It is easy to see why people hesitate about buying their first tarot deck or adding another deck to their collection. It’s hard to predict before using it whether or not a particular tarot deck will work for you in the long-term. This is normal because tarot is a tool. If I am a carpenter, it will probably take me some trial and error to find the brand and style of hammer that works best for me. As I become more skilled, I begin to understand the features I like best in a hammer and make different buying decisions. The same goes for tarot. If you are hesitating about buying any decks because you’re afraid of buying one you don’t end up liking, let me assure you right now: you are going to buy at least one deck you don’t like. Don’t let it hold you back.
Unfortunately, with the floor starting at $20USD, tarot isn’t a very cheap hobby. Even if you’re not a deck collector, a collection of 8 or 10 decks could still set you back a few hundred dollars. Here are my main tips for choosing a tarot deck that is more likely to click with you and less likely to waste your money. (Although you should also just accept some wasted money as part of the process.)
Understand how important it is to you that you do—or don’t—see yourself in a deck.
One of the best things about the tarot renaissance of the last 5 or 6 years is that we are seeing a lot more diverse representation of people depicted in decks. Although it might have been the case that in prior centuries, readers saw the people in decks as symbols and not actual human beings, we are now in a world where people want to see people who look like themselves in the tarot. It’s still a small corner of the market, but the number of decks that feature diversity of race, gender expression, size, age, ability, etc. has grown a lot. If you know that seeing yourself in your decks is important to you, it will make the pool of available decks more focused.
On the other hand, some people do not want to see human beings of any kind represented in decks for various reasons. There are also lots of decks out there that do not feature humans or humanoid creatures. Knowing this about yourself will narrow down your search considerably.
Just because you’d hang it on your wall does not mean it works well as a tarot deck—and vice versa.
This was the biggest lesson for me to learn: art that looks beautiful doesn’t necessarily do well when it comes to divination. When we are reading cards, we need a few things from them:
- that they’re immediately recognizable and distinguishable from other cards,
- that they engage in some sort of symbolic language,
- And that the imagery can be easily seen and understood without needing to hold the card right up to your face.
The (somewhat) exception to this are cards that are deliberately abstract so as to pull messages from your subconscious, rather than speak in a symbolic language.
There’s a lot of great art out there that would function terribly in tarot decks. Likewise, I have decks in my collection that are extremely powerful for divination but have art that I’d never hang on my wall. In tarot decks, I have learned to choose clarity and power over beauty. That being said, if a deck is so ugly to you that you feel repulsed when looking at it, then take that as a very good sign to not buy it!
Figure out what your deal-breaker cards are and try to see the whole deck if possible before buying.
You may not know it, but you probably have some deal-breaker cards. That is, cards that gauge how closely a deck creator’s understanding of the tarot aligns with yours. If the deck looks great overall, but they messed up this particular card, will that impede your ability to use the deck? Deal breaker cards are often cards that we closely identify with, or cards whose interpretation we feel strongly about. My deal breaker cards are often the High Priestess, the Queen of Cups, Death, Temperance, the Three of Swords or the Ten of Swords. If I am looking at a deck that interprets these cards in a way that I dislike or disagree with, I just won’t get the deck. Figuring out deal-breaker cards takes time. Sometimes you need to see someone really eff up the Ten of Swords or Strength before you understand it’s a deal-breaker card for you.
Knowing your deal-breaker cards is only half the battle, though, because sometimes it’s difficult to see all of the cards before you buy. The ideal scenario is if a friend owns the deck and you can flip through their copy and get their opinion on it. Some metaphysical shops will have demo decks so you can handle and flip through a deck before buying. In the world of online retail, more indie deck creators are understanding that providing low-res images of all 78 cards makes people more willing to buy the deck. In other cases, readers and collectors do deck flip-through videos to show all the cards one by one. If you have a rare or ultra-new deck yourself, consider doing a flip-through video as a public service! And if you want to take a gamble on spending money…in order to not spend more money… buying a tarot app is a good way to see all of the cards in a deck and read the guidebook before you decide to invest in a hard copy.
Be prepared for some trial and error, and have an exit strategy for your decks.
Even if you do your best research beforehand, decks will surprise you. One deck may click with you while another turns up answers that don’t make any sense. Sometimes, a deck will sit on your shelf for years until one day the readings start to be meaningful. Other times, you’ll find that you have outgrown a deck that worked for you right out of the box a couple of years before. Unfortunately, none of this correlates with how much money a deck cost or how much you wanted it before you bought it.
If you have been cherishing the fantasy of the One True Deck that you can use in every context forever, know that it might take years and a lot of money to find that deck. (Also, as a polyamorous person, I’m just gonna say—it’s a lot of pressure to put on one deck to serve all of your needs. Needing multiple decks is OK!) As you grow as a person and a tarot reader, you may find that what you need in a tarot deck changes. Being flexible and willing to swap out your decks over the years means you’ll have a collection that’s in tune with you as a person.
If you do want to sell, I have found that it’s pretty easy to re-home unwanted decks. If you already have an online store for something else, just put your used decks up there. You can sell over social media or on tarot forums to people you trust. People are also often willing to swap a deck of theirs for one you don’t want. There have been a few decks that have been hard for me to sell or swap, but you can likely find a willing person in the right place. Giving a used deck as a gift to a friend or a stranger is also a good strategy to send a deck on the next stage of its journey.
Before you open the flood gates, a note on tarot deck shopping addiction: it is real and it can damage your finances. This isn’t unique to tarot; you can wreck yourself financially over shoes, enamel pins, board games, or anything else that doesn’t seem expensive yet adds up very quickly. If you find yourself obsessing over decks and buying one every time you get a little spare cash, you’ll probably want to get a clear picture of how much you’re spending on your deck habit. Don’t try to justify deck buying as a need. Even as a professional reader, there’s no way that I can justify the 25 or so tarot and oracle decks that I have! It’s ok to be truthful with yourself and want something just because you want it.
For the first couple of years I read tarot, I spent a lot of money on decks. I even wrote a post about it. The good news is that I eventually did get over it. If you are struggling with wanting to buy decks, sit down and create a document or spreadsheet of all your deck purchases and their costs (including tax and shipping!) to see how much you’re spending. I have seen people give themselves an allowance for decks in their budget, or allow themselves to buy a certain number a year, or have a policy that they can only buy a new one if they sell one first. A big part of curbing my deck spending was getting off of social media so that I wasn’t flooded with pictures of people buying shiny new decks all the time. Finding a strategy that keeps deck buying in the healthy range also means that you can have a relationship with tarot that isn’t tinged by guilt.