The Most Efficient Way to Store Lists in Django Models

Django is a powerful web framework for Python that makes it easy to build complex database-backed web applications. One common task is needing to store a list or array of data in a model. There are a few different ways to approach this, each with their own pros and cons. In this post, we will compare these different methods and look at some best practices for efficiently storing lists in Django.

Using Comma-Separated Strings

One straightforward approach is to store lists as comma-separated string fields. For example:

class Article(models.Model):
    tags = models.CharField(max_length=200)

We could save a list of tags like “python,django,webdev” in that field. This approach is simple and allows easily searching and filtering based on the contents of the list.

However, there are some major drawbacks:

  • Difficult to manipulate lists programmatically – need to parse the string.
  • No way to validate individual list items.
  • Stored as one big string, harder to index and search parts of the list contents.

Overall, using comma-separated strings works but does not scale well and can get messy.

Serializing Lists to Text or JSON Fields

Rather than just comma-separating, we could serialize full Python lists to JSON or another text-based encoding:

import json

class Article(models.Model):
    tags = models.TextField() # json encoded list

article = Article() 
article.tags = json.dumps(['python', 'django'])

This keeps the list data more structured and queryable. But it still ultimately stores as an opaque text blob that has to be deserialized. There are some efficiency advantages over comma-separated strings, but lacks modeling flexibility.

Using Relational Database Joins

Relational databases like Postgres are built for representing relationships between rows in different tables. We can model lists by using a join table to connect items to parents:

class Tag(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=32)

class ArticleTagRelationship(models.Model): 
    article = models.ForeignKey(Article)
    tag = models.ForeignKey(Tag)

Querying and filtering related objects efficiently is what relational databases are best at. The downside is this approach takes more work to set up.

Storing Lists in Django ArrayFields

The Django ArrayField is purpose-built for storing lists efficiently in database rows. It serializes the Python list to an efficient database representation:

from django.contrib.postgres.fields import ArrayField

class Article(models.Model):
  tags = ArrayField(models.CharField(max_length=32))

This provides a nice balance – first class list support but stored more efficiently than full JSON serialization. Querying parts of arrays is also possible. Overall this is an ideal way to store lists for many purposes.

The tradeoff is ArrayFields currently only work with Postgres. But since Postgres is a common Django backend, this works well for many apps.

When to Choose Each List Storage Method

  • Comma-separators: Good for simple short lists when efficiency is not critical.
  • JSON Encoding: Better structure than raw strings. Useful for complex nested lists.
  • Relational Joins: Great when you need strong relational connections between list items and parents. Adds modeling and query flexibility.
  • ArrayField: Ideal balance for native list storage optimized for Postgres. Often the best option.

Consider data access patterns and performance tradeoffs when deciding on list storage. Test options with realistic datasets and queries. Utilize strengths of relational and non-relational data modeling.


Efficiently storing list data is an important aspect of model design in Django web applications. Consider the various methods of encoding lists and aim to utilize relational and NoSQL strengths. For many apps needing simple lists, ArrayFields provide an excellent mixture of list flexibility and efficient storage. Evaluate your specific use cases and access patterns then choose the technique that best fits your needs. Proper list storage optimizations can lead to better overall application performance.