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I Spent $1000+ on a $7 Fish

And I don't regret it at all.

By Nancy GwillymPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 8 min read
Top Story - August 2022
Meet Outlaw

The dollar store near our home always had an eclectic selection of amazing things I didn't know I needed. I'd stopped in for a few household items but, of course, by the time I made it to the checkout counter, my basket was overflowing with an assortment of hair products, glassware, unusual candies, and decorations for a future birthday celebration.

Most stores keep last-minute items near the check-out counter for impulse purchases. My dollar store was no exception, with an always evolving, diverse countertop inventory. Now, thanks to COVID, all of those boxes and displays were piled up in an unstable Jenga assemblage due to a new plastic screen they'd set up to separate the cashier from the coughing masses.

To my horror, lost in the clutter of the narrowed space holding mini flashlights and lip balms, was a live animal. A beautiful blue fish trapped in a urine specimen container stared bleakly out at the long line of customers waiting to pay for items that may or may not have cost less than a dollar.

The woman in front of me needed her items placed in a large plastic shopping bag. As she pulled the bag from the high counter, it made contact with a few of the jumbled displays haphazardly arranged on the pandemic-proofed ledge. A stronger pull would have toppled many of the items, including the betta swimming in a bare minimum amount of disgusting, yellow water.

For a moment, I lost my outer consciousness and became a different person. I could see it happening but was powerless to control it. I may never disparage a "Karen", internally or not, ever again.

Yes, I asked to speak to the manager. I cringe even now, writing this.

As someone involved with animal rescue of the normally furry or feathered kind, I knew that the store needed a license to sell live animals and I doubted they had one for this lone fish. (I live in NYC where such licenses are law but generally not enforced.)

With that in the back of my mind, I appealed to the person pretending to be the manager that day. I begged her to not acquire any more living creatures if I took this one off their overly cluttered counter. She rolled her eyes at me with a lie that said "for now, we won't." I paid the $7 stamped on the minuscule container and left with a handful of items and a watery cup that would change my life.

Now I had a fish I didn't know what to do with. I figured I could probably find an adopter.

when you know you're gorgeous

If there's one thing I knew about bettas, that applies to any animal really, is that they need room. There is prevalent misinformation about bettas that claim they can live in tiny fishbowls with little care and upkeep. It goes against every internal marker of common sense that an animal would be OK with being unable to roam or even move normally. I needed to liberate the little guy from that disgusting urine container as soon as possible.

5 gallon is the absolute minimum these guys should be in (please hear the Karen tone in my voice as you read this

I went to a traditional pet store and bought a 2.5-gallon tank kit that was supposed to have everything I needed (including a filter and heater). After all, this was supposed to be temporary until I found an adopter who would add this fascinating animal to an established tank they probably already had.

I also bought some fish food, a few plastic plants, and a thing for him to hide in. The woman at the store told me my kit didn't contain a water conditioner and I needed one. It was an additional $9 to an already $100 bill.

It was a therapeutic endeavor to set up the tank for my new little friend. As I dumped him into the larger environment, he expressed a gratefulness that I didn't think a fish could convey. It feels good to rescue a suffering animal. It really does. I highly recommend it.

I had no idea how much personality a fish could have. I was pleasantly surprised by how happy the vibrant blue fish was to see me. He would rush to the front of the glass whenever I came near.

Even after giving him a few pellets of the dried-up bugs that made up his diet (betta food: $6) he was still interested in me. Watching him swim around with those incredible flowing fins was an enjoyable use of my time and I spent more and more of it bonding with him.

I became attached to the blue/purple fish and abandoned the search for an adopter. My long-suffering husband gave me a blank stare as I cleared off space on our desk for an even larger tank ($95) and bought more decor and gravel for Outlaw ($50). The larger tank also required a better filter ($30) and a higher wattage heater ($45). I also needed a water testing kit ($27) and a thermometer ($10).

tank #2 set up

I joined a few betta groups online and discovered that my plastic decor was potentially harmful to the lovely fins on my boy. Live plants were recommended. As someone with limited capabilities in keeping regular plants green and healthy, could I find success with plants that didn't need to be watered? Only one way to find out.

Three hundred dollars later, I think I've finally found the correct mix of plants that Outlaw enjoys swimming through and that don't need frequent replacing. I made some mistakes, like placing them all in the substrate even though many need their roots exposed. But I consider myself a plant person now, someone who may or may not parlay that skill to regular houseplants again at some point.

coconut hide, $6 on Etsy

Outlaw is in yet another, bigger tank ($125). I needed more room for my successful plants to expand and grow.

I also became interested in aquascaping, a hobby that involves creating elaborate underwater landscapes. My original concept didn't come to fruition but it was a rewarding undertaking that I may attempt again in the future. Outlaw may not be surrounded by award-worthy topography, but he's got a world that's interesting for him and gives him places to tunnel through and explore. ($200 for rocks, sand, glue, tools, and 3D printed tunnel items found on Etsy)

With a bigger tank, I could add tankmates for Outlaw. I may have been anthropomorphizing, but I felt my guy was a little lonely in his failed Land of the Lost-themed environment. In the wild, bettas come in contact with other animals. As a responsible caretaker, I wanted to recreate the natural world as much as I could.

