Two things I readily admit to: I started out a totally clueless n00b and I've spent a butt-load of money fixing the n00b mistakes I made.
I had no idea what cycling a tank meant or how to do it. I had no idea what ammonia, nitrites and nitrates were or what threat they posed to my newly acquired fish friends. I thought fish could be put into conditioned water and off they went as long as I kept the tank clean. I was making things much harder on myself and potentially harder on my poor fish.
I started off with a 1.5 gallon tank from Wal-Mart. It's how Jabu-Jabu began his life with me after he came home from the pet store. It was a perfectly fine tank in my opinion and obviously in Jabu-Jabu's as well. He got busy with the bubble nests within 24 hours and never let up. After a week, I decided to add a little java fern plant in and he loved it, along with his little cave.
The problem came with how often cleaning had to be done, which was pretty much daily. It got cumbersome and eventually I decided finding a bigger tank was a priority.
At our local pawn shop, I found my first 10 gallon tank with a wooden stand for $40. It came with a filter, nets, etc. It was clearly formerly used by someone to try and house goldfish since it came with goldfish flakes. It was a bit messy but it cleaned up with hot water easily. I set it up and plopped Jabu-Jabu in. This was my first big mistake as I had not cycled my tank. After a few google searches and reading a paper that petsmart made available, I decided to try a product that many people had said worked: Seachem Stability.
Stability was touted as being able to cycle a tank in 7 days. I can say two months later... it worked REALLY well. All of my tanks cycled in 7 days with Stability with fish in them. It's been great and I really recommend it, as well as it's competitor's brand: Tetra SafeStart. Both have worked wonders at 'cycling' my tanks and making it so my fish live safe, healthy lives with a bio-filter established in their tanks. It's worked with both 5 and 10 gallon tanks... but more about them in a bit!
I also HIGHLY recommend Seachem Prime. It's been great as both a water conditioner and emergency fixer-upper. It neutralized ammonia and has over all been fantastic. Seachem is definitely my brand of choice.
If you do go the same route I did instead of cycling with an alternative before hand method, you would do yourself many favors to get a good liquid water testing kit. They're far more reliable and easy to read than test strips. If you can't afford the whole shabang at first, you should definitely at least get yourself ammonia, nitrite and nitrate testing kits. You'll also want a good, quality siphon. The one I got from my local pet shop starts with a few gentle shakes and then pumps the water itself; no sucking on the tube! I also highly recommend a container that you can separate a fish in. The Dip 'N Pour has been GREAT for this and many other uses, including acclimating new fish.
This is when I seriously started planting my tanks with live plants. Jabu-Jabu was initially in his 10 gallon with several zebra danios and 3 ghost shrimp. The ghost shrimp have since become snacks and the zebras were returned as I decided I wanted bettas only. Then came Ruto, my first female and second fish. I started by dividing the one 10 gallon in half with a divider I found at petsmart. They work great and were only minorly difficult to set up. They require a bit of cutting plastic but otherwise were easy to install and serve their purpose. Then came Ralis... another divider tossed in and I had 3 fish.
I started reading about how people had 'sororities': tanks with female bettas that lived in a colony of sorts. I decided I wanted to try this. On craigslist, I found someone local who pretty much gave me a 5 and a 10 gallon tank for free, almost entirely set up. With some stability, I had another 10 gallon set up and then came Lulu, Rutela and Laruto.
My glorious girl tank was complete and my fishies were swimming happily. It has my favorite decoration I've found so far... a rock cave that my girls adore with tons of room inside. If you get one, make sure you submerge it entirely and on it's side before you set it in there permanently. It has a lot of room at the top of it inside that is hollow and will keep it floating if you don't fill it up with water.
Suddenly I had a open spot in my 10 gallon with Jabu-Jabu and Ralis. I'd been trolling Aquabid and trying to get a halfmoon from Thailand. I finally gnabbed Mikau from Blimp33 and soon he came and took up the third spot.
My 5 gallon was empty and I wanted to keep it that way... but then Japas came along and now I've got all three tanks set up and full of fishies. Jabu-Jabu gets the 5 gallon to himself because... well... he's special. <3 It's definitely my favorite 'aquascape' I've done so far and I do believe Jabu-Jabu agrees.
Decorating my tanks has been amazing fun and I probably have messed with them far more than I should. If you're like me, you'll find once your tanks become low maintenance you'll almost wish they weren't.