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Friday, February 21, 2014

Can you really homeschool for free? The Real Cost of Homeschooling…(part 1)

…or “No, not everyone can afford to homeschool.”

Deep breath. 

I just said something that you are not likely read in your homeschool magazine or book of homeschool encouragement.

There are a lot of articles on the web on “Yes, you can afford to homeschool.  It’s not expensive.  Not Really.  You can even do it for free!”

I feel that the homeschool community as a whole is not completely honest when this topic comes up.  I understand.  We don’t want to give families who are considering home education the idea that there are insurmountable costs involved.  We don’t want to turn anyone away.

But when folks are thinking about bringing their kids home from school, they look for real answers.  They have genuine concerns about whether or not this is an affordable endeavor for their family and they deserve real answers to their questions, not vague assertions and wishful flights of fancy.

This series is about the real costs associated with education. 

And there are real costs, regardless of how you choose to educate your kids.

Today I’m going to begin talking about the dollars and cents part of homeschooling (which can be real and substantial). 

Later in this series, I’ll focus on the less tangible costs of homeschooling. 

You’ve seen this everywhere and I’ve even posted some “homeschool for free” resources here on the old blog.  But can you, really?

Can you homeschool for free?

Can You Really Homeschool for Free?  Part 1 in the Real Cost of Homeschooling Series at Homeschooling Hearts & MindsIf you define free” as without any additional money going out of your pocket (or bank account), the answer is “almost.”

You don’t, for instance, have use a “homeschool curriculum”! 

You don’t have to buy “homeschool kits” that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  Yes, this is true.

You can use quality resources that are freely available on the internet and at your local library.  Is your library a bit lacking?  Try interlibrary loan. 

Try any of the free online courses available from universities across the country. 

Homeschoolers around the world have created free reading schedules, study questions, and printables and you can download them to use with your kids.

Many companies even offer older editions of their texts for free (and complete) online.

You can find virtual field trips, videos, and all sorts of good stuff!

And if you don’t find exactly what you want, there are many low cost options as well, including nearly free real physical books from PaperBackSwap and very cheap used books from the Amazon Marketplace.

But, and this is a big but.

Be careful. 

Don’t settle for something just because it’s cheap or free. 

Not all free resources are created equal (not all pay resources are, either, for that matter).  Make sure you put in the time to research what you plan to use, whether you are paying for it or it is free. 

And be prepared to spend some of your time organizing it all.  There’s no comprehensive checklist to refer to when you are cobbling together your program from freebies.  There is work involved.  You’ll need to find stuff that goes together, collect it, and schedule it.

But the advantages  of putting together a one of a kind course of study with free and nearly free resources can be great:  you can have a fully customized course of study and you can save a ton of money.

You will spend a fair amount of time (possibly a lot of time) researching things to see if they are even worthwhile and then you’ll have to work up how you will use them and so on…

This is really important, so I’m going to bold it:

NEVER underestimate the value of your time!

When you don’t spend money you will, undoubtedly, spend more time.  This is true in all things, whether it’s feeding your kids dinner or feeding them knowledge.

Part of the reason that “planned” educational materials cost more is because they are planned.  An open-and-go resource can be a blessing depending upon your circumstances. 

The key is to find the right balance between your time and money.  This balance is going to be different for every homeschooler.

If you are educating one child, this may not be a big issue.  But if you have multiple children, or you have work obligations, or you are a single parent, I think you are going to find that often time restraints are going to trump all else. 

There is just only so much of you to go around.  You will find that you need to make some compromises---you may need to spend more money on a less labor intensive way of doing things.  Or you may need readjust your expectations and do less.

There was a time when I built my entire course of study for the kids from the ground up…but then I had 4 kids all working at very different levels, with different strengths and weaknesses…and different interests…I got tired of living and dreaming learning plans 24/7 and realized that it’s ok to use some pre-planned resources.  It’s also ok to pay real money to save myself some time.

