My Litecoin story, or the build vs buy question

“I have some money to invest—should I use it to build a mining rig, or should I simply buy [insert cryptocurrency of choice] directly?” That’s probably the most common question I hear from people looking to get into digital currency.

I was facing this same question when I decided to jump into Litecoin in early 2013. I’d done some casual single-GPU Bitcoin mining in prior years, but I wanted to make a more substantial investment into cryptocurrency this time around. I waffled a bit between building my own rig or simply buying LTC directly before eventually settling on mining. Read on for my reasoning, how things turned out for me, and how they would have been different had I taken the “buy” path.

First, I just want to be clear and say that I don’t think there is a “right” answer to this question. There are pros and cons to each approach, and which is ultimately better for each individual depends on a number of factors: adversity to risk, technical ability/interest, assumptions about the future, and so on. Here’s how I see the major advantages/disadvantages of each:

Build

What are the pros & cons of building your own mining rig?

Advantages:

  • Even if cryptocurrency becomes worthless in the future, you’ll still have all of your hardware.
  • Building your own rig is potentially a rewarding learning experience.

Disadvantages:

  • Earning cryptocurrency takes time—it’ll likely be months before mining earns you what you could simply buy today.
  • Mining rigs use electricity, and electricity costs money.
  • Rigs take up physical space—they can be hot, noisy, and ugly.
  • Setting up your first rig can be frustrating and/or time-consuming if you’re new to PC hardware.

Buy

What are the pros & cons to buying cryptocurrency directly?

Advantages:

  • You can simply jump on Coinbase or another exchange and have your cryptocurrency (nearly) instantly.

Disadvantages:

  • If cryptocurrency becomes worthless in the future, you’ve lost your entire investment.

Each individual reading this list will probably assign wildly different weights to each point. For example, if you have access to an otherwise empty basement or garage where you can store a mining rig (or 3), then you’re probably not worried about an ugly, hot, noisy fixture invading your personal living space. Or maybe you have access to free (or extremely cheap) electricity, which negates another major disadvantage to building your own rig.

For me, the deciding factor mostly came down to the first advantage I’ve listed under “build”: if cryptocurrency tanks in value tomorrow, then I still have everything that I’ve purchased today. Under the worst-case scenario, I can either sell the hardware I’ve purchased at a small loss, or I can re-purpose it for something else (I happen to enjoy PC gaming, so I can always use a couple new GPUs!). I’m a big fan of hedging my bets whenever I can, so investing my cash into mining hardware instead of directly into digital currency simply feels better to me.

How my decision to build worked out for me

I ordered the parts for my first rig from Amazon on April 4, 2013. The order total came out to exactly $1,368.41. I ordered a kill-a-watt electricity meter a couple days later for another ~$20 to use during testing, so let’s just round my total initial spend up to $1,400 for simplicity’s sake.

I started mining on April 8, 2013, although I continued to make minor tweaks for the next week or so. Once I was up and running, I tucked the rig into a corner in my basement, and more or less let it run 24/7 for the next year or so. Downtime was extremely rare (only occurring during power or internet outages—and I’m lucky to have very reliable service for both) and probably amounted to less than 20 total hours over the course of the rig’s mining service.

At 9 cents per kWh, my 720 watt LTC rig cost me $47.34 in additional electricity per month, and I ran it continuously for nearly 13 months. So that’s about $600 in total power usage over the rig’s lifetime. During the winter months, the rig essentially acts like a 720 watt space heater, which means my electric baseboard heat doesn’t have to work as hard to keep my house warm—but we’ll ignore that for the sake of this analysis.

When I finally took the rig offline in May of 2014, I had earned just over 1,000 litecoins (we’ll call it an even thousand for simplicity). I sold one of the 7950 GPUs for $100, kept two GPUs to use for gaming (I only retired them ~3 months ago!), kept the excellent Seasonic PSU for use in my primary workstation PC, and the motherboard/CPU/RAM are now back in service in a new Ethereum mining rig.

So the final tally of my costs works out to about $1,900 ($1,400 for the initial build, $600 for 13 months of electricity, and -$100 for the single GPU that I sold).

