Well, as you might anticipate, there’s a lot that goes into answering this question, especially since chip shortages are far and wide.
Today, I’m going to walk you through pretty much everything you need to know regarding budgeting a PC build, as well as a few alternatives to a full-blown PC build that you may want to consider.
Fortunately, if you do decide that you want to build a PC, you’re in an excellent place to get started. I’ll even help you find all the ideal PC Parts for your needs.
Let’s get into it!
How Much Does It Normally* Cost To Build A PC?
Before we get too deep into current topics, let’s talk about the budget ranges one normally could have expected for building a PC prior to 2020.
Prior to 2020, it was surprisingly easy to get a mid-high range gaming or productivity PC for under $1000. GPUs capable of gaming at 1080p or doing rendering in productivity machines were readily available for under $300, leaving plenty of budget remaining for the rest of the system’s components.
This made it much easier to balance a PC build or focus on a particular strength over others.
For instance, you could choose to prioritize storage or memory capacity while making small trade-offs but still meeting performance goals.
Well, the bright side is that $1000 is still enough for a PC…except it’s now closer to low or mid-range because of the dramatic increase we’ve seen in GPU pricing.
GPU Prices on eBay are 1.5 – 3.5x the MSRP – Image-Credit: eBay
Unless you’re lucky enough to snatch a GPU the moment it becomes available at MSRP (and GPUs being sold even initially at MSRP are still quite rare, essentially only possible if buying directly from a manufacturer), you’ll be subjected to a price markup of anywhere from 1.5x to 3.5x MSRP.
Yes, that’s pretty bad. Graphics cards were already the component that people spent the most money on for these machines, and now they’re even more expensive.
Most other components have returned to mostly-normal levels of pricing at the time of writing, even though they are also affected by the shortages.
There is one key way to cut down on the cost of building a PC today, and that involves perusing the used market to find a graphics card that meets your needs at a more reasonable price.
You’re still unlikely to find cards at MSRP in this way, but you should at least get better deals from your fellow users than people scalping new graphics cards at exorbitant prices.
Even if you can get a good GPU for less than scalped prices, you should still expect to spend around $1500-2000 for a high-end working or gaming machine.
Why The Biggest Cost For a Post-2020 PC Is Your Graphics Card
So, why is the graphics card such a big cost for a PC build?
Basically, everyone who has the most incentive to build a PC right now needs raw graphical horsepower.
Fortunately GPU tech has made some pretty big advances in the decade since (real-time ray-tracing being the big one for 3D animators and gamers), but this goes to show just how intensive professional rendering can be.
These elements combined mean that you really can’t skimp on a graphics card if you’re trying to build a PC for professional work or gaming.
And since the market conditions have been ravaged by chip shortages and scalping, that means spending twice or three times the amount on the same level of graphics power you could’ve gotten for a fraction a few years ago.
So, if the graphics card is such a big problem, what if you take it out of the equation?
This both is and isn’t a viable option.
If your workload isn’t graphically-intensive or you’re fine with gaming at 720p, opting for a modern CPU or APU with integrated graphics may be the best option until you’re able to get your hands on a proper graphics card.
Current-generation integrated graphics solutions handily sweep the performance of the discrete Nvidia GT 1030 GPU, which is currently one of the few GPUs still being sold for around MSRP on Amazon…because it’s hot garbage.
Even when the market wasn’t screwed up, the GT 1030 being sold for more than fifty dollars was basically highway robbery due to how poorly it scaled to sub-$200 GPUs of the time. You’re still being robbed if you buy a GT 1030 today, so trust me and just…don’t.
Unfortunately, if you want a high-quality gaming experience or your workload requires lots of graphical horsepower, I can’t really recommend any integrated graphics solution.
You’re going to have to save up for a graphics card that meets your needs in this scenario, but you may have an easier time getting that card at a reasonable price by shopping on secondhand marketplaces like your local Facebook/Craigslist listings or eBay.