So, yes, you can educate your kids for almost free.  But there are trade-offs.

I say almost free, because here is some expense involved in everything we do, even if it’s as simple as flipping on a light switch. 

Your electricity bill may be higher because you are home more. 

You may spend more money on gas from taking extra trips to the library. 

You may spend more money on internet access because you find that your slower service is insufficient for all the freebies you can find there. 

You may have higher library fines because you’re checking out more books and keeping them out longer (ahem).

It is a fact that my utility costs are probably higher than those of my neighbors.  And it’s not because I’m being wasteful.  It’s because I’m at home most days and using those utilities while they are at work. 

It costs money to do stuff.  Period.

Now, many people will find that the school expenses they no longer have will help to balance out these costs of homeschooling.  If you pajama school, you may spend less money on clothes, for instance.  Or you may spend less money on “school” lunches.  Or you may be able to save money on school supplies if you don’t have to follow a specific list.

But, there are costs to even free curricula.

Beyond the time factor.  While you can find quality resources and materials for free (and nearly free) on the internet to teach your kids, there’s a cost involved even in that---you will need to access those materials either on your computer, a mobile device (iPad or tablet) or by printing them out on paper and using lots of ink or toner. 

Our family has:  a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet, cable high speed internet, a wireless network, and 2 printers (both a color inkjet and a b&w laser printer).  We use all of these for our educational needs, though we homeschooled just fine before we had the tablet or the laptop (we did use more paper and ink, though).  As our kids get older and need to do things like independent research and courses online, it is much easier to have more than one computer.

The internet alone costs us a pretty penny (no cheap DSL in our area).  Then there’s the cost of the actual equipment and the supplies.  Our desktop is not the newest model, our tablet is not an iPad, and the laptop was a gift from my Mom (thanks Mom!).

We go through reams of paper and buy new ink and toner every 4 months or so.  Fortunately, the kids’ grandparents give us a lot of paper (love the deals Staples has sometimes) and we buy off-brand ink, or we would be spending a few hundred dollars on printer supplies and paper alone each year.

Yes, it is possible to use online resources without printing them out. 

You could read them from your computer or mobile device (we do this with a lot of things).  Kids can copy problems onto a chalkboard or dry-erase board.  Math can be done verbally.

But, do not underestimate the value of convenience!

It’s that time factor, again. 

For instance---how much time will it take me to hand write out several word problems vs. printing them?  And do that for 4 different kids who are all on different levels?  In everything?

So two main points here:

Yes, you can homeschool for nearly free. 

But there are trade-offs to doing it that way. 

Which brings us to…how much does it cost to homeschool if I don’t go the free route?

And what if I just buy the cheapest workbooks I can find and plop my kids down at the table?

We’ll talk about that next time in part 2 of The Real Cost of Homeschooling.

Don’t miss it!

What do you think?  Do you think everyone can afford to homeschool?

11 comments:

  1. I've always thought this also. There have been some years when I really did take more time to write a curriculum instead of buying one for a specific subject just to save money. But it really is so very time consuming.

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    1. Yes, I admit that I'm a tightwad---part of that is because I like to eat which can be challenging when you are feeding hungry boys. But there is a downside to trying to do everything yourself. There've been times that I spent so much time planning something that by the time I was ready to do it, I was already burnt out on it. ;)

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  2. I think it can be done, and I agree that it is tedious, time consuming work. I don't typically go that route (free), but this year it is looking more and more like i will be make some significant cut backs in the budget. That means that I will be finding creative ways to re-use curriculum that I already have, and to put our internet freebies to good use. I find it is pretty easy with my 1st and 2nd graders... much harder with my 7th grader (who is highly gifted in areas where I lack). He gets most of the budget due to that factor. He will this year too.
    I'm counting on the fact that there are freebies this year!

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    1. There are some years I have more to spend and some years I have less to spend---it's good to have options I think we live in a golden time for home education. We have access to so many things now that would have been impossible even 5 years ago.

