Finance Lessons for Home Schoolers

A custom-tailored classroom has a lot of pluses, but you'll pay a price.

Once considered a fringe group, parents who home-school their children aren't such rarities anymore. Families looking for an alternative to schools with too few challenges or too many distractions, or for a way to tailor the curriculum to a child's needs, have swelled the ranks of home-schooled kids. In 2003 more than a million children were being taught at home, a 30% jump from 1999. Estimates now put the number closer to two million.

Whatever the advantages of home-schooling, saving money isn't necessarily one of them. Add up what you spend on books, curricula, tutors, field trips -- not to mention the loss of a second income if one parent becomes the full-time teacher -- and the cost of home-schooling can easily rival paying private-school tuition.

When Kent and Susan Messer began home-schooling eight years ago, they decided to shift their schedules so they wouldn't need to cut back to one income. The Messers, who live in Sarasota, Fla., run a joint chiropractic practice that allows them to set their own hours and use a tag-team approach to teaching their four children: Ryan, 17; Jason, 14; Emily, 6; and Skylar, 4. Kent handles teaching in the morning while Susan, who has cut back her schedule to 25 hours per week, is in the office. When she returns home, Kent heads off to work.

For Ryan and Jason, Susan handles math questions. Kent, who is also in his second year of law school, is the authority on English and the arts. "Kent will let the kids dive into books and articles by leading thinkers, " says Susan. "My style is to travel and see. "

In families where one parent does most of the teaching, a home-based business can work well, too, says Elizabeth Kanna. Kanna runs her own career-consulting business in Sacramento, Cal., home-schools three daughters and co-authored Homeschooling for Success.

For Kim Cash of Montebello, Va., the solution was to find a part-time job with a nonprofit organization. She can do a lot of her work at home, and sometimes she brings son Taylor, 12, along to work. "If you're going to continue working while you home-school, you've got to look for that kind of position," says Cash.

Picking a curriculum. The materials you choose to use also have a financial impact. For example, you'll pay $600 to $1,500 per child, depending on grade level, for an all-inclusive curriculum from a company such as K12 or the Calvert School, which ship supplies to your door, offer resources online and track your progress.

Kelly Krug, a former paralegal who home-schools sons Ben, 13, and Sam, 9, likes the structure of the K12 curriculum. Last year, she and her husband, Doug, who runs his own engineering company, spent $3,000 on curriculum materials alone. This year, they joined the California Virtual Academy, an online charter school affiliated with their school district; they get the K12 curriculum free.

Some decisions may be dictated by your state's requirements. And signing up with a school district may mean you're subject to more oversight, in addition to the testing and annual reviews that some states require.

Families often join an umbrella school that is unaffiliated with a district but provides a wide range of services, which may include transcripts, testing, field trips and group classes taught by professional teachers. Annual membership fees range from $50 to $300 or more; classes cost extra. Some families form co-ops, in which parents teach a few days a week in their area of expertise and may share lab equipment or pool resources.

Umbrella schools sometimes have a religious affiliation or a particular home-schooling philosophy. For an overview of popular methods and types of schools, go to

Extras add up. Home-schooled kids often have more time to delve into their interests, which means you'll pay more for extracurricular activities. Beyond the basic curriculum, the Krugs spend thousands on additional classes, sports, and piano and swim lessons. "I watch our pennies a bit more closely, but I know that this is the best lifestyle for our family," says Kelly. For Kim Cash, extras include painting supplies, plus travel to museums in New York City and Civil War battlefields.

Even if they start with a prepackaged curriculum, many families end up cherry-picking books and classes and hiring tutors for tricky subjects, such as math and science. And parents often try to tailor lessons to each child.

That's the case with the Messers. For Ryan, the a la carte approach worked better than a set curriculum. But for Jason, the Messers use Florida's free virtual school with teacher support. They spend about $300 per year at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and eBay for learning materials for Emily and Skylar.

Ryan is also enrolled in a local community college. When the Messers lived in Michigan, they paid a discounted rate for local college classes. In Florida, the state picks up the tab.

High school expenses. Many families stop home-schooling when their kids approach high school, which can be more complicated and expensive. When Carol Topp's two daughters started seventh grade, her expenses jumped from about $600 each for books and supplies to $1,000. And figure on buying an extra computer.

Hiring a tutor to teach, say, trigonometry or French can cost $15 to $50 per hour. Topp, who lives in Cincinnati and writes a blog at, knows of one math teacher who charges $300 per child to teach a semester of algebra.

When it comes to applying for college, home-schooled students have the same access to financial aid and most scholarships as other students. The admissions process can be more complicated for home schoolers and involve more forms. But students basically face the same higher-ed scene as everyone else, says Barmak Nassirian, of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Next to the traditional high school graduate, a home-schooled student "may look more interesting," says Nassirian, provided the student matches up in other respects. His advice: Contact schools ahead of time, establish a relationship, and find out what they're looking for.

Three ways to save

Buy used books and take advantage of sales. Scholastic sponsors warehouse sales in cities across the U.S. Borders offers a year-round discount of 20% to home schoolers and will let you shop on Educator Savings Days.

Take advantage of community resources, such as libraries, museums and colleges, which may offer classes or discounts.

Join a local home-school assocation to network with other parents, pool resources and trade information about where to buy teaching materials.

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