I Took 3 DNA Tests to Find My Roots. Here’s Which One Was the Best Value

DNA box tests are pictured on a table
Photo courtesy Susan Shain
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As of just a few years ago, you would’ve had to dig through historical archives to discover who your ancestors were.

Today? All you have to do is spit in a test tube.

So it’s understandable that more and more people are seeking their ethnic roots with the help of DNA tests like AncestryDNA and 23andMe.

But, with all the different options out there, how do you know which one will give you the information you want? Which one is easiest to use? And fastest?

To help you figure it out, I shared my saliva with three different companies. Keep reading to learn which DNA test is best for your money.

Photo courtesy Susan Shain

Which DNA Test Is Best for Your Money?

I took three DNA tests: Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA and 23andMe.

The process for each was the same: I made my purchase online, received a kit in the mail and then returned it in pre-paid packaging. The rest of the communication — that my kit had arrived, that my results were ready — came via email.

As far as the physical tests went, AncestryDNA and 23andMe were pretty similar; they came in sleek packaging and required spitting into a test tube. Family Tree DNA’s test was noticeably more low-tech; it required a mouth swab, and its tubes were difficult to close.  

Here’s a detailed review of each DNA test.

1. Family Tree DNA

Cost: $89 (although often on sale for $69)

Includes: Ethnic percentages, ancient ancestry, family matching

Processing time: Five weeks

Before I even logged on to see my Family Tree DNA results, a woman named Linda emailed me asking if we were related. That was slightly off-putting, and to be honest, the experience with this company was my least favorite.

If you’re really into your family history, it might work for you, but the platform returned 7,000 potential family matches. And, since it didn’t have a great way of filtering them, it quickly became overwhelming.

The ethnic origins map was similar to the other two tests, but slightly less detailed. Seeing as that’s what I most wanted to learn about, I was a bit disappointed.

One unique feature of Family Tree DNA’s test is it includes your “ancient origins.” It was kind of interesting but not enough to bring it on par with the other tests; I don’t know how much I care that I’m 33% farmer and 10% metal-age invader.

Like the other platforms, it also told me the most common surnames that shared DNA with me: Cohen, Miller and Friedman. In case I had any doubt I was Jewish, I don’t anymore…

2. AncestryDNA

Cost: $99 (although often on sale for $79)

Includes: Ethnic percentages and family matching

Processing time: Six weeks

Overall, I found AncestryDNA’s platform and site the most straightforward and easy to use.

I liked that instead of just saying “European Jewish,” it gave me a history about the region and people. It also revealed a “genetic community” where my family had probably lived for the past few hundred years.

Its family matching feature was much more manageable than Family Tree DNA. Instead of thousands of matches, it gave me 478 potential cousins. And of those, it offered just three third cousins that were “extremely high” confidence. I could handle that!

In general, it did a much better job of explaining what I was looking at — why this person could potentially be my cousin, and how much confidence it had in its prediction.

Because, after all, no normal humans know what a centimorgan is.

3. 23andMe

Cost: $99 for ancestry / $199 for ancestry and health (although sometimes on sale for $20 less)

Includes: Ethnic percentages, family matching, health information

Processing time: Seven weeks

As far as genealogy results go, 23andMe was pretty similar to AncestryDNA. Its family tree information and organization was better than Family Tree DNA, but not quite as good as AncestryDNA.

What made 23andMe unique, of course, were its health reports. Here are the four reports you’ll receive:

  • Carrier status: If you’re a carrier for hereditary diseases like Tay-Sachs and sickle cell anemia
  • Genetic health risk: If you’re at risk for developing diseases like Parkinson’s or late-onset Alzheimer’s
  • Traits: Whether you’re likely to prefer sweet or salty foods, or have a widow’s peak
  • Wellness: Whether you’re likely to be lactose intolerant or a deep sleeper

Luckily, I didn’t receive any negative health information, so it’s difficult for me to say whether the health test was worth it. It certainly wasn’t news to me that I move a lot in my sleep and have detached earlobes.

And, even if I had learned I was at risk for something, I don’t know what I would’ve done with the information. It might’ve caused unneeded stress and worry to learn about an issue I couldn’t necessarily fix.  

So I recommend thinking carefully before dropping nearly $200 on the health test — do you want to learn this info? How would it help you?

OK, Just Tell Me Which One to Get

Fine, fine! Like I said above, all the tests have pros and cons.

If you don’t want to make the decision yourself, here’s what I would tell a friend:

  • If you have money to spend and want to find out if you’re a carrier or at-risk for certain diseases: 23andMe
  • If you’re on a budget, or just want to discover your ethnic background and potential relatives: AncestryDNA

How to Save Money on Any DNA Kit

Ready to get started? Well, don’t leave yet.

Here’s how to save money — no matter which kit you choose.

  • Wait until an upcoming holiday: These sites seem to love any excuse to put their kits on sale, so don’t buy one at full price. If it’s not on sale right now, sign up for the site’s email newsletter to be alerted when it is.
  • Buy it as a gift: Can’t fathom spending the money on a DNA kit yourself? By purchasing it as a gift for a sibling, you’ll kill two birds with one stone. (Hat tip to my bf for this hack.)
  • Search for coupon codes: Just by doing a quick Google search, I found a coupon code that got me free shipping on my Ancestry DNA order.
  • Check Groupon: I bought my Family Tree DNA test on Groupon, which saved me 30%.
  • Shop through a cash-back site: Using Ebates, I earned 7% cash back on Ancestry.

Alright, now that my work here is done, you can find me deep in a rabbit hole… stalking all my new potential second-third-fourth cousins.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll be next!

Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. She covers travel, food and personal finance (basically, how to save money so you can travel more and eat more). Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.