I have about 1,000 litecoins for my efforts (no, I haven’t sold them!), and they’re worth about $26,000 at the current ~$26 price (although LTC was $35 just a week ago). And don’t forget that I’m still using most of the rig’s hardware today!

So obviously mining worked out pretty well for me. But could I have done better by just buying litecoins directly?

What if I had just bought cryptocurrency directly?

We have access to all of the data, so it’s easy to answer this.

I made my ~$1,400 rig hardware purchase on April 4, 2013. The average LTC price on that date was $4.19/coin. So if I’d instead simply exchanged my $1,400 for litecoins, I would have ended up with 334 LTC.

But maybe that isn’t the fairest comparison, since I did end up spending an additional $600 on electricity over the rig’s lifetime. So let’s assume that I budgeted $2,000 in advance for the rig plus eventual electricity costs—but instead exchanged it all for litecoins on April 4, 2013. I’d have 477 LTC today—less than half of what I earned by mining (and I’d obviously have none of the leftover hardware that I’ve continued to use).

Conclusion

I don’t want anyone to take away the idea that mining is always going to be more profitable than buying cryptocurrency directly. If I’d built my mining rig just 6 months later, the “buy” scenario probably would have come out ahead by a considerable margin, instead of the other way around. Timing is everything, and it’s impossible to say which approach is better, except in hindsight.

There are some ETH mining forum / subreddit communities where the majority would lead you to believe that mining is never profitable, and that smart money simply buys coins directly. And I’m sure that some of these folks are sharing their sincere opinion. But do remember that there are quite a few people that see mining strictly as a competition. Some of these people actively dissuade others from mining simply because it’s beneficial to them (the more people mining, the more the difficulty increases).

I wrote this simply to demonstrate that it’s absolutely possible to turn a profit mining, even if some are claiming that it’s “too late” (I started after LTC had already jumped 4000% from ~10 cents to $4, and was in a slow decline that lasted months). If you’re starting out today, remember that nobody can guarantee whether building or buying is going to turn out better for you, and try to not get too caught up in the speculative hype.

7 Responses to My Litecoin story, or the build vs buy question

  1. Gary says:

    Just to add to the pro list – GPUs can mine damned near anything. I’m still using LTC rigs I made in 2013 and have used them to mine any coin that looked interesting when it came out, including DOGE, DASH, ETH, ZEC and more. I’ve learned tons during the process and repurposed some of the hardware to build gaming rigs.
    Mining FTW.

  2. William Blears says:

    Very interesting – I am looking at getting into mining now, I’ve heard Bitcoin is harder than ever to mine, is this the same with Litecoin?

    Would your story be the same today, if you had started a year ago?

    Thanks!

    • CryptoBadger says:

      Mining Bitcoin and Litecoin these days means investing in purpose-built ASIC hardware – it’s technically possible to mine BTC/LTC with GPUs, but it’s not profitable since it’s orders of magnitude slower than with a comparable ASIC device. For example, this Litecoin ASIC miner is about 50 times faster than the best GPU miner that you could build today with a comparable amount of money (and the ASIC miner uses less power, too).

      There aren’t any ASIC devices for ETH yet (and there probably won’t be), which is one of the reasons GPU miners have gravitated toward it.

      If I’d started a year ago, I would have mined ETH, and I would have done (much) better than I did with Litecoin. The ETH mining difficulty one year ago was less than 1/12th of what it is today, so one 6 GPU mining rig would have generated over 40 ETH per month (worth over $12,000 today)!

  3. Andrej says:

    Great article, thank you. I’ve been considering to start mining, too, but eventually decided to just buy some Litecoin (I also bought Ethereum) via Coinbase. I didn’t invest much though.

  4. Brickflip says:

    Hey Cryptobadger, I’ve noticed a considerable drop in projected earnings per month for ether. Am I right in assuming that is because of the growth in difficulty? Could now be a good time to focus attentions on Sia?

  5. Drew Smith says:

    I have 14 1080ti’s right now mining on NiceHash, am I wasting power and money? I’ve seen a massive decrease in the past three weeks. Today for instance I’m making about $250 per week, and paying around .20KkWh.

    Just curious if in your opinion it’s better to start mining on my own and move away from NiceHash.

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