More bang for DNA test bucks

Making the most of your DNA testing dollars

Here it is, DNA Sunday again at The Legal Genealogist. And the big news in genetic genealogy this week is the launch of autosomal DNA testing by That brings to three the number of major players in the DNA testing world that offer this sort of test: Family Tree DNA and 23andMe are the others.

There’s a lot that isn’t known yet about the Ancestry testing. For more information on the test generally, both Blaine Bettinger of The Genetic Genealogist (see here and here) and CeCe Moore of Your Genetic Genealogist (see here, here and here) have written about it.

It’s only being offered at the moment to subscribers — even subscribers have to sign up and wait in line to be offered the test — and all we know about pricing is the introductory price of $99 for the test. (Update: It’s now $129 for Ancestry subscribers; prices vary for non-subscribers. See AncestryDNA now open to all, posted 4 Nov 2012.)

Now I’m a total DNA junkie. I’ve never met a DNA test I wouldn’t take. So, yeah, my name is on the list, waiting to get my chance at the Ancestry test to go along with the tests I’ve already taken at Family Tree DNA and 23andMe. There are real advantages to testing as widely as possible: you’re looking to find people who match you, and the key person who can help you break down your brick wall may have only tested with one company.

The issue here is one of cost. Nobody is giving away DNA tests. So… how do you get the most bang for the DNA buck?

I’ve said it before: if you’re serious about using DNA as a tool in your genealogy toolkit and you can only afford to test with one company, then the company to test with is Family Tree DNA. It has more to offer the genealogist than anybody else in terms of the number of serious genealogists who use it and the features and ease of use it offers.

But that leaves you out in the cold for matches at 23andMe and Ancestry. So what do you do? Walk away from those potential matches?

Nope. Here’s what I would do:

Step 1. If you’re an subscriber, get in on the $99 introductory offer. You can bet your bottom dollar it won’t ever get any cheaper. That gets you a shot at all your future matches with folks who test with Ancestry.

Step 2. Test with 23andMe using the monthly or prepaid subscription plan, then convert the subscription plan to lifetime at the end of the year. The thing I like least about 23andMe is its goofy pricing and the changes in its pricing. (I paid much more for 23andMe testing because I tested when it was changing its prices and it didn’t offer those of us who’d tested at the high end a refund.)

Right now, a 23andMe test costs $99, but you have to buy at least a one year subscription to what it calls its Personal Genome Service. That costs $9 a month, or $207 for the first year including the test, or you can buy a lifetime subscription for $399. But at the end of the first one-year subscription, you can convert your subscription into a lifetime subscription for $99, for a total of $306 for 23andMe. (Update: 23andMe has converted to a new flat one-time $99 price as of mid-December 2012. See December DNA doings, posted 16 Dec 2012.)

Step 3. The minute you get your 23andMe results, transfer them to Family Tree DNA for $89. When I say “transfer,” that doesn’t end your 23andMe matches, it just gets you into the Family Tree DNA system with all of its benefits.

What that gives you is all your matches with all three companies for just under $500. (Update: Under $300 now.) Not cheap, for sure, but the best bang for your DNA buck on the market right now.

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49 Responses to More bang for DNA test bucks

  1. Thomas Martee says:

    You take every test!? Wow. You must have LOTS of money. Your advice is to pay them all? Sorry, I’m not as rich as you. I can not afford that.

    You say it won’t get any cheaper. I think you are wrong. I agree with Tamura Jones that tests ARE going to get cheaper

    By the way, she points out that Ancestry does NOT give your test results :-(
    So maybe their new test is not such a good deal?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I said only that I don’t think Ancestry’s autosomal test won’t get cheaper and I think that’s a safe bet.

  2. Heather K. says:

    Hi Judy,

    I can’t speak any more highly about DNA and what it has provided genealogists for research. It will be interesting to see where it takes us in the next few years. Have been able to use it for good use in regards to 1) confirming traditional research and 2) debunking “traditions”. Thank you for the step by step process for all three labs/sites.

