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Why Genealogy Is Not A Free Hobby, Part 2 – How to do it on a budget

In my previous post I outlined why genealogy is not a free hobby. A lot of you probably read that and thought ‘Okay, great…but I really can’t afford to pay for all the subscription websites and every certificate I need…so what can I do?”

Well, this post will hopefully help you out and give you some tips for how to conduct your genealogical research on a budget without compromising on your thoroughness!

Tip #1 – Subscription websites

Websites like Ancestry and FindMyPast are very expensive to subscribe to for any length of time. However, fortunately there are ways to get some use out of them without needing to take out a subscription.

Firstly, check your local library or family history centre. Most family history centres have subscriptions to these sites available for use, but you may need to be a member of the family history society to use it so check that first. You may find that a membership to your local family history society works out cheaper than paying for all the subscription sites yourself! During the COVID-19 pandemic, some family history societies have given their members access to Ancestry etc from home, rather than having to visit a centre. Many local libraries have subscriptions to Ancestry or FindMyPast which are freely available to the public. This is a great way to view and download records without needing your own subscription. Just a note that you cannot make or use a family tree on these sites through a library subscription.

If you don’t have a library or family history centre local to you, then you need to find a way to access subscription websites in your own home. Ancestry and FindMyPast often have free weekends, or a cheap subscription deal getting a month very cheaply. Follow the websites on social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) or follow their blogs to find out about these opportunities.

You can also take out a free trial of these websites, if you’ve never used them before. This is often a really helpful way to decide if a subscription would be worth it for your research or not. You can also make the most of a free trial by doing as much research as possible during 14 days (or however long the trial is) and then cancelling your subscription before you need to start paying. Some sites, like Ancestry, allow you to cancel your subscription immediately but you retain access until your trial is over, which avoids any accidental billing.

If you’ve done free trials and free weekends and feel you really need your own subscription to a site, consider asking your family if they would gift you a subscription for a birthday or Christmas present. If it’s too much for one family member to pay, several people could chip in together. This is also a great way to involve the rest of your family in your research who may otherwise not be so interested.

Tip #2 – Offline trees

A lot of genealogists start out by putting their family tree on Ancestry, or another subscription site, and then feel they can’t unsubscribe because they will lose their tree. Save yourself this dilemma and get an offline place to store your tree early on.

There are lots of different family tree software available, so which one you should choose really depends on your own personal preferences. There are many available for free, and even more that require an initial purchase. So do a bit of research into different software, read some reviews, decide what features are must-haves for you, and try a few out until you find one you really like.

By keeping your tree offline, you can look at it and add information any time. This also makes it easier to conduct your research away from home, or to drill down on intensive research during an Ancestry free weekend, then enter the information in your tree later on.

Tip #3 – Pool your resources

Find out if there are other members of your family who are interested in genealogy. If you’re researching the same branches of the family, see if they would consider sharing the costs. You could split the cost of certificates, or alternate who purchases them. Sharing information with other researchers also helps ensure research isn’t unnecessarily duplicated by multiple people. This saves everyone’s time and money! If you have already purchased an ancestor’s marriage certificate, then your cousin won’t have to, and vice versa. Most researchers are happy to share their information and research, but if someone chooses not to share these things with you then you have to respect that. As a side note, you should always check someone else’s research to make sure you’re happy that it’s accurate. Once you know and trust a fellow researcher this becomes less important, but if they are still learning or this is the first time they’ve shared information with you, it should always be double checked before assumed as fact.

Tip #4 – Have a genealogy piggy bank

If you’re saving up for anything, it’s often helpful to have a special place you put your savings. So, if you need to save up for genealogy expenses, make a special genealogy fund. Whether it’s a physical place you put cash, like a piggy bank, or a digital tally you keep of your genealogy money. Even putting aside a small amount of money a week/fortnight or month can help you very quickly have enough for a new certificate or a month’s worth of a website subscription. This makes the bigger costs seem considerably smaller.

Tip #5 – Use free websites and indexes as a starting point

There are plenty of free indexes to records available online. For British records, there sites like FamilySearch (also has records for many other countries including the United States), FreeREG, FreeCEN, and others. FamilySearch has some original records, but it really depends on the geographical area and time period of your research.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with using these free indexes as a starting point for your research. Just ensure you keep a note of where you found an indexed record and seek out the original document when you can.

Tip #6 – Be organised

Your research will be a lot more efficient, and cost-effective, if your approach is organised.

Keep a genealogy logbook where you can briefly record the research you’ve done, what certificates you’ve already bought, what lines of inquiry you want to follow up, etc. Keep your tree in order and up to date in between intensive bouts of research and file all the paperwork and records in a way that makes it easy for you to locate information the next time you’re researching. I have a ring binder for each branch of my tree, labelled with the family surnames it contains, and then all the associated paperwork organised within it. I make printouts from my family tree software for each couple and their children which I place in the folder in chronological/generational order, followed by their records etc. If hard copies aren’t your thing, organise your digital copies in a similar way that works for you. Make sure you keep a record of where you obtained each record or piece of information.

By filing all the paperwork appropriately, keeping your tree up to date, and having a list of avenues for further research, you’ll be much better positioned to make the most of your research time. This is especially the case if you’re utilising free weekends on major websites, or visiting a library or archives. 

So there we go! Hopefully these tips got you thinking about how you do your research and how you might be able to still conduct thorough and accurate research without it breaking your budget.

Genealogy is not a free hobby, but it doesn’t have to cost the earth either!


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