14 October 2016

Budgeting for Genealogy Part 2: Planning and Budgeting

Last week I provided a number of suggestions for budget friendly genealogy. This week I want to talk about "budgeting" as in setting a budget. I like to think of this like a grocery budget. I can't speak for you, but I need to do genealogy almost as much as I need to eat. OK, that's a bit extreme, but it really is like a grocery budget. You have to eat and it's going to cost you money, one way or another. Time is money. If you want to be successful at genealogy (achieving whatever your goal is), it's going to cost you money, one way or another.

With food, you can obtain it in a variety of ways, grow it yourself (very time-consuming but "cheap" in comparison to other options), buy groceries and cook (takes hands-on time and some money), order take-out (involves waiting, less hands-on time, but more money), or dining out (involves travel and various levels of expense). Are you starting to see how this is like obtaining genealogy records? If not, let's look at your equivalent genealogical options.


There is no genealogical equivalent to growing your own food (that's called writing fiction, you start with the seeds of truth...). Genealogy takes records which you can't create (i.e. grow) yourself. But there are more time-consuming avenues of research and that's what most people do. They work with what's available and mostly spend time instead of money. Gardening is a lot of fun, but take a moment and think about your genealogy like the necessity of eating. Is your time best spent on the slowest, albeit cheapest, method? By spending a little more money, would you save so much time you could spend your time on something else (even if that's more genealogy)?

Shop and Cook

The next level might be getting a subscription or ordering microfilm or copies via Inter-library Loan (ILL). When I was getting started, the next level was just making photocopies. I'm naturally cheap, which is how I ended up a professional genealogist. I spent time instead of money. I couldn't grow records, but I grew skills. If you're an Occasional Genealogist (OG), I recommend you start at this level.


In the "take-out" spectrum are all different price points of records. You can order the records from repositories or a researcher. It might be more accurate to equate this to a meal delivery service like Blue Apron. They provide the ingredients (records) you do the prep and cooking (research, analysis, and reporting). Another way to look at it is ordering a simple record might be like buying groceries. Paying for it to be expedited is like ordering take-out (you're paying for the added convenience). Sometimes I pay for "convenience" by paying a genealogist a bit more than I would pay the repository, but I get the record faster or with additional skill applied to finding it.

Eat Out

I'll assume if you're reading this you want to do research yourself, so your idea of a "gourmet" experience isn't hiring someone to do all the research for you. Instead, it might be a major research trip. You could also "go out" for something less formal, maybe just a day trip. I'd consider doing on-site research as the preferable method but as an OG, a method you can't often indulge in. I know many genealogists like on-site research because it is similar to the ambiance of a restaurant, the location is part of the experience. For me, even if I'm not on-site in an ancestral location, getting away from the non-genealogical distractions of home is part of the experience. However, just as some people prefer their home cooking to a restaurant, you might prefer ordering any records you can from home to on-site research. And finally, there's the clear parallel to a grocery budget. Just because you prefer to do on-site research, that doesn't mean it's in your budget. You might have to stick to ordering records from home (or visiting your local library/family history center).

You get the idea, you have options and they cost different amounts of money and time. So now let's talk about budgeting as part of your research planning. Next week I'll give examples of budgeting within a plan. For now, if you don't know how to create a research plan, I'm recommending  this post from Amy Johnson Crow called "How to Build a Research Plan."

Factors Affecting YOUR Budget

Here's the problem with me saying "this is how you create a budget," your goal, your residence, your finances, and even your mobility, will all affect what is a reasonable budget. I want to give you a few real examples of the factors that affect my personal research to get you thinking about what to consider.
When I lived outside Washington, D.C., it was cheap to get anything I needed from Archives I. I just went downtown and digitally copied them myself. I didn't have kids at the time so it took some time and the cost of parking and Metro. Those records can be quite pricey for me to order now that I live in Georgia.
Although I live in the state where my ancestors came from, it might be cheaper for me to hire someone to get local records if the only way I have time is to hire a babysitter. I have to drive through downtown Atlanta to get to the Georgia Archives. It could easily be cheaper to pay a researcher rather than a babysitter (who gets paid while I'm traveling, in Atlanta travel can easily go from 1.5 hours to 4 or more with traffic; as a note, if I was still in the D.C. area, for a single Archives I record, it would be cheaper to hire a researcher than a babysitter because of the difference in the cost of a sitter in that area).
For some of my personal research, I actually have the option of avoiding Atlanta and going to the county which is only about an hour away and against traffic. Depending on how many records I need, this can be the cheapest option for me.
What's reasonable for me to budget depends on the project (where are the records I need), where I live in relation to those records, how much I can afford to spend at once, and my personal situation (in my case, needing a sitter).
Having a specific goal is going to make a huge difference in your budget, just like in your plan.