    Ancestry started a beta version of their autosomal DNA test last year and gave tests for free to certain members. I was lucky enough to be one of them and have had my results since March. My results were 49% British Isles (no shocker) and 49% Scandinavian with 2% unknown within the last 10 generations (give or take a few). Not quite sure where the Scandinavian comes in, certianly not within the last 7 generations for any of my lines at least. There are many many matches that I have, but it is difficult to narrow down which of my family tree the match is on given the structure. No defining/terminal SNPs are given. The results can be synced with one family tree to view in the DNA section of the website. But if you divide your family trees by surname, this means that not all lineages will be displayed in the DNA section for matches. Since this is a new service, I am hoping that Ancestry will tweak this feature in the future to be more user friendly.
    Also, Ancestry provides background info about the percentages given. Mine read “looks like you may have some Viking”. With such a general statement, I hope that they provide SNPs in the future or at least scholarly DNA articles of research that would support such a statement.
    Usually, I test with Family Tree DNA and wait for their sale in April and during the holidays to either upgrade or do something. They announce it on their Facebook page. The articles and tools they provide are just better. Also, I joined my mtDNA haplogroup V page on Facebook. I talk more with my haplogroup cousins than my surname cousins.

    Thanks again!


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Glad to see I’m not the only DNA junkie out there. Like everyone else I hope the Ancestry test system gets more refined and more useful. But even if it doesn’t, at $99 it’s hard to say no — and I for one am not passing up the chance for more matches.

  3. Ruy Cardoso says:

    No raw data availability? No thanks. Throw in some of Ancestry’s past practices and I’ll take a pass on this one. Sometimes getting the most out of your DNA testing dollars means not spending them in the first place.

    Don’t get me wrong; I am a generally satisfied Ancestry subscriber. But I’m not entirely comfortable with seeing this particular company move from records to spit. It’s one thing to pay for access to the records the company has assembled, but it’s quite another to provide such records (in the form of DNA) and not be able to see your own results.

    Even if that changes, my own experience with autosomal testing indicates that it’s not for everyone, particularly those of us with less common ancestral backgrounds within the American genealogical world. I will nonetheless be watching to see what happens with this new offering.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I understand your concerns, Ruy, and can only hope we get more and better explanations (and data) as it develops. But I have some major brick walls where DNA can be of enormous help and am willing to take the $99 flier on a chance to find a match I won’t find with the other companies.

  4. I don’t believe the introductory price will get much cheaper. I think 5 years down the road a Full genome sequence will be cheaper than it is now but the Ancestry test like FTDNA’s family Finder and 23andme test are not likely to dip under the $99 price. I like Judy, am a bit of a DNA junkie. I had called when Ancestry was handing out Beta kits (didn’t get a free one) but I signed up and got my invite last week and jumped on it. Yeah I agree there are all sorts of problems—not being able to download etc—but I didn’t order one for that. I already have downloads from 23andme and FTDNA and they are on HIRSEARCH and GEDMATCH. The SNPs tested overlap better than 95% so I don’t need the download and I suspect Ancestry will offer it in the future.

    The reason I tested at Ancestry is I think having it connected to a vibrant Genealogy database is a slam dunk and I liked the refinement in some of the ancestry features—-the data from Sorenson and the likelihood that this database will grow exponentially make it a good fit for me. I was actually surprised at the introductory price and thought why not. I’ve been a member of Ancestry for years.

    Now I can see if you have already tested elsewhere why you wouldn’t want to do this but for me it still provides a great value.

    For about $400 you could test with Ancestry’s beta. Test at 23andme get your Haplogroups and Medical info, then upload to FTDNA. You’ve covered most of the bases unless your a male then I would do at least a 37 Marker Y-DNA kit with FTDNA. This all for less than the original tests just a few years back.

    We can gripe about what we don’t like—I do—but I have found out lots about myself I would never have known otherwise.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Kelly, I suspect we’re going to get to that much-cheaper-full-genomic-sequence much much faster than five years. But in addition to being a DNA junkie, I’m also someone for whom immediate gratification takes too long. I want as much as I can get, and I want it yesterday! So I’ll do this test too… and the FGS as soon as the price gets to a point where I can do it!

