"How do you budget for your homeschooling?"
When I talk to people who are considering homeschooling for the first time, one of the most common things I am asked is not the cliched "What about socialization?" question, but rather "Isn't homeschooling expensive?"
My answer to that question varies, because there are many factors that impact whether or not homeschooling is costly. First of all, you must consider whether you have time and experience (or the time and desire to learn) to invest in planning and developing your own curriculum and resources. If you have plenty of time, a willingness to work diligently on finding free or inexpensive resources, and the confidence to decide what works best for your students and thus come up with something that works for all of you, then you will find that homeschooling isn't all that expensive after all. There are plenty of free resources on the Internet these days, a plethora of free or inexpensive community resources out there (such as the library and local recreation facility), and a lot can be accomplished without getting complicated. For more ideas on free (or almost free) resources, check out my post on How to Homeschool for Free (or at least inexpensively)!
If you are new to homeschooling and/or lack time or experience for planning on your own to use free and/or inexpensive resources, or if you have multiple ages, many differing levels of students, college-bound students in the upper levels who require more expensive books, or special needs children who all seem to require something different, you may find that homeschooling can be a bit pricier for you than the parent with just one or two young students who are happy with simple workbooks and some magnetic letters and play doh. However, that does not mean that homeschooling will be beyond your means and drain your budget dry. There are many ways to stretch a tight budget, from sharing curricula (through a co-op or just with a friend), buying used materials, using online resources (like those found on my homeschool-for-free site), or simply using what is available for check out at your local library.
It was almost simpler to take the plunge into homeschooling back in the days when there were limited resources and what there was available was geared towards a classroom environment, so it wasn't always appealing to a home educator who wanted something different for their child. These days there are so many good resources available for purchase that while I LOVE curriculum fairs and resource catalogs as much as the next homeschooling parent (who is a curriculum junkie), sometimes the ready availability of something to fit just about every learning style that promises to work for this reluctant learner and that learning difficulty, well, it can all be more than a bit overwhelming...and intimidating...and budget breaking.
So what do WE do to avoid homeschooling budget overload and bank account burn out? Well, for the last two years, since we took a Dave Ramsey budgeting course at our church, hubby has been setting aside a certain amount in an account specifically for the kids' education. This is money I have access to and can spend as I see fit, when there is a need or interest that needs addressing. Then it becomes a decision of whether to buy, or to not buy (and find some other method of obtaining a similar resource)...but the choice is OURS and not our budget's.
Right now we tend to use computers a lot in our school. Partly because they are a helpful learning tool, partly because they are a great resource for freebies, and partly because they help me manage four different learners on four different levels at the same time. Last year was a hard year for me with headaches (unfortunately, this one hasn't been much better), so along with the products we reviewed for the TOS Homeschool Crew, we supplemented some areas with online learning (instead of using the money to buy textbooks) such as Time4Learning (which I initially tried for free), Reading Eggs (the Homeschool Buyer's Co-op is having a group buy on this one right now), and Mathletics (also done as a group purchase). That way, on days when I was feeling poorly, I could still feel as if the kids were accomplishing something, and I saved my good moments for doing art activities, reading library books with the little ones, or taking walks outside for nature studies. Tex tried four different online math programs and got a TON of math under his belt as part of the Crew, as well as some excellent writing practice, Latin, and art, all without a lot of expense on our part. The expenses we did incur came from our budgeted funds and did not impact our day to day lives greatly...having to buy something we needed lacked the stress it used to bring.
This year, our plan is similar, though we did spend part of our yearly budget on some resources at the Used Curriculum Fair at our state homeschooling convention. I was able to get a few printed items we will refer to repeatedly throughout the year, such as a used copy of The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Comstock (it is also available free online...if you look at my right sidebar there is a link...but we wanted a print copy to carry outside with us), some manipulatives and learning games, and a few other resource items such as a tabletop easel to hold the art book containing the subject of our picture study for the week (it sits on top of our piano).
I have also picked up some great classical music cds and educational videos on sale at our local "friends of the library" sale, bought a few learning games at the consignment store at the end of the road, and scored some excellent resource books at various used stores like our local thrift stores and used curriculum store. Yes, we likely could have done without many of these items, but since I did have room in my homeschooling materials budget for them, I felt as if I could buy them to enrich our learning experiences...it was nice to have that freedom!! I did purchase a few things I felt we needed that I didn't have the time to shop around for off of Amazon, like our inflatable globe (for our geography studies) and Tex's Bible study workbook, but the prices were good. When I felt like Tex needed a particular item, but the funds were running low, I took a few books I no longer needed and sold them online to pay for what I did need. It was great!
