Here's some links to the other entries in this beginner's guide. If you want to skip ahead, scroll down and find the relevant post. I'll be covering next steps, rare trading, fuel and scooping, working with the larger ships and how to find the best trade routes. If all of that sounds like random gibberish - read on!
Part one - the basics
Part two - I think we're going to need a bigger boat
Part three - Rare trading for the win
Part four - Ahab and the whales (bigger ships, mo money)
Part five - Commodities, economies and route planning
If you're interested in exploring, check out my introduction guide here.
Starting Out - buying and selling goods
Let's begin at the beginning! You've got a Sidewinder with four tons of cargo space. You've got a few credits in the bank. How do you make money?
You'll be sitting in a space station. If you select "Starport Services" you'll see the Commodities market pop up. Select that option and you'll see a list of goods (or Commodities) for sale and purchase.
The price and availability of goods depends on various factors. Firstly, and most importantly, is the type of economy of the system - Industrial, Agricultural, High Tech, Refinery, etc.
Here's a list of the various types of economic system and the goods that are in supply (being sold) or in demand (being bought) in those types of economy.
And here's a more detailed list of each type of commodity available in the game.
So, how do you make money? Simples! Buy low, sell high.
But what should you buy? and how do you know what's low and what's high? Well, that really depends on lots of factors (time of day, how many people are trading and more) but the simplest thing is to learn some of the basics.
Agricultural economies produce things like food and drink, so they tend to be in supply (and cheap to buy). They like to buy things that help them produce food (like crop harvesters or atmospheric processors) and things that keep their farmers happy (domestic appliances, consumer tech, clothes).
Go to an Industrial economy, and you'll find them producing things like domestic appliances and consumer tech, and in need of things like food! So if you buy food in an Agricultural system, fly it to an Industrial system and sell it, you'll make a profit! Even better, if you then buy some consumer goods or clothes and fly them back to the starting Agricultural system, you'll make a profit on the return leg, and you've got yourself a trade route.
You may be thinking "that's awesome, Einstein, thanks for the economic theory - now just tell me what to buy and where to take it". Because the answer to that question is based on where you are, how much money you've got and how much cargo space you've got free, you'll need to do a little bit of work yourself to figure out the best answer. The hard way to do this is to go into the galactic map, look at the trade routes, narrow down a commodity that's leaving your system and flowing to a target, and finding a return commodity to help make profit.
The easy way is to use one of the many tools to go look up the best answer. This steps outside the fiction of the game and you might consider it bending the rules - but if you're looking for the fastest way to get cash, it's a great way to start. I've used Thrudd's trading tool a lot to begin with - this tool tracks prices in various stations and helps you to pick the best goods to buy and where to take them.
Go to the trade calculator, pop in your details (cargo hold size, available cash, your current system) and it'll tell you the best profit trade you can make. Fill in the destination details and reverse the route, and it'll tell you what to bring back on your return.
As an example, if you're starting in Agri and aiming for Indi, you'll probably buy grain or fruit and veg for your first purchase. Once you sell at the other end, you'll likely buy clothing and domestic appliances or even biowaste to make a buck on the return journey.
Now all you have to do is fill up on as much cargo as you can afford, fly to your target system, head to the right space station, dock, and sell it! Ker-ching! Do the same on a return leg and you'll have made some moolah, seen some sights and be ready to repeat the process. Don't forget to buy fuel!
Now you're probably thinking "holy moly, I made a couple K in profit, it's going to take me forever to get that Anaconda". True - but you're on your way.
Your first hour tradingYou've made a few credits and you're on a roll. If you repeat what you've just done a few times, you'll have even more credits (probably a few thousand) and you'll be getting the hang of navigating the commodities market, docking and jumping between systems. Don't worry about getting rich until you're comfortable with the basics. Repeat that run you just made five times and then take stock.
Once you've got the basics down, what next? Well, mo money makes mo money. You can hopefully afford some of the more expensive commodities on future runs - you might have started out buying and selling food carts or grain or clothing - they were the only items you could afford 3 or 4 tons of. Now, you should be able to afford a ton or two of tea or coffee, maybe some domestic appliances. You were making 1K a run, with a couple of hundred credits per ton. Now you spend 5K and you make 2K a run, with a profit in the region of 300-400 credits per ton. You don't need to buy all the same items - you can always purchase a ton of expensive stuff and fill the rest of your space with cheap goods to round out your profit.
