Finding Low-Cost WordPress Themes

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. There is no charge or increase of price for you.

I’m starting a new blog series “WordPress Wednesday” where I spend the day answering your questions about WordPress. Themes, Plug-Ins, design, and more.

I want to thank Bujo Witchraft for being my first, in what I hope is a series of question and answer type posts.

Do you have a good source for free or low-cost themes? Mine is okay, but it won’t let me set a “post” as featured content, only a “page” (at least not via its automated featured content system). Also been wondering how likely a theme change is to break the site.

@bujowitchraft – Instagram

There are an incredible number of free themes available for WordPress sites. The issue is quality. When selecting a theme, you want one that is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. What do I mean by that? I mean you want a well coded, well crafted, well supported, light, and easily maintained theme.

For these reasons, I tend to avoid sending people to mass marketplaces such as Etsy, Envato, and ThemeForest.

The WordPress.org Theme Directory

Instead, I encourage folks to take a look at the WordPress Theme Directory (WPTD). They have an abundance of absolutely free themes. Moreover, the bonus in sourcing from their directory is that they have gone through a serious of standardized (By WordPress) requirements and meet criteria that allows them to be hosted and made available for download to WordPress users.

An individual real live person on the Theme Review Team has looked at these themes, run them through checks, and passed them into the system for download.

Yes, a human!

If you do source your theme from outside the WPTD, I suggest you send your theme through the same review process on your own. You can use the same tools the Theme Review Team does to check yours: Theme Unit Test,Theme Check, and Theme Sniffer . If you aren’t into coding, or technical jargon is not your cup of tea, you can skip this and start with a theme from the WPTD that has already been “vetted.”

The Theme Directory provides a snapshot of all the theme information you need to get started.

I look at many things when sourcing themes, but most notably I look at the number of active installations, the number of 4-star reviews, (generally the most honest of the star levels), the number of open support tickets, the number of times it is updated and how often.

From that data you can usually make an educated guess that a theme is a) reasonably popular, b) well supported and c) is still being actively developed.

From the example screenshot we can see that GeneratePress has 100,000+ Active Installations, was recently updated and highly rated.

A few caveats about the WPTD and review system:

  • Does this make them well coded? No. It just hits the mark on a list of requirements.
  • Does this mean they won’t harm my site or others? Most likely. Obfuscated and harmful or questionable code is not permitted and called into question whenever it appears.
  • Wait, could my theme harm someone ELSE’s website? Yes. Sadly, your theme could affect someone else’s site. There was a recent #WPDrama surrounding this very topic lately (See Pipdig article at the WPTavern)

Of the years I have worked with WordPress there are currently only two free themes I recommend: GeneratePress (edge22) and Twenty Sixteen (automattic).

Defining Low-Cost

Defining “low cost” for themes is a grey area. What is low cost? $5? $50? $100? Without knowing an actual budget for a theme, plugins and more, it’s hard to say what is low cost in a dollar amount. So I will say this:

When a theme offers continual updates, improvements, support through documentation and community discussion – that is worth whatever you can afford to pay.

GeneratePress is an excellent example of this. Their free theme is a nice starting point, and with the addition of a few of their free plugins (which work with any theme [WP Show Posts for example]), you can do some amazing things without opening your wallet. Their Pro license is currently $50. If this is something you can afford to spend, I encourage it.

My Recommendations

I love GeneratePress (affiliate link). I do. It is well crafted, well supported and the support forums (on the Pro side) filled with solutions.

I do not generally recommend themes created by Automattic (the folks behind wordpress.com), but the Twenty Sixteen theme is a well crafted, essential and perfect starter theme.

There are a few theme houses I recommend:

The Theme Foundry

  • Their theme “Make” was a beautiful thing before the classic editor was removed from WordPress and replaced with Gutenberg.
  • If you add the Classic Editor back, “Make” becomes excellent again.
  • Using their theme-specific content areas in Pages and Posts is less of danger with this theme, as you retain your content and only lose the formatting. This is not typical with themes that have custom content areas in the editing experience.
  • The free version in the WPTD is decent, but the Pro upgrade is where its power lies.

Elegant Themes (affiliate link)

  • Divi is a great theme if you like a “what you see is what you get” type environment to “design” your site and add content.
  • My dislikes are that, for me, it is bloated, often confusing to set up, and if you switch themes away and not retain their Divi builder plugin, it is a nightmare.

TL;DR – Recommendations for Themes

Your Website Theme

As per your particular theme and issues, it does appear to be a hard-coded option within the theme itself. Many themes have a “hero” image at the top of the site, and two to four columns under that can be used to highlight services or products that a company offers. Usually, these items link to fully detailed pages. I’m going to assume this is why your theme has chosen pages, rather than posts, for the featured content area.

A company, as most themes available, are designed for, often does not have a blog or continually updated stream of content. Instead, they have static pages with content created once.

Without a great deal of code and a child theme, this is not a quick fix to change from Pages to Featured, or Sticky, Posts.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that it doesn’t appear that any of their theme design locks you into that theme forever, and changing it will be a rather simple thing to do. Pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and sit down to it.

However, before you even do that, I suggest sitting down with pen and paper and sketching out how you want your site to look in all its splendor. Manifest that baby.

Basing off your current theme and content I would ask:
Why do you have a hero image?
Why do you want featured content under a hero image? What featured content would need this ideally be? How often do you feel the content needs to be cycled?

Keep an eye out for more posts detailing how to go from sketching your idea to actualizing it with a theme and plugins starting in May. Until then, keep creating content.

Even my site is a blank slate because I have little content at the moment. Content is a critical factor in any website design. Without content, there is no website.

You are creating valuable content for your audience: keep that up. The design you want now, may not be what highlights your established content in six months.


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