  5. Nan Harvey says:

    I jumped at the chance to do Ancestry’s test for $99. I’ve tested with Family Finder and 23andme as well, and uploaded my data to GEDmatch. One of my biggest frustrations with what I’ve done so far is finding a close match that isn’t interested in genealogy. I knew to expect that on 23andme, but even on Family Finder my closest match got around putting an email address in. And he put a list of surnames on his profile that includes a not too common one that we share and I have quite a bit of information on. I’d love to know how he connects but probably never will.

    I’m hoping I won’t encounter that as often with those who have tested on Ancestry. Of course in an ideal world we’d have access to the raw data and a way to find out what chromosome we matched on. But I think in the long run what I learn from my Ancestry matches will help me figure out some of the other matches as well.

    I’ll be watching what happens with the Sorenson data as well. My sample as well as my brother’s and my son’s are in that database.


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Nan, it’s so frustrating when folks don’t follow up (sez someone who knows she owes you an email… the original is on my home computer and I’m in Kentucky tonight…).

  6. DNA testing can be life altering experience, now I dont think you need to go out and get DNA tested from EVERY place out there. That seems a little extreme for most people, like some of the other comments have indicated. However, I do feel that DNA testing can yield information that can be imperative in some situations.
    Being in the industry myself I’ve seen both good and bad outcomes from these tests. Make sure you’re prepared for any and all results, and make sure that you’re not spending money just to be told what you’ve already been told from other DNA testing facilities.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Good general advice about not testing if you’re not prepared for the results. As for the advisability of testing widely, that’s only for autosomal where it’s the matches and what they can add to the paper trail that’s so important.

  7. Patricia says:

    I think Ancestry will have great success with their new offering as they are in touch with so many people in the genealogy community that they will continue to expand their database.
    I too have tested at Family Tree DNA and 23andme. I have also recruited various family members to take the test.
    I have had success with it as well. I had two McMahon families with the same surname living in the same small town. The story was that the families were related – brother’s actually but I could not for the life of me find proof. They didn’t witness births, nothing in wills, no newspaper notices that mentioned connections. I had my mom do the Family Finder and a few months later I found a descendant of the other McMahon family. Thankfully he agreed to take the test if I sponsored it. Low and behold the results came back showing my mom and him as 3rd cousins. Which was the right match if the McMahon men were brothers like we were told.
    The money was worth knowing that the families do connect. To me it was priceless to have this puzzle solved!
    I have also located cousins of my husband – my mom. The Family Finder test is second to none for me and I will be getting the test at Ancestry. I only hope it is available to testers outside of the US as I would certainly like it for that price!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I hope all the DNA testing companies do very very well. It can only help us all to have lots of options — and lots of competition.

  8. steve says:

    Youve done all the autosomal tests,23andme,Familytreedna’s Family Finder and Dna Diagnostics Center’s Ancestrybydna? Can you say how your results were different?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Steve, I’ve just barely sent off my AncestryDNA test kit so I can’t report on those results yet. For the other two, the key differences are in the way the information is presented and the ability to connect with matches. Remember that 23andMe is primarily a health-testing company with many fewer people testing for genealogy, so the default for 23andMe is confidentiality: you can’t contact matches directly, you don’t even get their names unless they accept a blind contact. FamilyTree is exclusively for genealogy, so the default is sharing: you get names, email addresses and the ability to quickly and easily compare, at the chromosome level, your results against five others at a time (and loads of opportunity to download data and work on it on your own computer). I don’t see anything fundamentally different about the results themselves — both companies say I’m haplogroup H3, my 23andMe matches also show up as FTDNA matches using the third-party site It’s really a matter of how genealogy-friendly (or unfriendly) the presentation is.

  9. CeSe says:

    When I visited 23andme, there was no subscription. They only have $299 kit.

    Thank you

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re right, CeSe — there’s been a change in the 23andMe pricing structure and it’s now a one-time-only fee. It works out to less money overall for the same result.

