Can You Homeschool Free?
When I first began homeschooling 17 years ago, the hubs and I were straight out of college. My husband’s first professional job paid peanuts.
No, it paid rice and beans and potatoes. Peanuts would have been a treat!
That first year of homeschooling, since we had nothing and needed everything (and mainly because I hadn’t yet learned all of the frugal tricks I know now) was total sticker shock! I’ll be honest — I’m still astonished and dismayed by those $200 per subject per kid price tags!
I still spend money on a few things (music lessons, I’m looking at you!) that I consider extremely valuable, but those things feel a whole lot more affordable because I find the majority of our homeschooling resources for free (that’s a big, fat $0!). I’m sharing what I’ve learned, just in case any of you are in a financial situation where textbooks are a huge sacrifice.
I’ve been there and it’s hard!
Here is the one simple trick I use to homeschool for cheap or free:
I look for free (or super cheap) alternatives for every possible aspect of homeschooling!
What does that mean?
I look at homeschooling the same way I look at my household budget. I divide it up into all the categories in which I spend money: curriculum, literature and other books, supplies (paper, ink, printer, computers, laminator, binding, etc…), extracurricular classes and field trips.
My categories change from year to year as my children get older or younger kids become school-aged, but it’s not hard to anticipate what we’ll be doing for the year and set up my homeschooling budget just like any other budget.
This is where networking and Google, and plain old detective work come into play.
Also, never underestimate the power of a list. I don’t know why, but when I make lists of things I’m looking for, they practically always appear. I think it’s because I check the list frequently and keep them at the forefront of my mind.
A couple of years ago, my daughters wanted to take horseback riding lessons. I Googled my head off and couldn’t find anything in my price range.
I don’t know all that many people in my community. I’m kind of shy and quiet, and I hesitate to put myself out there. But I have a couple of friends who know everybody! Guess where I go when I need to know about deals?
So I talked to those friends and within a couple of weeks another friend, who happened to teach riding lessons, called and asked if I would be willing to tutor her daughter in Calculus. So every week I’d go up to her house and tutor her daughter while she taught my daughters.
What a trade! She wouldn’t have known I was looking for riding lessons if I hadn’t spread the word through our mutual friends.
Let’s look at the different spending categories of homeschooling and explore ways to keep each of them free!
Homeschool for FREE
How to Find Free Books
Let’s start with books, because they’ll probably be one of your biggest expenses. I actually use picture books to teach preschool and kindergarten math as well as phonics, rather than a formal curriculum.
Borrowing books is an easy way to keep costs down.
Your local library is a fantastic place to find books for your homeschool. They have non-fiction books about every subject under the sun, including really fun ones geared to kids, like the Dorling Kindersley Encyclopedia’s.
Your local library probably even has a “recommend a purchase” option you can take advantage of. Libraries also frequently team up with neighboring libraries to share their inventory, so you can request an inter-library loan and have access to more than one library. I regularly visit about 6 different libraries within a 20 mile radius of my home — all of which allow me to use my home library card to check out books.
You might also have access to thousands of ebooks and audiobooks through your states online library system. Ours is called Utah’s Online Library and we access it with our local library card. It’s worth checking to see if your state has something similar.
Another great resource for borrowing books is your fellow homeschoolers. Whether you belong to a homeschool co-op or participate in an online forum, never hesitate to ask your fellow homeschoolers if they would be willing to lend what you’re looking for.
Did you know you can legally lend and borrow ebooks you’ve purchased through Amazon? Under ‘Manage Your Content and Devices’ select the action button for the title you want to loan, then enter the recipient’s email address and click send. If a particular ebook can’t be lent for some reason, the action button won’t show up.
Buy Cheap Used Books
The library won’t always have what you need, because they often aren’t allowed to purchase faith-based books, or books they consider controversial. So when I’m looking for Christian biographies or even just a Christian perspective of a historic event or biography of a Christian inventor or composer, I’m usually pretty sure I won’t find it at the library.
There is also the problem of an increasing lack of quality books to be found in the library. I try to look through the books my kids check out before they start reading them. As hard as I try, my kids have run across very troubling content in books from the Young Adult section. Even if you can find books that are clean, it’s still hard to find books that aren’t purely brain candy.
And that’s why you likely won’t be able to borrow every book you need. As careful as I am with our homeschool budget, we do own a huge library of the very best books (mainly purchased used or on sale for pennies) which I hope will bless my children and my grandchildren when that time comes.