How To Prioritize Your Budget When Building A PC
First Priority: CPU, GPU, Monitor
The first things to prioritize in your PC build are the most core performance specifications: your CPU and your GPU.
Your CPU will be directly tied to the maximum possible in-game framerate you can achieve, as well as the fastest possible render times you can manage in your software of choice.
GPU is also tied to these things, of course, but while you can make adjustments for a weak GPU (like turning down graphics settings), your CPU as the “brain” is still going to be a limiter on everything else in your PC.
Besides your CPU and GPU, you should also be setting aside a decent amount of money for a monitor that suits your needs.
It doesn’t matter how powerful your graphics card is if you’re using some crappy old monitor with poor color accuracy that doesn’t properly reflect the high-quality image you paid so much for.
If you’re in the market for a 4K monitor specifically, I heartily recommend this 4K Monitor Guide.
Secondary: Motherboard, RAM, Storage
Past your core components and a good display (if you didn’t have one already) are your motherboard, RAM, and storage.
Your motherboard will determine things like overclocking headroom (if it allows overclocking at all) and overall expandability.
If you don’t plan on overclocking or using multiple expansion cards, you can save a lot by opting for a cheaper Mini ITX or Micro ATX motherboard over more expensive options.
RAM and storage are…well, RAM and storage. You should generally already have an idea of how much of these you need, but if you don’t, we still have you covered!
You don’t have to overspend on your power supply and get way more wattage than you need (like a lot of people will, we recommend using a wattage calculator so you don’t fall victim to this), but you do need to have some headroom and at least an 80+ Bronze Efficiency rating.
You also need to make sure you’re buying from a reputable brand that offers a warranty period of at least five years, because buying a no-name power supply off of AliExpress or eBay may end up being a literal case of playing with fire. (Because a bad PSU can actually combust. Seriously, don’t skimp on this, ever.)
Cooling fans, your case, and your peripherals are generally okay to cheap out on, even if they end up being kind of ugly or clunky, because they’re all easily replaceable.
Ideally, you’ll want to get a case that has decent airflow and is tolerable to your eyes, though, because no one wants to build in a PC case that they find ugly.
And if you’re a newcomer…be wary of building in a Mini ITX case. Even for experienced builders like myself, Mini ITX builds can be a bit of a hassle.
Benefits of PC Building Compared To Other Options
Extended, Per-Part Warranty
One nice part of PC building is that you can actually register individual warranties for each individual part, and these warranties are often a lot longer than what a warranty for a whole PC would be.
This means that if something just doesn’t work or goes wrong, you have a lot more recourse for a longer period of time than the guy who just bought a whole desktop at the store.
Much More Specific Customization Possibilities
One word that epitomizes the PC platform is “freedom”. Unlike consoles or most smart devices, PCs aren’t really locked down at all.
You don’t have to run Windows 11. You can run an older version of Windows, or Linux, if you would like.
You don’t have to play games with a keyboard, you can plug in a controller.
You don’t have to have a disc drive if you don’t want one, or a card reader if you don’t want one, and so on.
Prior to the shortages, PC building was an unequivocally better option because you could always get all the hardware for cheaper than if you were buying a prebuilt from somewhere else.
You can still manage this today, but you’ll need to be a lot more patient and vigilant for good deals on hardware, especially your graphics card.
Downsides of PC Building Compared To Other Options
You Have To Do Your Own Tech Support
Since you aren’t buying a full PC from a provider, you won’t be able to call up a single hotline for tech support.
For the most part, you’ll be doing things on your own unless something is very wrong with one of your components and you’re doing an RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization) process.
This isn’t as bad as it sounds, and in many cases, you can still get help from a particular part’s manufacturer, but it is still a meaningful downside.
You’ll Most Likely Pay More For A GPU*
One thing that prebuilt PC sellers have in their favor right now is that they can get their hands on graphics cards cheaper by buying them wholesale from providers.
These savings are actually passed on to the consumer a lot of the time, allowing prebuilts to stay surprisingly competitive in this era.