  10. Jorge says:

    Is there a benefit to doing the autosomal test with both Family Tree DNA and with 23andme over just testing with 23andme and transfering their ‘Relative Finder’ feature to be compatible with FTDNA’s ‘Family Finder’? Let’s say price isn’t an issue, what benefit will I get if I test with both over transferring Relative Finder? Or will it be the exact same thing? Is it possible that I will miss a match or two if I go about transferring instead of testing both from scratch?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yes, it’s possible to miss a match or two. The areas of autosomal DNA sampled for Relative Finder (23andMe) are not exactly the same as those sampled for Family Finder (FTDNA). They largely overlap but not entirely. So if price is literally no object, then absolutely test with both.

  11. Josh Follansbee says:

    I like your article. I have traced my ancestor to 1530 England, 1600 Norway on my fathers side. My mother being adopted only knows her mothers maiden name of Whitman, Irish for sure.

    So, for my first test with all my unknowns, who/which test do you actually recommend?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      To have any real chance to find your mother’s family, you want to do autosomal testing, Josh, and on your mother if she’s still alive. If not, then on you yourself. That will give you the best chance to try to find genetic cousins who may be able to help.

  12. Michael C. says:

    I am adopted, have no idea about my genetics, what would be the best first step to begin t o try and unfold any information available genetically. Thanks

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Michael, by far your best bet is to do the autosomal DNA test to try to get information about both of your biological parents. If health issues are a concern, then test with 23andMe (the only game in town for health testing). Starting with 23andMe anyway is a good idea because of cost. Once you have your 23andMe results, you can transfer them into Family Tree DNA and get the benefit of information from matches who’ve tested with both companies. You may also want to be in touch with the folks at for the guidance they can provide. Good luck to you!

  13. Paula says:

    Judy –
    I know I want to do 23andMe’s testing because of some health issues on both sides of my family. And I am curious what other medical things might show up. I understand that Ancestry’s ‘ancestry’ testing is identical to 23andMe’s testing, so I don’t need to do that as well.

    If I want to do paternal line testing, though, it has to be a male relative on my dad’s side, correct? My father has passed away, I didn’t have any brothers or uncles, and my only male cousin has passed away. There is an elderly first cousin of my father’s still alive. Other than that, there is only my son, and my sister’s sons. Am I correct in thinking that only the elderly first cousin of my father’s could do the paternal testing?

    Thank you!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If your father’s first cousin is the son of his paternal uncle (your father and this man both being grandsons of the same paternal grandfather), then yes, he’s the right one to do the YDNA test for you. Your son and your sister’s sons won’t work.

  14. This is a blizzard of information about something I’m interested in and know nothing at all about. The terms, acronyms, comments, analyses is head spinning.
    The only thing I have is some DNA.

  15. sandy says:

    My adopted son knows his bio mom and her family, but nothing about his birthfather. What test would be best for him to discover his ethnic background on that side?


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Sandy, none of the tests is really designed to prove ethnicity. They’ll all try to tell you what modern populations your son is most like, and that’s really the best they can do. And for that purpose, my own view is that 23andMe is probably the best for that right now if they can keep their doors open without having the FDA breathe down their necks. If you have concern about 23andMe because of the current FDA issue, then you might want to consider AncestryDNA, which is probably second best at the moment.

  16. Gail Atkinson says:

    I am interested in finding out how much Native American is in our background. Will the DNA be able to tell whether it’s Cherokee, Blackfoot, or? We know there was Indian somewhere in our lineage but now no one knows where for certain and of course, those who knew never said..So which test would be the best to help find the answers? Thanks

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There is, at this moment, no DNA test that can distinguish one tribe from another. It’s hard enough detecting Native American from European, and unless you have a direct female line (mother to daughter to daughter) or direct male line (father to son to son) the only test that might tell you about NA ancestry is the autosomal DNA test. Both AncestryDNA and 23andMe do a decent job with NA ancestry.

