This is a community Q&A that came out of the Genealogy.SE Weekly Chat from 30 November 2013

Canadian Girl Scout has previously noted how quickly the expenses can add up when you are serious about your genealogical research. There are online site subscriptions, software, fees to get copies of records, even travel expenses.

What are some good strategies to keep your costs down?

4 Answers 4


The following are some suggestions built up from various members’ suggestions, mainly during the chat event.

Using free online sources

  • FamilySearch is probably the best-known and most comprehensive free site for genealogical information. Of course, images are not usually available unless you are at a Family History Centre, but you can get a long way with this site.
  • FamilySearch isn’t the only free site with relevant records. For example, FreeBMD contains an independent transcription of UK BMD records
  • Google Books includes a number of 19th-century monographs transcribing English parish records. For some counties, these are actually the most comprehensive source available online. You can also find family histories and other relevant documents on Google Books.
  • Parish records and other historical documents are also often available online at National and county archives. These can include useful things like bastardy orders, wills, property transactions and other record types that go back further than parish records often do.
  • Internet Archive has many documents as well as NARAs U.S. census images. Documents may be searchable. Censuses are unindexed but if you have the ED and sheet number (say from FamilySearch), you can view and download the image.

Using for-pay online sources effectively

  • Most of the subscriber sites like Ancestry.com have free trial memberships, and Ancestry’s iPad app is free: you can’t view images of records, but it does provide a lot of access to the site.
  • Similarly, some sites such as British Origins have special events, for example during holiday weekends, when access to the site is free.
  • Another good strategy is to “rotate” your membership of the for-pay sites so that you are only paying for one at a time.
  • Collect topics you want to look-up and complete them systematically during limited membership periods.

Education, Information, Finding Aids

  • Follow blogs or social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, Google+) to find out about changes to databases, promotional deals, new sites
  • Use finding aids to find sites (both free and pay) that hold more information: Google, Cyndi's List, Linkpendium, even Wikipedia (in the external links section of pages). Mocavo is both a search engine and a growing repository of records.
  • Webinars, podcasts, etc. can show you tips to make the most of resource pages.

Using lower-cost software

  • There are often lower-cost alternatives to flagship products. For example, instead of Microsoft Office and one of the packaged genealogy applications, consider OpenOffice/LibreOffice and GRAMPS.

Tailoring your approach to your research

Sometimes, it ain’t what you use, it’s the way that you use it.

  • It isn’t necessary to obtain copies of original marriage certificates, etc, if images are available online or you are confident that the online indices contain all that you need. Often, there are alternative sources of the same information -- parish registers can stand in for marriage certificates, obituaries can overlap with death certificates and may provide the missing piece of a puzzle.

  • Patience is a virtue - How badly do you need a particular document to prove a line or supplement an index entry? At the pace of digitization, if it's not on-line today, it may be "soon."

Pool your effort with cousins or other connections

  • If two or more of you are researching the same line or in the same geography, pool your efforts (as long as they're people you can work with comfortably and whose results you trust). They may be visiting an archive where you need a look-up, or have access to a subscription that you don't. They need to be careful to stay within the terms and conditions of that subscription, e.g. no lookups for anyone else, but if they are researching the same line, they'll be doing the lookup for their own benefit anyway.
  • 1
    "Similarly, some sites such as British Origins have special events, for example during holiday weekends, when access to the site is free." This is also true for the big-gun for pay sites. For the anniversary of the War of 1812, Fold3 provided free access to pension records for quite a long time. Ancestry regularly has free access to various military collections around Memorial Day (in the US). Subscribe to their newsletter to keep you abreast of these offers. You must still register, but it won't cost you anything. Dec 18, 2013 at 6:39
  • Never underestimate your local US public library or state library. You may be able to access for-pay sites through them for free, some right from home. Examples include "Ancestry.com", "Fold3", "Newspaper Archives" and "HeritageQuest". HQ has most of the population schedule censuses with some very helpful search options; they also have some limited pension records and of course, it used to be the place to go for the most up-to-date version of PERSI, the "Periodical Source Index". FamilySearch Wiki Article: PERSI. HQ has many historic genealogy and history books that are freely downloadable, similar to InternetArchives.

  • Ancestry has some state-specific collections in collaboration with various state agencies. I know of associations with Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, but there may be more. As a resident of your state, you can access your state's records for free. For New York, the records include non-population census records, state census records, some military indexes, some poor house records, and more. The access portal is through the NYS Archives website. Ancestry.com New York The sad thing about this program is that your IP address is recognized by the portals. Non-residents cannot get through; believe me, I've tried. I assume that Ancestry members may be able to access all the state-specific collections as part of their membership.

Since this answer was written, Ancestry.com is now supplying the census search results and many other features of Heritage Quest. The most up-to-date results from PERSI are now on Find My Past. See PERSI Finds New Home at findmypast.


Using free offline sources

  • WorldCat allows you to search libraries near you for published family histories and other genealogical materials
  • Be sure to input your zip code. The results will be more closely tailored to your geographical location. Dec 19, 2013 at 4:27

Visiting archives when you are already close-by

I always try to visit libraries and archives when I’m near them for other reasons (family, job-related, vacation). This reduces costs and also results in a smaller ecological footprint.

Paying for information from archives instead of gathering them yourself

Sometimes it might be cheaper to pay the archive or a professional researcher to do some research for you instead of getting there yourself, staying somewhere and having other expenses that are not research related. This also saves you time, especially if you are not familiar with certain records. Remember to set a limit for research done by others!

Avoiding the technology trap

It doesn't require the latest computer or other advanced hardware to do genealogical research. Reuse older hardware that you already own (like scanners). The manufacturer doesn't provide scanner drivers for your current operation system anymore? Look for third-party scanning software that comes along with support for hundreds of older scanners. Don’t buy specialized printing gear if you only need it occasionally. Use a print shop nearby.

Encouraging people not to hide their research findings behind paywalls

Upload your GEDCOM files and other content to freely accessible projects instead hiding it behind paywalls. Not everyone wants to become a member of your favorite website just to get in touch with you.

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