The simplest thing to do is to repeat this process until you are filling your hold with the most expensive goods at each station and you've still got money in the bank. You'll probably have 25-30K at this point, and you'll be buying consumer technology, tobacco, progenitor cells or superconductors at 4-7K per ton, with a profit of 1K per ton when you sell.
Working for the man
You've got the basics down and a small pile of credits - wouldn't it be awesome if you could break the monotony and pull in 20K profit once in a while? Well, you can! every time you dock at a station, even before you sell your goods, take a quick look on the bulletin board. If you're lucky, you'll see someone who wants what you're carrying and is willing to pay a premium for it. Quids in!
Even if they don't want what you've got, you'll occasionally see missions where you can carry someone else's cargo for a decent reward. You'll also see missions asking for certain goods at a decent premium and it's often worth your while going out of your way to find what they are asking for. If you spot a mission asking for 4 tons of silver or gold, take a quick look on Thrudd's trading tool and see if you can make a quick turnaround on the purchase - you might even be able to make a profit on the run out to the station that sells the silver, and make a nice 15-20K on the return. Just be sure you can afford the goods before you promise to deliver them!
This is probably the fastest way to get big chunks of starting cash, so don't forget to check every time you dock.
Onward and upward
Once you maximise your profit potential, you've got a few options. The first is probably to look for a more lucrative trade route - if you're not making 3K+ a run (round trip) then you should look to find a better pair of stations to trade between.
You should also factor in how efficient the run is - hyperspace jumps take time. Supercruise and docking take even more time. You should be able to find a route that takes less than 15 minutes round trip for a single jump and once you're practiced at navigating and flying, you can probably get a two or three jump route round trip in under 15 minutes and a single jump trip round trip in 10 minutes. Time taken is time wasted, so be mindful and practice docking fast (hopefully without blowing up!) and navigating the commodities pages.
There will be a point where you've found a good route, you're doing it as fast as you can, and you're now limited by cargo space rather than money. This is the point to decide your upgrade path.
The first, mostly obvious, upgrade is to take out your discovery scanner and replace it with a class 1 cargo bay, which gives you another two tons of cargo capacity. If you're trading, then you're likely not discovering much and you've just increased your profit potential by 50%. You might not be able to buy this in an Agricultural system but you'll likely be able to find a new cargo hold in an Industrial or High Tech system. Just browse to Outfitting, pick your discovery scanner slot and see if they have a 1C cargo bay replacement.
The second thing you should consider is upgrading your Frame Shift Drive. If you upgrade your FSD, you'll be able to jump further - that might make more lucrative routes open up to you (or reduce the amount of time it takes to run the route by reducing the number of jumps you need to take). You'll see various stats that change with this upgrade, but basically each increase in the rating of the drive will allow you to jump further. picking up a 2D drive will give you an instant boost for not much outlay. I'd not recommend going as far as a 2A drive, because (if you're trading focussed) there's better things to spend your money on coming to you very shortly!
Different rated items are better in different ways. You'd expect that as you progressed from rating E to rating A everything would improve, and that's often the case - but D rated items are nearly always much lighter than A, C and E rated items (which are normally the same mass). conversely, B rated items are nearly always much heavier than the rest. Why does this matter? Because the mass of your ship affects your maximum jump range. Because of this, you're often best getting D rated items as the first and only upgrade for any particular system unless you really need that system to be best in class - in which case the A is often the best and only choice because the B rating item ruins your jump range. You might find that you can survive with a lower class system, and the 3A is better for you than a 4D and doesn't cost much more.
If you're feeling dangerous, you can swap your shield generator for another class 2 cargo bay with 4 ton capacity. If you're a careful pilot and don't tend to crash into things, this can really help maximize your profitability. Be aware that any small scrapes and bumps will damage (or potentially destroy) your ship, leaving you back in space dock with a nasty repair bill - or even worse, giving your 10 tons of cargo to a pirate and dropping you back into a new loaner Sidewinder!
If you've maxed your ship cargo space as much as you can and you're still at your profit cap, the next step is to get a bigger ship. Congratulations, commander - you're on your way!
See part two of my guide for the next steps in trading.
See part three of my guide for details of rare trading.
See part four of my guide for information about trading in the bigger ships.
See part five of my guide for details of commodities, economies and route planning.