  17. Elle says:


    My father was adopted and I am trying to find out more about his side of the family. He knew his biological mother and he has half-siblings on that side. Unfortunately, we know nothing of his biological father. I am interested in finding out my dad’s ethnicity (or related modern populations) as well as learning more about my mother’s background. In order to do this, I believe that I would have to order two tests since I am female- one for my dad and one for me. Is this correct?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yes. To learn about your father’s heritage, he should test all of his DNA — his YDNA to learn about his father’s father’s father’s line, his mtDNA to learn more about his mother’s mother’s mother’s line, and his autosomal DNA to find out about all of his other ancestors not in those direct lines and, perhaps, to identify cousins who may be able to help him learn more. For you, to learn about your mother’s side, you should test your mtDNA (about your mother’s mother’s mother’s line) and your autosomal DNA for all the ancestors not in the direct maternal line.

  18. Mary says:


    I am a newbie to this, but I know that I would like to learn of both my father and my mother’s heritage as each of them have heritage of more than 3 nationalities.

    Would I need to get two tests as well – one for myself and one for my father?

    Thank you for your time and attention to my message.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You will get better information overall if you do two tests. I assume your mother is no longer living? If so, then you and your father should be tested. If both parents are living, testing them is best. In your shoes, I would do autosomal and mtDNA for you (or autosomal now and mtDNA when you can afford it), and autosomal and YDNA for your father (with mtDNA as well if you can afford it or later when you can afford it).

  19. Mary says:

    Hi Judy,

    Thank you for your response. Both of my parents are living. I am assuming that for my mother, the test I would get for her would be the autosomal and mtDNA?

    Again, thank you so much for your response. Your blog is extremely informative.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Mary, yes, autosomal and mtDNA. The advantage, of course, is you won’t need to test yourself if you have all those tests for both of your parents!

  20. Wanda W. says:

    I would like to know about my ethnicity. My dad is deceased. Mom is alive. Who would be best to test? Me, my mom? Funds are limited. Thanks.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      To get the most information about both sides of your family on limited funds, you should test yourself. Get the autosomal test ($99 with any of the three big testing companies) and, if you can afford it, do the mtDNA test on yourself as well. (That test is best done at Family Tree DNA.)

  21. Jeff Millen says:

    Dear Judy,
    I have dabbled in genealogy for years, but I am just considering some DNA testing. Both of my parents are deceased. One family mystery I would like to solve is whether my 6 times paternal great grandfather was Scottish or Irish. Is there a particular DNA test that would determine this?
    Jeff M.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If you are a direct male line descendant of that ancestor, your YDNA may carry markers that help establish that fact. In your shoes, I’d do both YDNA and autosomal to maximize your chances.

  22. Chris says:

    I just sent in my DNA test. Would there be any value add to test my mom and dad or would the combined results be the same?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s great potential in testing both of your parents. First, autosomal DNA (the kind tested in AncestryDNA testing) is time-limited: you’re only going to see good matches out to about the fourth cousin level. So testing your parents gets you an entire additional generation of potential matches. Second, by testing both parents you’ll be able to more easily identify which side of your heritage your matches come from: do they match you and your father or you and your mother? If my parents were alive, I’d test them both.

  23. Kristina says:

    Dear Judy,

    I want to learn about my ethnicity. I do not know my father and do not speak to my mother. But I am very close with my grandparents (my mother’s parents). What test and brand do you recommend?

    Thank you,

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Testing yourself and both of your maternal grandparents will (a) tell you about their backgrounds and (b) tell you something about where you DIFFER from them, which will give you as much information as you can get about your father’s line as well. But remember: the ethnicity estimates are only truly valid at a very broad level (practically continental, not country by country). No company can tell you, reliably, that you have 10% Irish or 10% French. If you decide to test, you want to do autosomal testing and my 2014 advice on how to get the best bang for the buck is at 2014: Most bang for DNA bucks.

  24. Ryan says:

    Hello, my father is deceased but my mother is alive. What tests should I do to find all available info? Her first or me or does it matter if it is just me. Please elaborate

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It depends on what you want from DNA testing and whether “Ryan” is the male Ryan or the female Ryan. Only a male can do YDNA testing; for mtDNA or autosomal testing, either males or females can be tested. For autosomal testing, the oldest living generation is best (your mother instead of you for her side, an uncle or aunt on your father’s side if you have one living).

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