*A trick for buying books is to give them as gifts, so the purchase kills two birds with one stone. I’ll buy book series, used but in great shape, for Christmas, birthdays and Easter gifts. With such a large family, that’s the primary way we’ve built our library.
Stores like Goodwill usually have huge book displays. This is where you can find real treasures for mere pennies. But it does take time and work.
Several of our local libraries have perpetual ‘Sale’ shelves with offerings for around a quarter. Each library also has an annual book sale with a much larger selection. Some of the books might look a little scruffy, but they usually have library bindings and will still last much longer than a new hardcover book.
My Granny loves to stroll estate sales, and I’ve collected lots of oldies but goodies while tagging along. The old, hardbound Reader’s Digest collections frequently show up here for a good deal. Collectible books and rare books are usually not a great deal, because estate managers are trained to know their worth.
These make really great outings. The atmosphere and just the smell of a used bookstore makes you feel like you’re on a treasure hunt. Just google your area to see if you have any locally.
Online Used Bookstores
Thriftbooks is my best friend. They send my coupons for free books and free shipping all the time, because they know once I’m on their site I can’t just buy one book. Get on their mailing list for really great coupons.
BetterWorldBooks, Alibris, Biblio, AbeBooks and Ebay are a few other sites for used books. Amazon is another great place to look for used books. Just check the ‘other sellers’ link for the used choices. Just make sure to factor the cost of shipping into the overall price.
Buy New Books at Deep Discounts
Scholastic books holds a huge warehouse sale in a city near mine every August. They open the warehouse to all teachers, including homeschoolers, for about a week. You actually shop through the warehouse, digging through boxes and crates to find what you want, but we always come away with stacks and stacks of books. It seems like paperback books are around $1 each and hardbound are maybe $3. I always stock up on fun kits to use throughout the year as Morning Time activities. Check the above link to see if they have a warehouse near you.
How to Find Free Curriculum
I know, books and curriculum overlap. In some instances, curriculum consists of textbooks, or even literature (we love literature-based curriculum), but in other cases curriculum doesn’t even use physical books. That’s why I’m giving it its own category.
Because I’ve used (and greatly appreciated) a lot of free homeschool curriculum in my own homeschool, I created this list of free resources, organized by subject and explained briefly. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, though I did try to include everything I had found to be most valuable. I just use Google to find free resources when I need them.
If you’re looking for curriculum that is basically just a textbook, be sure to search using the above methods in order to find it free or used for cheap. If you can’t find what you’re looking for used or free, a good way get expensive textbooks for less is through book rental sites.
Campus Book Rentals, Student2Student, TextbookRush, Amazon and Alibris are all sites that let you rent textbooks, including several middle and high school level textbooks. Keep in mind that sometimes it’s actually cheaper to buy the textbook outright and then sell it back at the end of the semester. Also, charges are hefty if you return a book late. Don’t ask me how I know! 😉
How to Find Free Classes
We have found excellent classes through various homeschool co-ops. The moms all take turns teaching the classes so that the only fees involved are for supplies. You have to be willing to share your own expertise in an area you choose, but that’s fun!
I’ve taught drawing, cake decorating (that was a case of the blind leading the blind — I got roped into it when the original teacher quit and I was the only person who could take her place), painting, grammar games, a class about famous composers and another about famous inventors.
We’ve used both free and paid community classes, and we’ve found both to be excellent. You just have to work harder to find the free ones. My community offers free gardening, photography and cooking classes, as well as a whole host of classes that teach marketable business skills, like coding and software systems, to young adults.
I work as a librarian for my children’s orchestra in exchange for a portion of their tuition. Some of the orchestra moms set up and take down chairs and music stands. I’ve also traded piano lessons for guitar lessons
Three of my daughters needed the length of their violin lessons increased, which would double the amount I was paying. I let their teacher know it would be a hardship to our family and asked if I could trade part of their tuition. She needed help with a music festival she was putting on and made me the festival director in exchange for part of our violin tuition.
Great Courses – You’ll find literally thousands of courses on pretty much every topic you can imagine, taught be experts in their fields. These video courses are so engaging you could binge watch an entire university course in a weekend. These guys frequently have terrific sales, but you can also find their courses free at the library.