Last year, I used Christmas gift money to buy a like-new $250 microscope for under $40 at a resale store, and that has sure come in handy this year. We might have been able to use a microscope in previous years, but we were able to live without it just fine until I found a deal I could not pass up. This year, we asked my parents to skip buying toys for some of the kids' birthdays and to invest in a museum membership instead. My grandmother always buys my kids magazines (which we use for school) for Christmas. They love getting mail with their names on it every month! Best of all, my hubby did some computer work for a guy he knows and got reimbursed for his time with a Netbook the kids can use for their online classes. Having an extra computer has been a big help!
Due to my headaches, we have maintained the Mathletics and Reading Eggs subscriptions (I also save when I can on groceries and clothing with coupons and put the savings away for any school-related items we might need), but a lot of the materials we are using this year come from previous years of making wise purchases and gathering all the existing materials together with library requests and online freebie finds to make an extensive unit with the focus of studying ancient history and cultures. (You can see our planned line up at my post on our 2011-2012 schedule...most of the print and manipulative-type resources we are using this year were gathered over time, and most of the online ones were bought using the group buys at Homeschool Buyer's Co-op or free thanks to the Crew). We do pay monthly to subscribe to Netflix as we find the Instant Download feature to be an invaluable supplement to our studies (not to mention helpful on bad migraine days!).
You will notice I haven't said that we sink a lot all at once into packaged curricula with Teacher's Manuals and minute by minute schedules. I know that some people do prefer to teach that way, and I understand why folks choose to do this (we did this for a few years early on in our homeschooling experience and just aren't there anymore), but we just don't have the money right now to do that for every child, and honestly, I doubt my ability to keep up with it all...we are more free-spirited in our studies...delight-driven and eclectic by nature with plenty of Charlotte Mason in the mix (you can read about our learning style HERE). We do not have a formal classroom either...my homeschool organizational style works in any area of the house, so I guess the fact that our home is our classroom helps us save money, too.
I know that I could probably go cheaper in some of my choices...I could skip buying a particular workbook or online resource and find something available for free off the Internet, but sometimes weighing the benefits of the convenience of having a resource right away, with no effort on my part, makes a purchase worth it, since the money is in the budget for that purpose anyway. Other times, we find we just need to skip doing something that looks like fun, or find some more creative (and labor intensive) way to do it, but with a bit of innovation and wise-decision making it all works out in the end.
We don't always go on every interesting-looking field trip...we wait for the fun and budget-friendly ones instead. We enjoy simple school activities like nature studies which require little more than a decent notebook and some colored pencils, and I am teaching Ladybug piano on our old upright until she seems ready for formal teaching, then I will see if my mom will take over, or perhaps see whether the neighbor's talented daughter might give us a good deal on some introductory lessons. I have started giving the kids riding lessons each week (instead of just "pony rides"), and Ladybug and Cowboy are absolutely loving it.
My kids aren't in every club, sport, or activity that is available...I tend to wait until there is an obvious gifting or interest before investing money into developing it...and I think that is fine. It works for us. They are content with playing outside with each other and with their friends at church. Tex and Bubba played Upward ball when they were younger, and perhaps Cowboy and Boo will, too, when the time comes. There is no need at this point to run the younger ones to gymnastics lessons twice a week since we have a jungle gym and a trampoline in our backyard. Instead, I have the pleasure of watching them have fun with each other (and visiting friends) and hearing their enthusiastic laughter day after day. I like it that way.
All that said, I know I haven't given you specifics of what we have spent this year monetarily, but I hope I have encouraged you that by careful planning, budgeting, and being creative, you will find that homeschooling is not something that will break the bank. Whether you decide to buy a packaged curriculum, or come up with your own for free, well-planned-for homeschooling will add many rich experiences to the bank account that makes up the childhood memories of your children, and whatever you spend, a lot or a little, will be multiplied exponentially and become priceless. You can't put a value on your investment of love and time. It is worth more than words can say, so go and spend a little, or if you are able and feel you must, spend a lot, but remember to keep the focus where it belongs...on the kids, not the curriculum.