You can't keep bettas together (unless you get a sorority with a minimum of five females and only under experienced and detailed requirements). But there are other species of fish your betta can cohabitate with peacefully if they're not too aggressive. They're called 'fighting fish' but Outlaw was more of a lover in my biased opinion.

I became enthralled with otocinclus catfish ($12 at 3 for $6), a tiny species that like to cling to the glass walls with their suckermouths. These fish are a little more difficult to keep but I'm happy to say my little tribe is thriving and healthy.

otocinclus catfish

Outlaw lives peacefully with his tankmates. Sometimes he appears to chase them but it seems like he's just trying to join their schooling activities. He's never nippy or antagonistic.

I don't regret adding fish to our menagerie. Cleaning my tank (gravel vac, turkey baster, scraper: $75) is something I actually look forward to. Moving and adding decor brings back memories of playing for hours with the dollhouse of my youth. Changing and testing the water makes me feel like a scientist (test tube holder for water parameter kit, $15). The whole process holds a restorative place in my routines and activities.

I enjoy watching my little fish and interacting with Outlaw, who has as big a personality as any of my cats. I can feel my blood pressure drop as I watch him glide around his rocks and plants. The little otos like to play near the filter water flow and it's calming to see them dancing amongst themselves.

Outlaw hanging with the otos (they're near the bottom)

The cats, by the way, also have benefited from my new hobby. The tank is like a television for them, something to watch when they scare away the wildlife near our windows. Outlaw seems to enjoy their company as well. At least, until a paw decides to try and pet him. (A replacement cat-proof cover for the tank: $24).

It's a relaxing endeavor for all of us

Looking back at that $7 purchase, I had no idea how expensive my new obsession would be. I haven't included other expenses, like the electric costs for running the filter and heater. I also bought new lights that run on a timer and a background to cover up the fishkeeping clutter behind the tank.

Some things are, of course, splurges or things I thought were cute that Outlaw is ambivalent about. But there are minimum upkeep costs that need to be taken into consideration when acquiring a 'cheap' fish. For me, it's ok, I'll find other areas in my budget to cut back on or eliminate. I can keep my old car another year longer and cut down on my snacks. (Or maybe just keep the old car longer.)

It's all worth it. I feel good knowing the little guy didn't die languishing in that awful cup. He and his cute little otos have added an immeasurable level of peace and joy to my life that can't be quantified in dollars and cents.

I'm already eyeing a bigger tank.



About the Creator

Nancy Gwillym

I'm a soon-to-be retired paramedic in NYC. I'm also a crazy cat/bird/etc lady who writes stories. Thank you for reading!

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  1. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

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Comments (19)

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  • T M Coppoloabout a year ago

    Beautiful story. Gives me faith - lowered my anxiety too :) x

  • Cassandra Colley-Couseabout a year ago

    I love this! I had a Beta that looked exactly like Outlaw! His name was Napoleon.

  • Libbyabout a year ago

    I loved this! Cudos for rescuing him when you did and doing your research! I'm officially requesting more Outlaw updates 😊

  • Moe Turnerabout a year ago

    This is a beautiful fish.

  • Boni Solliabout a year ago

    This is a beautiful fish.

  • Noethiger Guerreroabout a year ago

    This is a beautiful fish.

  • Mariann Carrollabout a year ago

    That’s one lucky Beta , who now live in a fish mansion 😍

  • Wanda Joan Hardingabout a year ago

    This fellow (dog) rescuer enjoyed reading your story.

  • Kathy Jonesabout a year ago

    Very peaceful read!

  • Bre Andi2 years ago

    Great feel good story and beautiful pictures!

  • Toby Heward2 years ago

    Had fish growing up too so I can relate. They are a handful but you do get a sense of satisfaction from keeping something alive for so long. Here's another little fish story you mind find enjoyable.

  • Shadele Grier2 years ago

    As a betta splendens enthusiast who has been keeping them for years, well done! Outlaw is precious and I'm glad you saved him. You have a kind heart.

  • Anne Emerick2 years ago

    I love it. Did you ever hear that song, "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly." Only your version would be, "There was a kind lady who rescued a fish." I'm glad you and the cats are enjoying your new housemate. Sounds like a beautiful setup!

  • Angela Shiflett2 years ago

    Such an awesome story! I loved the addition of all the pictures! Please, do write more about Outlaw! Bless you for saving a life and giving that little guy a beautiful home!

  • Hilary Brown2 years ago

    This reminds me of, “If you give a Mouse a Cookie”. I love how your find/rescue really brought about a re-discovery in yourself. A very enjoyable and relatable read.

  • Carol Townend2 years ago

    Such a heartwarming true story. I would have done the same if I had been in your shoes, and I wish your little fish a lifetime of good health.

  • Ally North2 years ago

    Thank you thank you for this piece (and for saving Outlaw!) I can’t walk into pet stores without my blood boiling—all those stacks of tiny Tupperware with bettas floating inside. Hoping one day this awful practice is outlawed (heh). Really wonderful and inspiring piece :)

  • This comment has been deleted

  • Love this! Thank you for your service (paramedic) and thank you for sharing outlaw with us! Well written!

  • Rachael Curry2 years ago

    Love it. Beautifully written and engaging me right to the end. Long live Outlaw!

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