Friday, September 2, 2011

Homeschooling on a Shoestring

I don’t usually write about homeschooling on this blog (and it is an irony that I write now as half my student body has started public school this year) but I have been hearing a lot this month from my homeschooling connections about their plans for the year—what curriculum, what programs, what co-ops, what books/classes/materials, and oh how expensive it all is!  And I get a bit more than irked.  Homeschooling certainly can be expensive but it doesn’t have to be expensive at all. To imply, or believe, that homeschooling is of necessity an expensive endeavor is also to imply that homeschooling is an elitist activity—“look how much we spend on what we value!  We must be better than all you who can’t, don’t, or won’t do the same!”

I’ve been facilitating my daughters’ education for ten years and it was the rare year indeed that I spent as much on homeschooling as I have just spent to send my oldest daughter to public high school. Dedicated gym shoes, gym uniforms, two sports physicals (because the school lost the first one), notary fees for band and swim contracts, band uniform fittings and cleanings, swim team suits and caps, two backpacks (because they don’t give the kids hall lockers or athletic lockers anymore), required binders, folders and notebooks of the correct size and color, USB sticks, fees for swim team/band/lab class, activity passes and a yearbook—all above and beyond the pens, pencils, notebook computer, special foods and practice suits for swim, and other supplies we would have bought her anyway.  I estimate (because actually adding up the costs would be too depressing) that I’ve forked out over $600 directly related to her attendance at public school. 

When I homeschooled both my girls, the most I ever paid was the year we started first grade and I bought an all-inclusive boxed curriculum for $500 (really cheap as boxed curricula go, I’ve seen some that are $500 per subject and not reusable!).  Another year more recently, I felt the need to use textbooks and workbooks and spent $300 at Amazon on books that rarely even got their spines cracked.  This year, I might spring for a subscription to BrainPOP for another hundred bucks.  Other than that, our expenses have been almost entirely what we would pay for regardless of where the girls were educated—satellite television (my first daughter taught herself to read from the closed captioning), high speed internet, Netflix, quality art and craft supplies, music and dance lessons, swim club, and related gear.  And, of course, boxes and boxes of books that I slog home from the used bookstore where I buy primarily on book credit.

I bought a few math manipulatives early on but found that the girls learned more quickly with cheap bulk candy, or craft supplies we already owned, than with the base-10 blocks or Cuisenaire rods.  The same with phonics activities and dyslexia-remediation materials—free and cheap stuff worked so much better than the pricy specialty stuff (although even then, I bought quite inexpensively compared to what I see available for math or LD instruction).  I have no qualms at all about declaring that a library card and an internet connection can provide a quality education that rivals an expensive prep school.  Co-ops, special classes, and boxed curricula can add frosting to the cake but are not necessary.

I buy a $35 annual museum membership to a museum in Alabama that gets us into museums all over the world for free (or very cheaply) and for years I paid for a zoo membership that reciprocated all over the country.  We have paid for Junior Achievement programs a couple years when some homeschoolers got a group together, maybe $10/student/year. I get an educator discount at all the bookstores (although Amazon is usually still cheaper), the office supply stores, crafting stores, and of course the education supply stores. We get a few magazines—National Geographic, Science, and American Girl—but hardly the thousands of dollars that some homeschool families spend on Cricket subscriptions.  I know families whose magazine budget for a single year exceeds my entire expenses for the lifetime of our homeschooling!

The only caveat I might add to my “homeschooling is really cheap” declaration is that I have always lived in urban areas with access to decent (if not outstanding) museums and large free library systems.  When I found out that some public library districts make you pay annual fees, sometimes even if you live in-district, I was shocked.  I have free cards to five different library systems plus access to several university and college libraries should I want them.  If we lived where library-access was limited or there were a dearth of museums and zoos, I might have had to spend more money than I do.  If we lived really out in the boonies where there weren’t Costcos or Wal-Marts, I might have spent more on some supplies.  And I’d really be hurting if I were somewhere without high-speed internet access. 

I am also fortunate to have always lived in towns or cities with a university so there have always been cheap art supply stores, student-rates, and lots of fine arts productions.  Because there are so many homeschoolers here (and in the other places I’ve lived), there are always groups who organize field trips and other projects for low or no cost.  On the other hand, my children have no idea what it is like to be in a community that lives close to the land and interdependent on neighbors.  Those communities have opportunities that my family doesn’t have to learn lessons that I struggle to teach here in the suburbs.  Real people doing real work make better teachers than any field trip or manufactured lesson. 

