubt that having a genealogy membership to a place like Ancestry is convenient, many of the records found on subscription sites can be found elsewhere for free.

FamilySearch, for instance, is the largest provider of free records in the world and offers billions of scanned pages online at no cost, including popular collections like the U.S. census and many birth, marriage and death records. Only a free account is required.

But FamilySearch is only the tip of the iceberg. Countless government, public and private archives have made their records available online at no cost. Whether you’re looking for vital records, old newspapers or pedigree books, city directories, state census records, wills or any number of other resources there’s a good chance you can find what you need for free.

If you find a record you need on a paid site, always copy down the name of the collection and search for it in Google. You may find that it is free on another site.

Ancestry also offers many records at no cost. Read about how to access Ancestry’s free records here.

We have compiled a large number of lists of free record collections by topic and you can find them in this section of our site. Here are a few articles about accessing these records to get you started.

Of course, there are times when the record you need is held behind a paywall and is not available elsewhere online for free. If this happens you should know that, many times, these records are available without cost from the archive where they were originally scanned from.

Unfortunately though, unless you live near the collection, travel is much more expensive than a record subscription will ever be. And, even if you do live nearby, there are sometimes costs for printing or scanning. A better bet is to find a way to access the archive online, and there are a couple of ways that you can do this without having to pay for a subscription.

The first is through your local library. More and more are offering access to genealogy subscriptions to their members and some of these records can even be used from home. Commonly, Ancestry is available on site at your library, whereas HeritageQuest may be available on site or from home. Call your library to discover what is available or look for this information on your library’s website.

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If you cannot gain access to the record you need for free, or via your library, the next best bet is to use a free trial of the site you are interested in. All of the major paid sites offer 14 days free and you can gain access to those free trials in our comparison guide of top genealogy sites here.

To make this tactic work, you will need to get organized. Make a list of every collection you want to access during that period and everyone you plan to search before you begin your trial period. The guide referenced above includes links to the catalogs for these popular sites so you know just what they offer before you sign up. Making sure you know just how you will use the service will ensure that you make the most of your free time.

If you decide to go this route don’t forget to cancel your trial before it runs out so that you are not automatically charged for a month, or even year of service, if you decide not to continue.

Finally, if a free trial is not available you may find that you have to spend some money. Use the same organization tactics above to laser focus your research so that you don’t have to pay for more than you need to.

What about offline records?

Sometimes, there will be records that are only available offline. Although a good deal of documents have now been digitized, many more are not yet available online. In a case like this, some cost is almost always inevitable.

For instance, as this helpful article explains, some states will send out copies of vital records via mail that have not been digitized, but they always charge a small fee. There is little chance of avoiding this unless you can travel to the archive yourself or find someone to go there for you. But costs for doing so are often higher than the fee the archive charges anyway.

Again, getting organized can save you money here. Make a list of offline documents you need and then try to place requests for lookups and orders at one time to save on shipping and research fees.

2. Family Tree Programs

The next largest cost many genealogists face is with their family tree program. Luckily, this is a cost that is easily overcome.

Not so many years ago, if you wanted a family tree program on your computer to store your information in you needed to buy one and pay each time the software was updated unless you used one of the free options available – such as the now retired PAF from FamilySearch.

Today, there are numerous free options and if you are still paying for family tree software you may want to step back and take a look at what else is available. Some people really love paid programs like RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree, and they have proven their worth over the years but, if you don’t have a paid program you love, we suggest trying one of the free options available instead.

Here are some top free choices for family trees:

As noted in our guide to family tree programs, sites like Ancestry and MyHeritage offer free family trees that are easy to use and are full of features, but they also want you to sign up with their services so, if you go this route, expect to be tempted with offers. If you are looking for a completely free option not associated with a large subscription site we highly recommended RootsFinder.

3. Record and Photo Scanners

The likelihood is, if you’ve taken on the task of compiling your family’s history, you’ll eventually find yourself in need of a scanner. Whether you need to make a trip to an archive or have the chance to scan a relative’s old family photos you’ll need something you can use anywhere and that will preserve your records clearly.

Wand and other portable scanners were the standard for many years, and still work well if you have one on hand, but they are costly. Today, it is much easier and more cost effective to use an app on your smartphone or tablet. Many of these are free, go anywhere your mobile device goes and do a great job.

Read this recent review from one of our writers to the best free photo scanning apps.

4. DNA Testing and Reports

A final major cost that many family historians have is DNA testing. Most of us are eager to discover what our genes can tell us about our family’s genetic past but DNA tests are not free. In fact, there is currently no way to get a free DNA test for ancestry.

However, the prices of these test have gone down considerably over the last couple of years – with some dropping to as low as $39 on sale and daily, standard pricing at around $79-$99. This makes testing attainable for more people than ever and the great news is, once you have tested, there are a wide variety of free options to further expand your research. While gaining reports and cousin matches from multiple sources is highly recommended, many services are offered at no cost.

Here’s are just a few places you can upload your DNA for free once you’ve tested:

Also read our article about saving money on testing. It answers some common questions and provides more details about what is offered.

We always suggest you read, in full, all privacy documents before choosing to upload your file anywhere and always stick with trusted sites. The ones listed above are all well-known places to share your data but some level of risk exists no matter the service you use and policies can change. Always be informed. Avoid sites without a solid reputation and clear, published privacy policies you agree with.

If you haven’t yet bought a DNA test and need help, a guide to trusted providers can be found here.

We hope this guide helps you explore your options for saving money on genealogy research. Family History Daily has many additional articles on this topic throughout our site so take some time to look around if you are in need of more help and sign up for our weekly newsletter or tips series for regular tips and tricks.

By Melanie Mayo-Laakso, Family History Daily Editor

Image: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Removing money from order envelopes at the W. Atlee Burpee Company, seed dealers. 1943. Library of Congress

4 thoughts on “The Zero Dollar Genealogist: How to Avoid Spending Money on Family History Research”

  1. Kathleen E Lo PINTO VIGNOLINI

    Another “LESS” cost Computer program, for Mac users is iFamilyfor Mac. It is Less than $25 & a simple framework & easier to use than the fancy programs, with all the bells & whistles. If you want to print out your ancestor lists, etc., with iFamilyforMac, you do have to send it to Pages – but then you can edit those lists at your leisure. [-I take out the male female & other data.]

  2. Thank you for including Rootsfinder as one of your recommendations for free tree sites. I appreciate the tips for ways to keep costs down as well. Following these will also make me more organized in my research.

    1. Kathleen Lo PINTO VIGNOLINI

      Antenati is a great site! Though antenati doesn’t have Every citiy in Italy, nor all years. But the finds made there are Amazing – You get to see the Actual Report ‘n Documents! I’ve been able to go back 3 generations on both my nonno e nonna lines with the info I’ve found on antenati documenti.

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