Homeschooling on a shoestring

Recently I heard a parent casually remark that in her experience, homeschooling one child costs about eight grand a year. That certainly hasn’t been my experience. During the first ten years of my kids’ lives, the amount we spent was negligible.

As teens the kids had interests they wanted to pursue but we still curbed our spending. The largest outlay of money was on community college classes the kids chose, an investment that’s paid off in spades, leading to connections that helped with internships and jobs. For one kid, the classes are translating into two years of college credit that will accelerate her graduation.

Making snow people is free!

Even with our increased spending during the teen years, we never came close to eight grand a year, or even half that amount. Perhaps we were just cheapskates. Another way to look at it is that we were practicing “financial freedom through badassity,” a concept promoted by Mr. Money Mustache.

You, too, can homeschool in freewheeling, badass style. I call it Slow Homeschooling. It’ll save you a boatload of money and might even improve your life. Below are suggestions for freeing yourself from the perceived necessity to enroll your kid in as many “educational” programs as possible.

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Picking wild berries — free!

The best things in homeschooling are free Public libraries were probably our most important homeschooling resource. We spent a lot of time there, attending story time, taking out books, checking out the free workshops, and just hanging out. When my kids developed serious interests, the library was the first place we turned. At age 11, for example, one daughter became obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald and jazz and wanted to devour as much music as possible. Thanks to our regular trips to the library, she knew just where to find what she craved.

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Reading library books — free!

Libraries also offer passes for local museums that provide steep discounts or even free admission. Said museums are also likely to have particular days and times when entry is completely free, and some offer free or discounted admission to students. Universities are also great resources for free or inexpensive concerts, lectures, art exhibits, and more. Through connections with professors, we even finagled auditing privileges for one kid to take, gratis, a couple of classes at the university in the suburb where we live. Also free—nature. We spent a lot of time in it. Highly recommended.

Play! Free play enhances your kid’s learning, executive function, and just about every kind of development, not to mention enjoyment of life. My kids spent the bulk of their childhoods playing. Weekly park days were a staple of our homeschooling lives. There, our kids connected with friends, dabbled in the brook, built fairy houses, and played capture the flag and ultimate frisbee. Parents connected as well, chatting, walking, and sharing thoughts and ideas while kids engaged in and negotiated their dramatic play, made-up amusements, and structured games.

Play — it’s free!

Find—and use—your tribe Joining a local homeschooling support group is almost always free. Going to park days, potlucks, support meetings, gym days, and any other free, low cost group events that cater to a broad range of ages and families is a great way to connect with others. If you or your kid are interested in something in particular, like a book club, science experiments, creative writing group, etc., and you can’t find one available, use your local networks to organize it. Organizing field trips generally gets you free admission and the chance to get to know people. Theater productions, math clubs, science fairs, geography fairs, open mikes, craft fairs, holiday parties—the list of free programming we’ve enjoyed through our local support group is long. An active, thriving support group offers benefits beyond saving money. It helps foster close friendships for you and your kids, and inspires meaningful activities that spring organically from the interests and talents of the people in the group.

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Network, network, network The connecting and organizing you’re doing in your support group? Extend it to the broader community. Seek out people and places that offer you and your kids enriching experiences—for free. Among the things we did: joined an Ecoteam (a program that brought a group of families together over a period of months to closely examine water use, trash production, and other environmental impacts), volunteered as a family at a soup kitchen, and auditioned for multi-generational community theater. Once the kids hit double digits, they started doing this kind of thing for themselves, leaving me and my husband more time to pursue our own interests. Another benefit of raising kids who are doers is that adults love to help enthusiastic young people. My son, for example, was mentored by birding enthusiasts, gifted with a digital camera and other equipment to pursue his nature photography habit, handed free tickets for our whole family to attend a weekend folk music festival, and more. My other kids also found ways to pursue their passions with minimal financial outlay through avenues that included internships, winning contests, and volunteering in the community.

Working at the Museum of Science

Seek out mentors As I mentioned, adults are generally excited about helping young people. Whatever your kid is interested in, scour your local and online communities seeking people, jobs, and opportunities to help your kids pursue their interests. Don’t get discouraged if you hit roadblocks, such as institutions with age requirements for volunteer positions. Just keep talking to people and researching options, and chances are you’ll find someone who will welcome the opportunity to share their knowledge, expertise, and time with a young person. My kids benefited from mentors in the areas of music, theater, birding, photography, and psychology, among other things.

Technology I didn’t put this near the top because it wasn’t a huge part of our homeschooling (we didn’t even have a television). My kids were teenagers when they did get computers, and they learned to use them quickly, applying the same curiosity, self-motivation, and practicality that had always served them well (ask me how my son learned how to make websites for his nature photography, musical projects, and “Lord of the Rings” fan sites and I’ll tell you I have no clue). My kids did use Khan Academy occasionally, and I’ve known plenty of families who’ve had great experiences with EdX courses.  I know there are oodles of free or inexpensive online resources available for those who want them. The trick is finding them, and to do that you just need to practice the principles I’ve been talking about—researching, networking, talking to others, and self-sufficiency.

Teenage years I mention this especially because in my experience this is when we had to make the biggest decisions about spending money. There were instrument lessons, community college courses, summer programs, and other exciting prospects. We used the same approach we had always used, carefully considering before enrolling and seeking ways to spend as little as possible. We used our state’s dual enrollment program to help pay for community college classes. My kids sang and performed in a semi-professional company that charged no participation fee. To help my daughter gain experience performing jazz we regularly attended local jazz jams. On their own, my kids pursued volunteer positions in hospitals, libraries, museums, and other places. One daughter entered and won competitions that gave her opportunities to travel the country and learn from professional artists. Another daughter who longed to play Hamlet and other leading Shakespearean roles knew that finding that opportunity in the community would be nearly impossible, so she gathered her friends together and started her own theater company, putting on more than a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays on, of course, a shoestring budget.

Badassity is a choice Sometimes I hear people remark that homeschooling is solely for the privileged, and from some angles, that is certainly true. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to do it, but as I’ve described, we did it frugally. We juggled homeschooling and two parents working, and we prioritized spending time together over spending money. We spent less time seeking out ways to make more money, and more time looking for ways to curb our spending. One thing I know is that choosing to homeschool led me to feel empowered to do other things I had previously thought impossible. That kind of empowerment, whether it’s related to a choice to homeschool or some other way of taking action in one’s life, is what I wish for everyone.


4 thoughts on “Homeschooling on a shoestring

  1. How did you homeschool four kids while you and your husband worked? My husband works a regular 9-5 job and I only work part-time (24 hours a week) but I can’t see how we could do it. How did it work?


    1. Generally, one of us worked when the other didn’t. I was able to work at night and at home. A flexible job helps a lot. So does connecting with other families for child care swaps, playdates while you work, etc.


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