5 Tips for Building a Gaming PC on a Budget

Closeup of an MSI Motherboard.
Jason Fitzpatrick / How-To Geek

Save money by building yourself, or at least getting a friend to help you, and scour the used market for second-hand parts. Prioritize components that deliver the performance you want, and skimp on those that don’t. Reuse parts from old PCs where possible, and avoid superfluous purchases like fancy cases and RGB lighting. Lastly, make sure you plan an upgrade path.

There’s never been a better time to get into PC gaming, but hardware is expensive. If you haven’t got a massive budget you’re probably looking to cut some corners and save some money. Good news!

Save on Labor Costs By Building It Yourself

Being in charge of your PC build puts you in a great position to save money. Right out of the gate, you’re not paying for labor costs since you’ll be doing the work yourself. If you already possess the skills to build a PC you’ll know that it should only take you a few hours at most to get everything up and running.

If you have little to no experience putting a computer together, you may be put off by this prospect. Fortunately, there are plenty of great resources online including How-To Geek articles, YouTube tutorials, online PC-building tools, and even the instruction manuals you’ll find in the various boxes to help you along the way.

PCPartPicker is a great place to plan your build. This website will help identify components that will work together (and flag any incompatibilities), plus it’s constantly suggesting parts and builds that others have used and completed. Ask questions and read comments from others on the helpful r/buildapc subreddit too.

On top of saving labor costs, building your own PC gives you flexibility. You can change your mind mid-build if you encounter a hot sale, parts shortage, or sudden change of mind.

Get a Friend to Build It With You

Alternatively, you may prefer to have the guidance of someone who has done this before. Getting a friend to show you the ropes can help boost your confidence and reduce your risk of breaking something (which is already fairly low). You may want to enlist a friend for the more fiddly parts of your build, like mounting the CPU or applying thermal paste.

If you want to develop your PC-building skills, it’s important that you get your friend to help you, rather than doing everything for you. Building a PC is a relatively straightforward process. Learning how to do it yourself will give you skills you can use in the future when upgrading or building a new machine.

Save Money on Used Components

Building a PC yourself (or enlisting someone to help) means that you can buy any components you like. Buying a pre-built PC usually means buying all-new parts, which come at a premium. Of course, these parts also come with a warranty so your investment may carry a little less risk.

The second-hand market can save you a lot of money, particularly if you know what you’re looking for. There are some basic rules to follow in terms of which PC components should be purchased second-hand and which should be avoided. Generally speaking, used CPUs, RAM, and monitors are considered relatively safe purchases.

Buying a used GPU is also something you should consider. Though second-hand GPUs may have been used in mining rigs (which may shorten their lifespan), there are plenty out there that have simply been used for gaming. Knowing what to look for when buying a used GPU will help. Investigate the card’s history, test and inspect where possible, and always use buyer protection when purchasing online.

Motherboards are another component that you may be able to buy used. The savings here aren’t so compelling since many new no-frills motherboards are budget-friendly. If you’ve decided to buy an older used CPU you might have to resort to the used motherboard market if your CPU is incompatible with newer models.

You should avoid buying a used power supply altogether, the risk isn’t worth it. A “bad” power supply can damage your whole system, so make sure you’re using a quality PSU from a trusted brand. Used storage devices like hard drives are also not worth the hassle, particularly since new drives have significantly come down in price. Peripherals like a mouse and keyboard can save you money, but consider hygiene when purchasing.

Do you really want a keyboard that’s full of crumbs and other people’s hair when you can buy a mechanical keyboard for less than $40? Even a budget gaming mouse can be found for around $20 if you can stomach a non-wireless version.

If you’re replacing an older PC with a new build, you might want to consider using some of the old parts (assuming you aren’t passing the old PC on to someone). Save money by reusing the old case, fans, your power supply (since you know the history), storage, RAM, or cooler.

Be Realistic and Understand Where Your Money Is Best Spent

Acceptance is an important part of building on a budget, whether it’s a house or a computer. Your money is only going to go so far, so make sure you budget correctly so that you aren’t disappointed. Being realistic can help you make better decisions about where to spend your money so that you get better performance.

You can use tools like PC Builds FPS Calculator, How Many FPS, and CPUAgent FPS and Bottleneck Calculator to understand what your potential build is capable of. Use these tools to get an idea of what sort of frame rates you can expect in popular games and which components make a difference. This can help you fine-tune your setup and make better choices.

For example, everyone wants 64GB of the fastest RAM they can afford, but how much of a difference will it make? Realistically you’ll probably only need 16GB of RAM for gaming and you’re better off spending the remainder on a better GPU to improve performance.

The same is true of a monitor. If your desired setup delivers a smooth gaming experience at 1440p, you probably shouldn’t spend more money than you need to on a 4K monitor. If you’re not getting 240 or 360 frames per second in the games you want to play, don’t waste your money on an ultra-high-refresh-rate monitor.

You can also save money on storage. A fast M.2 NVMe drive is great as a boot drive, but you can save a lot of money by using slower SATA SSDs and even cumbersome old hard drives for “deep storage” purposes. And while many gamers desire as much RGB lighting as they can get their hands on, this is purely decorative and should be the last thing on your mind while building on a budget.

You should also be aware of all the little things which can cause the cost of your build to add up. You’ll need a decent cooler for your CPU and while it may be tempting to buy an all-in-one (AIO) liquid-cooled radiator, you can get similar or better performance from a cheaper air cooler. Air coolers don’t have to be noisy either, and understanding the fundamentals of good airflow can greatly improve your PC’s thermal performance.

Plan Your Upgrade Path

Choosing a PC over a Mac or a console gives you all manner of upgrade opportunities, especially if you build it yourself. This is especially important if you’re on a budget since it allows you to plan the build around future upgrades. You can buy what you can afford right now, and add to it in the future when you’ve got more disposable income to spare.

This is why it’s so important to pick “good bones” in the first place. Don’t skimp on your motherboard or CPU. While most games also desire a performant and fairly modern GPU, you may even be able to limp on with an older model for a few months and purchase something flashy when your budget allows.

During the pandemic-induced semiconductor shortage, many gamers had little choice but to use whatever they could get their hands on. This included old cards and even APUs (CPUs with combined GPU abilities) until the market recovered enough and GPU prices began to fall.

The same is true of RAM and storage. While not having enough RAM can introduce a bottleneck, it can very easily be overcome by spending marginally more in a few months. If you don’t need several terabytes of storage right away, buy a fast boot drive right now and add more in the future (it’s one of the easiest upgrades to perform).

Save Money on Games Too

If you’re building a gaming PC on a budget, you’ll probably want to save some money on the games you’ll be playing on it too. We’ve got some tips gaming on a low (or zero) budget. One of the best-looking games in the world is free-to-play, a great starting point to put your graphics card to the test.

On top of this, you might want to give Game Pass for PC a shot, which gives you access to a catalog of games for as little as $1 for your first month.

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