I can't give you an idea of what a reasonable budget is. I don't estimate expenses for clients until they give me specifics of their problem. To create your budget, you need to do the same thing. Here are the general types of expenses I think about for clients plus some "personal" types of expenses to consider including.
  • transportation and parking costs
  • photocopy costs
  • cost of ordering microfilm or ILL items
  • fees to use repositories (i.e. an entrance or use fee)
  • cost of ordering vital records (birth, marriage, or death from the official civil jurisdiction)
  • cost of ordering copies from other repositories
  • cost of hiring a research to obtain copies for you
If you're considering research at a location you've visited before, you usually have a decent idea what it will cost to do any type of research, there. The difference is most likely in the number of copies you will need to make so your specific project doesn't make as much a difference for your budget estimation. What's hard to estimate without specifics is ordering records. Occasionally you'll find vital records for as little as $5 or $10 but they are usually $15-$25 each, or as much as $50.
As mentioned in my previous budgeting post, libraries often cost a lot less if you need obituaries or other records in their collection. Library collections (or society collections) differ drastically from one to another as do the services they offer (if any) and the cost. You can't estimate for one library based on the cost at a different library.
The specifics are equally important if you're going to hire a researcher. Make sure you find out what expenses they will pass on to you, not just their fee. Some researchers will just charge a flat fee for a type of record, some will charge a flat fee plus expenses like parking, some will charge hourly plus expenses, and some will just charge hourly and there aren't any expenses outside those directly related to the record (i.e. cost of photocopies or similar costs).
You may also have "incidentals" that a professional wouldn't charge, like the cost of eating out (sometimes there's no place to eat if you bring your own lunch or you might only have the option of storing it in your car on a 90 degree day, not my idea of a hot meal!). Think about your situation, don't just try and "fill-in the blanks" for the costs I've mentioned.
Remember to consider what your time is worth. Sometimes a researcher is frequently at a repository and can charge a fairly low fee to get a record for you. Even if you can visit that repository yourself, it might be cheaper and faster to pay the researcher. It depends on the situation. It should be obvious that your budget depends on the specific project and your personal specifics.

Next week, part three of this series will look at ways to actually record your budget. I don't consider that post absolutely essential if you are already comfortable creating a research plan (so go get started budgeting, if that's you). Originally I thought I'd include that information in this post. However, I know many people struggle with actually creating a plan. I want to include examples and that would make this post very long. Plus, I need more time to create real examples. I sat down with one of my few created, but unexecuted plans and found all the records I currently need are available for free on FamilySearch. That wasn't the case when I created that plan in 2009. Needless-to-say, that is a bad example for budgeting, the budget is $0. I either need to execute that phase of research or find a different plan to incorporate a budget into.
I actually wanted to mention this situation to hopefully inspire you to take another look at some intended research (even if you haven't created a formal plan). I keep fairly up to date on new online records but these are some of the digitized records that appear in the Family History Library (FHL) catalog but not as a collection when you check under "Records" at FamilySearch.org. In particular, if microfilm from FHL is one of your options, whether ordering it or considering a trip to Salt Lake City, this is an easy place to start budgeting.
All microfilm costs the same per roll. You just need to determine how many rolls you will need. You might find what you need has been digitized. Film digitized and available under the "Records" tab on FamilySearch will have a link to the collection before the "Film Notes" in the catalog. Other digitized film will show the camera icon under "Format" for the individual rolls (individual rolls are listed under "Film Notes" in the catalog). In other words, you can check the FHL Catalog no matter the format or what you plan to do.

Hopefully you now have some ideas about the items you should consider as part of a budget. It should also be clear that you can't create a very accurate budget without having a specific and actionable plan. Why not sit down for a few minutes and consider the best options to obtain some records for a specific goal. If you have a plan created, add to it. If you don't, considering a budget will help you start to think about specifics so you can create an actionable plan. Next week I'll provide some examples if you still need more inspiration.

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