      And I agree---it's a little harder with the older kids. One nice thing is that there are many self-study courses becoming available that you can access through Coursera and other places. My 8th grader is taking a course on Computer Science through Coursera this semester.

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  3. I have chosen the past couple of years to homeschool for free. It is a lot of research and I'm signed up for a lot of emails with updates about freebies. It's kind of fun though. I don't print everything. I do save everything though to an external hard drive so I can use it anytime in the future. We also take advantage of many freebies outside the home. Such as free museum days, library programs, park days, educational specials on t.v., etc. My children have really enjoyed having an input on what they learn and how they learn.

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  4. That's wonderful, Liz. We've had our "free" years as well---it can be a very rich and rewarding way to learn about the world. It does take planning and organization, but there's really no better way to learn about some things.

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  5. I want to add that: this post is not meant to talk down homeschooling for free (or little cost). There are lots of ways to educate your kids for nearly free and to have a wonderfully rich and full experience that will serve them well in life. I was only pointing out, in my admittedly rambling way, that often there is a trade off between time and money in the things we choose to do. When we don't have the money, we put in more time or vice versa. In the homeschool equation, there is always some time involved and it's generally more time than you would spend if someone else were educating your child. Later in this series I'll be talking about other "costs" (non-monetary). I dislike using the the word "cost" or even "expense," because while they are being used appropriately, they can convey a negative connotation. But everything we do has a relative "cost" to it---the key is for every family to choose what price they are willing to pay, whether it be in time or money (but really it is a balance between two ;).

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  6. This is an important point to make, as I meet homeschoolers all the time who want to homeschool inexpensively, but don't want to do any extra work.

    There are very few options that don't fall on one side of the fence or the other. Either you use some elbow grease with more inexpensive options, or you spend a bit more to have pre-printed materials and lesson plans laid out for you. And even then you need to do some research to find what is going to work for your kids.

    Folks need to know exactly what 'free' means when it comes to homeschooling.

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  7. We are pretty tight this year... If any of you can point me in the right direction for putting in elbow grease... i could sure use some advice. I have 4 kids in school this fall, plus two PK's who are gonna want to "do school"... where can I find advice on creating my own phonics program or my own math program? The grades I have are 8, 3,2,1,PK(two kids). Typically I spend the money, so that I don't lose my mind... but this year is looking like the budget for all involved needs to fall far below $1000. Help?

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    1. There are a number of free resources you can use. I'll may come back and respond to this more in-depth tomorrow if I think of more things (I'm getting ready for bed), but a few things I recommend for the basics: I am using http://www.freemathprogram.com for my 3rd and 4th grader this year. Click the "begin free math" button and then the small grade 1 through 5 buttons to access the free curriculum. It will involve you teaching them the materials, but it's very easy to teach. I explain how I use it here: http://www.homeschoolingheartsandminds.com/2014/01/our-almost-free-2nd-and-4th-grade-math.html

      For phonics, I've used a number of free sites, including Progressive Phonics http://www.progressivephonics.com/ (free downloadable e-books), Stairway to Reading http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/stairwaytoreading, and Starfall www.starfall.com.

      Your 3rd, 2nd, and 1st grader can probably be combined in content subjects like social studies, science, and literature. The 8th grader will be harder, since you are probably gearing up towards high school level work. There are a lot of great resources available and you can get deals on used---I think the key is to get a clear picture of what you want 8th grade to look like so you can get a narrower focus on what you are looking for.

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  8. Thank you. I have a core History/Lit/Writing program, Apologia Science Elementary books, so yes that is already covered. I will look into the phonics programs. I don't really like online programs, but there might be a way to use them offline too. I feel as though I need a "grab n go" type of phonics workbook... I am willing to spend time upfront building these for my kids, but if I don't have something put together to just go to during the year, I will overlook it constantly.

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