What follows, in no particular order, are some of the great free online resources we use:

National Geographic for Kids
Smithsonian Institution
National Library of Virtual Manipulatives (visual math manipulations for preschool through high school)
Time 4 Learning (subscription site for math, language, science and social studies for K-6grade)
Steve Spangler Science (videos of experiments to do at home)
Beginning Latin for Homeschoolers (follows the book Getting Started with Latin)
CNN Student News (middle to high school)
Khan Academy (mostly math from basic addition to college math)
Discovery Channel Education (subscription but lots of free teacher resources)
LD Online (learning disabilities)
iTunes U (free podcasts from world class universities and museums)
History Channel Classroom


  1. Thanks for these resources. My daughter likes storynory and shepherd software (free online websites). You can get brainpop and a student edition of discovery streaming for $59 (see here for more info

    The great thing about homeschooling is that budget is so flexible. We have spent quite a considerable about (maybe around $1000 if you add in homeschool classes), but almost all of it was non-consumable and will either be re-used or resold! The true cost of homeschooling is not measured by the initial expenses, but the net cost spread over different children (minus the resale profit). At that point, I wouldn't be surprised to see public school costs parallel homeschooling. The only true expense of homeschooling is that generally, one parent cannot work full-time and thus...most families have a stay-at-home parent.

  2. Thanks for putting all these links together in one place! =D

    Since you read my blog, you know I'm going to point out that having internet access, satellite television, Netflix and DVD payer, three magazine subscriptions, money for gas and car maintenance, museum memberships and a book budget all take SOME money.

    These are all middle class necessities (you point out that you would have these expenses no matter where your kids are educated) but for those *simple* living QFers, those are huge expenditures- some may be considered unnecessary luxuries, some may be considered evil worldly influences to be avoided at all costs. If such a person lands on your blog by googling "homeschooling on a shoestring", I hope that they will see the latent message sprinkled throughout your post but never actually put into words.

    To borrow from the Mastercard commercials:

    Television/internet $100+
    Netflix $10+
    Book exchange credits $0



    A mom is taking on a huge responsibility when deciding to mentor her child to adulthood without the input of an outside school. And yet, good home school moms still never really go it alone. Museum docents, neighbors, narrators of television/DVD programs, etc.- all are welcome and appreciated by a home school mom who wants the best for her children. YOU are THAT kind of home school mom! I am so proud to be your internet friend and read your blog. n_n

    So, to any n00b home school moms reading here, notice the unspoken message here too, please: a mom who cares enough to research the internet for truly helpful links, who is not censoring the scientific resources to fit a religious doctrine, who regularly brings new reading material into the home (by library, book exchange and magazine subscriptions), who pays for lessons, museums and the gas to drive her students to places where they will learn new discoveries beyond anything she could plan in the confines of her home. Let Sandra inspire you to be THAT kind of home school mom too!


  3. I typed up a response but it didn't go through, perhaps b/c it had a link? Check the spam folder. The link directs you to a G3 forum where you can purchase a subscription to brainpop plus discovery streaming for 59 dollars. :)

  4. LaC, I rescued your comment from spam--weird that it came through to my email properly but here on the blog it was spammed. Thanks for noticing it got lost. And thanks for the link! I will definitely be checking it out; my 13yo is really loving the BrainPOP lessons and Discovery streaming looks like a great thing. Same daughter really learns well from video--movies of all kinds, cartoons, Khan Academy video--so I'm trying to incorporate a lot more of my curriculum in video format.

  5. Shadowspring, thanks for filling in some of the holes I left by not specifying some of my homeschooling presuppositions. I do not homeschool for reasons of indoctrination. I don't homeschool out of fear (anymore) and never censored television, internet, music, books, friends (even when I was working from a fear-based "protect them from The Big Bad World" mindset, although I did always supervise until recently).

    If indoctrination or "sheltering" (the religious word) or "protecting" (the secular word) are a primary motivation for homeschooling, then, YES it is going to be expensive because everything that comes into your house is going to come from pricey places--Vision Forum (for the religious) or Waldorf or Montessori places (for the secular). And often those parents eschew satellite television and internet out of their zealotry, if not for financial reasons.

