In these days of purse-string-tightening, we all like to find things we want or need that are free. But as most people will realise, if you want have something of good quality you will usually have to pay something. That old adage, “you get what you pay for” tends to be true much of the time. This is no different when you are tracing family history. Yes, there are free ancestry sites, free trials and free searches, but if you really want to produce an accurate, interesting and detailed family tree, then you will need to commit yourself to spending some money. In my opinion, it’s not really possible to trace family history for free – but if you are careful, you can keep your spending to a manageable minimum.
Here is my guide to tracing family history on a budget:
- Set Yourself a Monthly Spending Limit. Genealogy is – or can be – a lifelong hobby, and your spending will no doubt fluctuate in line with your available income. When money is short, it’s important that you give yourself a monthly spending limit and try not to go beyond that. For example, you might allow yourself to buy one birth/marriage/death certificate per month on top of a monthly subscription to a genealogy site. This is not such a bad thing – it will make you prioritise which documents you really need, and which will give you the best information.
- Subscribe To At Least One Genealogy Site. Most of the big genealogical sites have monthly subscription rates that are not too expensive, and once you are a subscriber you will have the freedom to search that site and view any online documents they may have. Some sites also have free trials so you can try the service out before committing yourself. Ancestry offer 2 weeks for free here: Ancestry.co.uk, Ancestry.com (USA). Other good subscription websites that I would recommend are Find My Past, Origins.net, Genes Reunited (useful for finding living relatives & you can register for free). These are the ones I use mostly – but there are others which you can easily find by searching Google. If you really find the monthly fees more than you can afford, you could ask another interested member of your family if they would share the cost with you.
- Use the International Genealogical Index – it’s Free! You can find this at FamilySearch.org. The IGI (and its new pilot site) is one website where you can search baptism & marriage records and view results completely free, and it is an extremely useful resource. However, it should always and only be used in the knowledge that it is not a complete, nor always an accurate database. Any information you find here must always be backed up by viewing the original records – usually at county record offices – or sometimes at online subscription sites. If you live nearby the CRO you need, then you are lucky – but very often this will involve hiring someone to look at the records for you. Again, you can budget for this. Keep a list of the IGI records you want to confirm, and follow them up when you can afford it.
- Search for any published online Parish Registers. More and more parish records are getting published online, and it is worth doing a search to see if the parish you need has been indexed or published – not just on the subscription sites but sometimes on individual parish sites which are sometimes free. The Online Parish Clerk project is a great scheme run by volunteers, and aims to get parish records online. For example, I have used the Lancashire OPC site quite often and found it very useful.
- Take Advantage of Free Searches – but always be aware that you will need to pay if you find what you’re looking for! Very rarely will a search result give you the information you need, and if the name you are looking for is quite common, you will usually not be able to tell if it is your ancestor without paying either a subscription or a temporary credit or pass. This can be extremely frustrating! Always make sure that the information you are seeking is not already available on the site you already pay a subscription for, otherwise you could end up paying twice for the same information.
- Search Documents Online for Wills. You can search for PCC and other documents at the Documents Online section of the National Archives. If you are nearing the end of your monthly budget, you won’t have to spend too much if you find a will here. At present it costs £3.50 to download a will. You can also search for other wills at Ancestry and other places – and they are usually not expensive to order. See my blog post on searching for wills here.
- Talk to Your Genealogist! You may think that you cannot afford the services of a genealogist, or that your current one charges too much. As a professional genealogist myself, I know that the hourly rates can sometimes look prohibitive – but we have to earn a living! But we are generally a very friendly and understanding bunch, and if you are on a tight budget, then I think most of us would be happy to keep to a low spending limit, or spread the searches over a longer period of time. Sometimes it’s necessary to carry out several hours of work in one go – but I know that I would be happy to arrange payment in instalments from a trusted client, and I have offered this in the past. So, don’t be afraid to ask about different payment options – we don’t bite!
- What If You’ve Used Up Your Budget? When you’re out of genealogy funds for the month – then spend some time organising your files, writing up reports and setting out a plan of action for the following month. By doing this you will be less likely to overspend the next month because you will have organised your priorities and won’t waste money on chasing dead ends. Why don’t you start writing up a book or folder on your ancestry for the rest of your family to enjoy?
Tracing family history can end up being a very expensive passtime if you are not careful. But when money’s tight you really don’t have to give it up! All it takes is some careful planning, organisation and a bit of patience and you can still continue to enjoy this fascinating hobby!