Homeschooling Frugally: A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a time, there was a homeschooling mom who didn’t have a lot of money. She heard about homeschooling cheaply – or even for free – and decided this had to be the way to go…

I like homeschooling on the cheap just like everyone else. In fact, I’ve been able to homeschool very frugally over the years and provide my children with a top-notch education. However, there are some common traps that come with free or inexpensive homeschooling that I’d like to help you avoid.

You’ll also find some tried and true tips for successfully homeschooling frugally, too! It can be done without being at the expense of your children’s education.

egg man falling

Is Frugal Homeschooling Worth It?

Over the years, I’ve watched a few homeschooling bandwagons head down a path that has the potential to take homeschoolers to the wrong destination.

What do I mean by the wrong destination? Quite simply, the wrong destination could be finding yourself down the road of homeschooling with a 5th grader who can’t read. Or, a 10th grader who can’t spell. Or, a 4th grader who has to start all over again in level 2 math.

How could this happen? Oh, there are lots of reasons! Legitimate reasons like learning disabilities or starting from scratch with a formerly public schooled student are NOT what I’m talking about in this post. I’m specifically talking about parents who get off track with the notion of homeschooling for free without also having a plan in place to make sure homeschooling is thorough, sequential, and appropriate.

Be Wary of Free Homeschool Curriculum

  • Just because a freebie is posted on an “educational” website or blog doesn’t automatically mean it has great educational value.
  • Just because a freebie is “oh, so cute” doesn’t mean it has educational value.
  • Just because someone offers printables for various “themes” doesn’t mean new and important skills are being taught each time. Sometimes your child will just keep practicing the same (already mastered) skills over and over again.
  • Just because someone calls something a unit study doesn’t mean it is full or complete or goes into enough depth.
  • Oftentimes, freebies are only samples of a complete curriculum or complimentary to the real curriculum.

I know there will be people who disagree with me on this subject! It’s okay. To the freebie user whose typing fingers are ready to leave a rebuttal comment, I know many of you are rocking this homeschooling thing! To the blogger creating freebies to gain email subscribers and is ready to wring my neck, I bet your freebies are fabulous and worthwhile! I’m truly not trying to bash anyone. I’m simply here to caution parents of the potential to get off track academically without at least a general plan in place.

Using Freebies Wisely

If you’re only adding freebies here or there as extras, don’t worry. If you’re using freebies as fun fillers when you need to take breaks from the everyday routine, that’s great.

It’s when freebies become the curriculum that you need to make sure you have a plan for learning in place. There are lots of ways you might do this. A few suggestions:

  • Use something like The Checklist by Cindy Downes to keep track of what you’ve studied and what has yet to be studied.
  • Follow four or six year cycles for history and science to help you reign in study topics each year.
  • Let the What Your __ Grader Needs To Know (affiliate link) books by E. D. Hirsch guide you in deciding whether a particular freebie is worthwhile for your homeschool. ***Know that these are just guides.  Many students will be working above or below assigned grade levels.
  • Search “typical course of study” for your particular grade level and subject level. Searching “scope and sequence” for a particular grade level and subject is sometimes a better search term. Be aware that no two lists will be exactly alike and you may or may not be able to find a definitive list of expectations.

Evaluate everything you use for educational value. If you’ve taken the time to put a plan in place and know the general expectations of things most children the same age are learning, then a quick peek at any curriculum (free or not) should tell you whether it’s “enough.” Here are some key things I look for:

  • If my child already knows the concept, there is no need to reteach it (no matter how cute the printable).
  • If the lesson is “fluffy” and only serves as “something to do” rather than something to learn, I don’t waste my children’s time. For example, “fluffy” might be coloring outlines of frogs during a frog study instead of labeling frog body parts. Not that there’s anything wrong with coloring if your child enjoys it, but when we’re talking curriculum, I personally want the activity to be educational.
  • If the activity expects my children to jump through hoops rather than get to the point, I don’t waste their time. For instance, when cutting and pasting takes more time than actually teaching the concept of the worksheet, I have to evaluate whether cutting and pasting are important skills to practice, too. If so, fine. When it’s used to simply keep kids busy longer (think classroom education), it becomes a waste of time. (P.S. The example of cutting & pasting is a personal preference based on the learning styles of my children.)

Oh, there are so many other things that catch my eye when evaluating curriculum. Rather than continue, I’ll just encourage you to give everything a serious look over. Make sure it fits into your overall plan, works with your children’s learning styles, goes deep enough to really teach, and expects more than just knowledge-level learning.

Homeschooling Frugally AND Successfully

Even with all the cautions, it IS possible to “safely” homeschool frugally! Here are my best tips.

In subjects where systematic presentation of skills is important, like phonics and math, I don’t skimp on tried and true curriculum. Most of my go-to curriculum choices can be purchased once and used with all my children through the years. I might have to purchase an extra workbook here or there, but the overall cost isn’t much in the long run. 

Plus, it IS frugal to teach something right the first time.

You can see lists of the curriculum I find to be VERY worth the money in these grade-specific posts.

 Top Curriculum Picks K-2nd Top Curriculum Picks 3rd-5th Top Curriculum Picks Middle School Top Curriculum Picks High School


Living literature is a HUGE part of our homeschool and I use the library a lot. Books, books, books ,and more books can go a long way in a frugal and thorough education!