    But even if economics demand that a homeschooling household forego all the culturally "normal" entertainment connections (TV, internet), there are still public libraries with computers access, and you can get loads of DVDs as well as books there. It will take a little more ingenuity to make use of some of the resources I listed but they are still possible. I know a homeless family (single mother and son) who homeschooled entirely through the public library until the boy was 13, at which time he became a ward of the state. He was tested for placement in public school and came up way in the front of his class (he is now studying video game design at the university).

    My second unspoken assumption is that the homeschooling parent takes the mentoring of the child and facilitation of his education as a primary job--even if they are working full or part-time from the home. Facilitating an individualized education IS hard work--whether you spend a lot of money or not--and not everyone is particularly suited for the work. It doesn't come automatically when one becomes a parent. No curriculum, co-op, series of classes, support group field trips, or list of online resources is going to substitute for authentically meeting your child--person-to-person--and fostering her individual developmental needs and personal interests.

  6. "My second unspoken assumption is that the homeschooling parent takes the mentoring of the child and facilitation of his education as a primary job--even if they are working full or part-time from the home. Facilitating an individualized education IS hard work--whether you spend a lot of money or not--and not everyone is particularly suited for the work. It doesn't come automatically when one becomes a parent. No curriculum, co-op, series of classes, support group field trips, or list of online resources is going to substitute for authentically meeting your child--person-to-person--and fostering her individual developmental needs and personal interests."

    Yay! Yessss. You could make a whole post about that, as you are an excellent example. Faithful readers know that you have physical challenges everyday, and yet you STILL manage to keep this responsibility at the forefront of everything you DO choose to expend your (precious and limited) energy fulfilling.

    You are one of my heros!

  7. "You are one of my heros!"

    Thank you!

    Did I mention that I wrote this post from bed? And, in fact, I am in bed right now because life just runs more smoothly when I have my feet up and my head supported.

  8. Great. Make sure you follow the link soon b/c I think there are limits to the discount. I am writing from bed too. Yeah for us to sick to function upright;)

  9. LaC--thanks so much for the tip on G3 Online. I subscribed to the forum (that I may or may not ever participate in--we need more online community like we need more holes in our heads) for the low, low price of $59 and the subscription to BrainPOP and Discovery Education is free with the forum. That is a substantial (!!!) savings over the BrainPOP alone and I'd never even looked at Discovery Education before--wow, talk about an embarrassment of riches! I was overwhelmed with the largess of resources.

    Using Khan Academy (free), DirecTV (would have subscribed anyway), BrainPOP and Discovery ($59), I have more material and resources than I could ever use for everything I want to get my kid to learn! Oh, and we use CNN Student News--free, broadcasts at some ridiculous time on CNN or always available on CCN/studentnews with resources, also on Facebook and podcast.

    So for the price of the one subscription and some paper and pencils (well, really, we print out the worksheets), an education for the whole family at my fingertips. Even counting the price of internet and satellite television, ($200/mo for the both), this is less than many of the families spend on boxed curriculum for multi-grade families.

  10. I would be curious to learn how much boxed curricula like sonlight , etc cost. I buy everything a la carte (not from sonlight eithrr). I like being able to tailor things to my daughter's learning style and grade level in each subject, and I'm sure I'm saving money too!

  11. i never looked at Sonlight but the few companies I did look at were $500-800 per year. They are marketed as complete (as in you don't need to buy anything else for the year) and sometimes reusable for later children but I don't know any family who actually did that. They always found their main curriculum to be weak in some subject or other and had to buy supplemental subject curricula or that the material bought for the first kid absolutely didn't work for the later kid (say, if the first kid was very happy doing workbooks and paper-n-pencil lessons but the second kid is dyslexic and learns from video like a snap--which was true in our house--or a third kid is ADD and needs highly tactile, whole body learning methods).

    The families whose actual homeschooling budgets I know or can deduce from what they've bought over the years have easily spent $1000/year/kid just for actual curriculum or workbooks/magazines used to teach from, teacher training resources and supplies like paint and watercolor paper, specialize manipulatives, yarn and handwork materials not included in that price.