How to Find Free Field Trips
Nothing will make learning come alive like field trips. Visiting the Kennedy Space Center in person will make your child wonder about the universe and the Solar System and space shuttles and aerodynamics and engines and fuel and orbits and on and on. No amount of textbook information would elicit that many questions.
Questions are the key to learning.
While field trip opportunities will vary from place to place, every family has access to unique field trip opportunities. If you need some help coming up with places to visit, I’ve put together a list of fun ideas.
We like to take a field trip every week, and I make sure most of them are free, so that we can afford at least one international, month-long field trip (we call those trips Worldschooling) each year.
That might sound over-the-top as far as field trips go. They’re definitely not free, but I promise you they don’t cost nearly as much as you’d think. In a couple of months we’re headed to Europe. Our flights were paid for with UR (Ultimate Reward points issued by Chase) points except for fees (around $100 per person).
We’re renting a van (also paid for with UR) for two weeks to tour Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Denmark. Then we’ll hop aboard an 11-day Baltic cruise to briefly see another 9 countries (including St. Petersburg which would normally require expensive Russian visas, but you don’t need visas if you visit with certain cruises). We paid for the cruise out-of-pocket, but it honestly cost less than 5-day park hopper passes to Disney World, and, besides food during the road trip, the cruise is the only thing we had to pay for.
You can find cheap flights through Scott’s Cheap Flights or Pomelo Travel. If you join their mailing lists, they will email you about mistake fares and special deals. You can pay for their premium service, but I find plenty of discounts with the free service. Last year we flew the whole family to Beijing for $450 per person!
If you want to get serious about traveling (or Worldschooling) for cheap, search for travel hacking groups on Facebook and subscribe to The Points Guy. My travel hacking habit allows us to travel as a family of ten for less than the cost of a local National Park road trip.
How to Find Free (or cheap) Homeschool Supplies
I’ll be honest, I rarely find homeschool supplies completely free. But I often find them really cheap!
During the month of August, all of the retailers have massive sales on school supplies, and that’s when I buy everything we’ll need for the year. It takes a bit of time to think through what we’ll need six or nine months down the road, but it saves so much money that it’s worth it.
When crayons are twenty cents a package and pencils are mere pennies, you just stock up. Office supply stores usually have rebates and coupons for office products around the same time. Amazon does, too, but be sure to check Amazon’s prices against the other retailers because they’re not always truly a good deal.
I’ve purchased boxes of printer paper for free after rebate. One year I got a paper shredder and a laminator with a huge package of laminating sheets for only a few dollars. I always buy refilled printer cartridges for less than half the usual cost. For awhile, I even refilled them myself with an inexpensive refill kit, but then I upgraded my printer, and it won’t accept them.
Printers and more expensive supplies can often be found used. Check with your local homeschool groups to see if anyone has an extra printer they’d like to get rid of. I know I’d much rather give hand-me-downs to a family who I know will use them than just drop them off at Goodwill.
So Can You Homeschool for Free?
Yes! It’s not the easiest way to do it because piecing together curriculum and researching free opportunities will take time and effort.
As a quick aside, I just want to warn you that as you search online for free homeschool curriculum, you’ll run across ads and articles promoting free online schools such as: K-12, (Your State Here) Virtual Academy, Tuition-free Online School, etc…
These programs are funded by your state and are essentially public school at home. I’ve had friends who have used K12 and Utah Virtual Academy, and some have been pleased and some have not.
The school in which you enroll will send you a computer and all of the curriculum needed to complete the entire year’s program. You won’t be charged for any of it. So in that sense, it is free.
But your child will need to complete all of the subjects and requirements of public school — at home. The classes are graded and overseen by a teacher, but most of the classes are asynchronous, meaning the children work independently through a curriculum.
Pretty much everyone I’ve asked has told me that their children are on the computer 8+ hours a day, and that there is just as much busy work as in a brick and mortar public school. I know that these programs would not work for my family because we’ve been independent too long.
We’re used to being able to customize and individualize every aspect of every subject. We skip ahead when things are too slow, and we slow down things that feel to fast. And we skip entirely things that don’t feel valuable. So a program like that would drive us all bonkers.
That said, I do have a few friends who like these programs. I just wanted you to know the difference!
What do you think? Are you going to give it homeschooling for free a shot? I’d love to hear about the ways you homeschool for free in the comments below!
Be sure to pin these ways to homeschool free for later!