Unit studies are great tools for learning – especially in science and history. The important thing is to find unit studies that are thorough and go deep enough. Not only are unit studies very frugal curriculum choices, but they also utilize a lot of frugal learning tools like living literature, basic household and art supplies, YouTube videos, etc. Additionally, it’s very easy to incorporate project-based learning, which is another very frugal and super-effective method of learning.

I’m careful about printing. A printable has to be really, really good for me to use up the liquid gold known as printer ink. It’s very easy to get sucked into the idea that you’re saving lots and lots of money on freebies – only to spend more than you would have on a prepared curriculum in the cost of ink.

I organize e-books and freebies. Now that I’ve just told you I’m careful about using too much printer ink, I’ll contradict myself and say I really do love worthwhile e-books and freebies! There are some things that are very much worth using that liquid gold. Since e-books and downloadable freebies can be easy to forget, I make sure they are super-organized in specific files on my computer.

Make sure your homeschool e-books and printables are well-organized so you don't forget about them.

I keep a computer file for each subject. Within each subject, I make broad subject files and save only the most worthwhile e-books and printables to make them easy to find when we begin a new study. This visual idea for remembering e-files is great, too!

I utilize expert teachers – often for free. Even if a field trip isn’t completely free (which many of them are), I’ve found the inexpensive fees to be VERY worthwhile in our homeschool. Field trip tour guides are typically full of knowledge which they teach brilliantly. We’ve found many free classes over the years, too, especially through the 4-H program.

Finally, I have a plan in place. This is the biggie. I have a general idea of what we will cover in each subject over the years. My plan isn’t set in stone by any means. However, by using good phonics and math curricula, following four-year cycles for science and history, keeping good records of what has already been covered, and evaluating everything I use for educational value, I feel confident that my children are getting a really good education.

Update: Homeschooling Frugally Podcast

After reading this post, CPA Carol Top of the Dollars and Cents Show asked to talk with me more about the cautions of frugal homeschooling. I heartily agreed and we recorded this 30-minute podcast that I think you’ll enjoy!

Homeschooling Frugally: A Cautionary Tale - the podcast

So, there you have my top tips for homeschooling frugally and “safely.”  I would love to hear your best tips!  Please share them with me in the comments!

Frugal, Worthwhile Curriculum You Might Like

Helpful Training for Homeschooling Frugally

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  1. Love this post, it is something I needed to hear too. Thanks! I would love to see some of your curriculum choices that are reusable for all your kids. I have five so cost can get high on certain curriculum’s.

  2. That’s a great future post idea, Kristina. Watch for it soon! 🙂

  3. Kim Crawford says:

    I noticed on your curriculum choices for this year you were using history from Easy Peasy. Has that turned out to be a good fit or just supplemental?

  4. Great question, Kim! I really liked the curriculum overall. We buzzed through it (skipping less meaningful parts) in one semester. This semester we are using the Children’s Encyclopedia of American History as mentioned in this post – I feel like this method gives me more control over the assignments and offers us the visual/literature component that is necessary for my son. Thanks for asking. I think I’ll go update the original curriculum post to reflect the change.

  5. This is so nicely and clearly laid out, and I have been thinking about this myself for awhile now. Thanks for the good read on an important subject!

  6. ha ha ha – I make tons of worksheets, but yeah, I’m totally with you on this one. :o) There HAS to be some educational value to the worksheet. I have also collected a “lot” of freebies from off the net as well, but yeah, most of them probably never get used.

  7. I’ve been considering a post lately on the pitfalls of freebies, the lack of oranization and seeing curriculum through. If you don’t mind, I would like to send readers to your post, you did such a great job of articulating. Thank you for the ‘permission’ to say no to certain freebies…. I need that sometimes!!

  8. Sure, Amanda! It’s a topic that’s been on my heart for a while now. I’d be happy for you to share.

  9. Mrs. Adept, completely agree.

  10. Love this post! You’ve officially let me off the hook for not using those cute printables I’ve saved in a file but not printed yet because I just can’t figure out where they fit in our curriculum! I would say I’ve seen as my boys get older it’s even more important to have a focused plan and not just an array of educational things to do. I abhor busy work that goes on in public school and would not want to be guilty of the same at home!

  11. Your comment sums up my thoughts much more succinctly than I did! lol

  12. What a great post! I could have written it myself, based on my years of similar experience! Everything you said is absolutely on target. Definitely sharing.

  13. Estella Adams says:

    Excellent post, Cindy! I completely agree with you. Between the well-meaning grandparents and other relatives buying workbooks and/or twaddle and my thinking at first that more was better, I have a better grasp at what to look for in curriculum. Our kids are definitely worth it! Oh and quality doesn’t mean you need to buy the expensive boxed curriculum at the conventions. 😉

  14. Exactly, Estella. I miss you!

  15. Love this article! I totally agree with your points, but on the flip side. I believe homeschool parents who like to homeschool frugally as possible also have to be willing to invest in printables that are not free. If you find people who make rigorous worksheets, spend the money to purchase additional products. Ultimately, as a homeschool blogger who creates printables I sometimes find myself taking umbrage with the fact that at times it seems people want something for nothing. They will pay for the established curricula, but look sideways if printables are not free.

  16. Very good points, Kendra. Thanks for sharing!

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