The 8 Proven Ways to Save Money on
Your Model Railroad Layout

If you have been in this hobby for some time you’ll appreciate how the cost of model trains, accessories and raw materials can add up very quickly. Model railroading is “the world’s best hobby”, but if you end up paying full retail price for everything you purchase, or spending a lot of money fixing problems that could have been avoided, it will rapidly become the most expensive pastime you ever had!

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The hobby can be as expensive or as low-cost as you want to make it, depending on what you want and how you go about it. And remember, just like an avid golfer who might spend thousands of dollars, if you get a lot of pleasure from it then it will be all worthwhile.

There are however lots of ways to save money:

1) Increase Your Knowledge So You Can Avoid Expensive Mistakes

We all make mistakes (everyone does), but reducing the number and severity will save you time, money, and frustration. Never stop learning by continuing your understanding of the hobby. It is time and money well spent.

2) Know Precisely What You Want

A common mistake with “newbies” is to start collecting one model train scale only to change their mind after a while to opt for another scale that might be easier to handle, require less space, or perhaps they discover there are more accessories available in another scale. That can be very costly.

Start by researching what you want; speak to others in the hobby; measure your space for now and for when you might expand your layout; decide your era (diesel, steam locomotives, or a mix of both), do you want to build in modules, or build a multi-level layout etc. Getting important
decisions right from day one will save money.

Be careful you don’t get persuaded by an employee at the Hobby shop to buy what you don’t really want or need. Use the internet to shop around to see what is available at the best price. Sometimes model train equipment from different states or countries can be purchased at a cheaper price, even with postage or shipping included.

3) Buy Pre-Loved (2nd Hand)

I have personally bought locomotives through eBay or Craigslist for a tenth of the price of a brand new one. Although it can be risky, most in the hobby take good care of their model railroading equipment, so you are less likely to buy a lemon. On most auction sites you can contact the seller to quiz them on product details and quality.

Ebay has an alert system where you can be advised when something becomes available. Sadly, when a veteran railroader dies after perhaps 40+ years in the hobby, complete layouts (or separate components) get listed and can be bought incredibly cheaply.

Keep an eye out for online sales, or discount offers at your local hobby shop, and keep in touch with members of your local model train club who might want to sell off something they no longer need. You could even advertise in your local newspaper advising that you want to buy some 2nd hand train equipment. Most long-time model railroaders accumulate more equipment than they require and often have had stuff stashed away in boxes for years. Someone might spot your advert and want a tidy-up or need some cash.

4) Trade With Others In The Hobby

Model train shows and clubs are great places to buy, sell, trade or swap model railroad equipment. Sometimes club members give you stuff they no longer need, or they just want to help you get started.

5) Buy Quality Over Quantity

Although not always the case, in most instances it pays to buy quality. Look for value for money rather than just the cheapest price. Locomotives are a major expense for many as they can cost hundreds of dollars. Personally I would rather have fewer locos that run reliably, than have several that cause no end of problems by constantly uncoupling, derailing, or running erratically.

It also depends on how much effort you want to put into detailing and weathering. Some engines are beautifully detailed, and others look very basic and plasticy. Some manufacturers specialize in making lower-priced locomotives that look good on the outside, but lack in their inner workings.

It’s also tempting to buy cheap with the view to upgrading later, but once you’ve experienced quality equipment you’ll never use low quality again.

6) Create Half A Layout

This is one of the easiest ways to save money. Building a smaller layout will definitely save you money. If you spend a lot of time at your local model train club, then having a smaller layout at home might be a compromise worth considering. Time is another factor; if you spend a lot of time working on the club layout, do you want to spend as much time working on your own layout?

One option is to begin slowly with a half-sized layout built up against a wall. With clever use of “low relief” buildings, backdrops, and even mirrors, you can make your railroad appear bigger than it really is. A half sized layout takes less time to build and can possibly be pulled out from the wall at a later stage and extended.

7) Make It Rather Yourself Than Buy It

Model railroading will teach skills that you never had before. Developing a wide skill-set is what makes this hobby so rewarding. From benchwork construction, to working with electrics, through to scenery and structures… there’s plenty to keep you active and entertained.

Scratchbuilding is a wonderful part of the hobby. Instead of buying expensive premade buildings, you can make your own from scrap wood, corflute, card, balsa, glue, paint and other bits and bobs. Making your own trees is another way to save a lot of money.

This website has a huge range of high quality “photo-realistic” plans you can print out and put together yourself with card, foamboard, or
corflute. There is a big range of individual buildings or you can buy heavily discounted bulk packs

Search the site or download the free catalog for what you need.

8) Keep A Record And Budget

Finishing a reasonably sized model railroad can cost thousands of dollars if you pay full retail price and buy everything brand new. Try not to be impulsive and buy everything the salesperson at the hobby shop offers you.

Keep records of what you buy and how much you spend, and set yourself a budget for each project if you can. Put the details on a simple spreadsheet or in a notebook. It is also a good idea to take photos and keep a record of your progress as your layout develops over time. It will make interesting reading in two or three years time.