Be sure to double-check the price of the GPU versus the price of the other parts of the prebuilt to determine how good of a deal you’re actually getting, though, as many sellers will bill as if they paid the inflated price for the graphics card.
*At least until the current chip shortage is over. Once GPUs are selling at MSRP again, this point is moot.
Building Process Can Be Very Time-Consuming For A Newcomer
For the record, building my first PC when I was a teenager, and following a video on my smartphone took me about 4 hours.
These days, I could easily cut that time in half, as I’m very comfortable with PC building and already have a good idea of what to do and in what order before I even get started.
If you do your research and come into things properly prepared, achieving a first-time build time of 4 hours or less should be possible.
This also depends on how builder-friendly your case and components are, though!
A few recommendations for shortening the PC building process that I would make are:
Get a Modular or Semi-Modular Power Supply so you don’t have to route several useless cables through your PC. Or, worse, having them cluttering a small PC build with nowhere to go.
Build in a Micro ATX case or larger. Mini ITX builds certainly look nice, but as a beginner’s project, they can be quite stressful due to all the careful routing and close-call clearances that will need to be made. A larger case and motherboard equals an easier, less-cramped building experience.
Install standoff screws immediately, and install your CPU, RAM, CPU Cooler, and M.2 drives onto your motherboard before placing them into the case . Installing any of those components after your motherboard is already in the case is a bit of a hassle.
Alternatives To Building Your PC
Getting A Suitable Prebuilt + Adding Your Own GPU
One option worth considering is getting a pretty decent-to-good prebuilt and adding your own graphics card to it. You’d be surprised at how easy it can be to turn a refurbished office PC into a renewed workstation or gaming PC.
The main thing you’ll want to watch out for if you follow this route is making sure that the included CPU and PSU meet your processing and power requirements, respectively.
If need be, you can replace the PSU, but CPU upgrade options are going to be limited-to-unavailable with this route.
Also, you’ll want to make sure that the chassis has physical clearance for whatever graphics card you’re going to stuff in there.
Getting A Powerful Laptop + Adding A Docking Station
Fortunately, we do not yet live in a world where laptops can feasibly be used for sustained cryptocurrency mining.
For this and other reasons, laptops are still in pretty decent supply, and at surprisingly compelling prices given the graphical power that many of them are packing.
While a laptop GPU won’t push out the same performance as its desktop equivalent in the majority of scenarios, they can often come pretty close, and at a MUCH MUCH more reasonable price than is currently happening on the GPU market.
Add a docking station to the equation and you can pretty much turn your laptop into a full-blown desktop.
Our PC Builder is regularly updated with new features and the latest hardware, so you’ll be well taken care of.
At the time of writing, our PC Builder will always include a GPU with whatever price markups are currently in play.
If you’re going to bring your own GPU, just remember to not check out the GPU with the rest of our included parts and internally subtract the cost of that card from the total price, which will usually be about $4-500 at minimum.
Should I Get Someone Else To Build My PC Instead?
If you aren’t particularly comfortable with PC building or aren’t sure how to, you may want to consider getting someone else to do it instead.
This can mean buying your tech-savvy friend a nice lunch in exchange for an afternoon or paying a local PC repair shop to do the assembly for you. If this is what you want to do, we won’t judge you at all!
However, PC building isn’t that difficult if you know what you’re doing and you make the right preparations.
I recommend giving Jerry’s guide at least a quick look-over before shelling out money to get your PC built on your behalf to give yourself an idea of whether or not this is a process you’d be comfortable with.
As long as you do the proper research and take safety precautions, I personally think it’s best that any first-time PC builder actually does the work of assembling the PC build for themselves.
In the long run, this increases your familiarity with your own hardware and makes it easier to troubleshoot and upgrade the machine whenever the time comes. And honestly? It’s kinda fun.
Over to You
If you have any other questions about the cost of building a PC, let us know in the comments below or our forum!