The Hidden Costs of a WordPress Theme


The temptation to download a free or commercial WordPress theme is great for both pros and novices who want to build their own website. And it’s easy to see why. A feature-packed theme can, in theory, provide your project with a great head start. Faster development means you’re up and running in less time and having spent a fraction of the cash.

And modern themes offer all sorts of possibilities when it comes to customization. For instance, many offer page builders, header/footer tools and tons of premade layouts. Still, that’s not always enough for a site with specific needs.

This is where a Pandora’s Box worth of hidden costs (of both time and money) can arise. It takes a lot of us by surprise.

So, before you head off and commit to a theme, take a moment to read this article. We’ll introduce you to the potential complications that come with the territory, along with some other items to keep in mind. It might just save you a headache or two!

Don’t Believe the Hype

It’s easy to browse through a WordPress theme and conclude that it’s just what you need – or at least will get you most of the way. But you may not know if that’s truly the case until you start building your website.

While there are a number of high-quality themes available, there is only so much effortless flexibility that can be built in. Put another way: You may very well be able to customize every aspect, but it may take a much bigger effort than your first glance would indicate.

For novice designers and hobbyists, this can test the limits of their patience and resolve. Many themes promise that you can move mountains with “no code”. But at some point, you may have to cross that invisible line into a code-laden nightmare.

Even pros can become frustrated with the effort required to force a theme to fit a certain vision. This can include overriding templates in a child theme. It’s good in practice, but also leaves you open to potential maintenance issues down the road should major changes occur in the parent.

The biggest thing to understand here is that no theme can do absolutely everything without requiring some user effort. Yet, themes aren’t marketed this way. They give the impression that anyone who can click a mouse can perform all sorts of magical feats. This is more hyperbole than reality.

A neon sign that reads "This is the sign you've been waiting for".

Assessing a Theme’s Capabilities

The reality is that, unless you’re willing to accept at least some form of the default look and behavior, you’ll have work to do. That often includes reading documentation, browsing support forums and a lot of trial-and-error.

To put this into perspective, consider a typical theme settings panel (or the WordPress Customizer, if your theme uses it). Think of everything available here as your theme’s default. This may include, among other things: page layouts, sidebar widgets, header and footer customizations, fonts and colors.

Now, combine those items with the capabilities of the included page builder (or the default Gutenberg block editor) and you should have a pretty good idea of what you can accomplish with fairly minimal effort.

Want to do more? Adding new features and functionality may just be a matter of installing a plugin or hacking away at some CSS. But it’s not always that simple. Sometimes, a top-heavy theme might not get along with each and every plugin you’ll want to use. And, if you don’t know CSS, well, that’s another barrier.

Woman using a laptop computer.

Consider Alternatives

If a theme’s default set of tools and options won’t get you the results you want, then it’s time to look somewhere else. Among your alternatives:

Find Another Theme

There may well be another theme somewhere out there that does exactly what you want. It could just be a matter of finding it. But considering the sheer number of available themes out there, this could be a challenge.

Go Full-On DIY

Another option would be to look for a minimal, blank-slate type of theme that, when combined with a page builder, lets you start from scratch.

Products like Beaver Builder (through their available Beaver Builder Theme) or Divi (via their All in One Theme) come to mind. They let you essentially build from the ground up, which may be easier than ripping an already-built theme apart and putting it back together.

Build a Custom Theme

This may have been what you were trying to avoid in the first place. But there are situations where a custom WordPress theme is the best answer. It may cost more if you have to hire someone and take some time to get things right. But the upside is that you’re more likely to get exactly what you’re looking for.

Person touching a tablet screen.

Manage Your Expectations

In a sense, WordPress themes are often marketed similarly to those “amazing” products you see on TV. Some will claim to solve all of your issues for a mere fraction of what it costs to build something custom. But just like anything else, it’s important to separate the talk from the reality.

This isn’t meant to scare you away from using readymade themes. Rather, it’s about knowing what to expect when you do take that plunge. Understand that, the more you want your website to do, the more work is involved – awesome theme or not.

So, if you see a theme you like, by all means go for it. Just don’t expect miracles.

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