A lot of people think they want to homeschool but they don’t think they can afford it. So they ask me: How much does it cost to homeschool?

I think it’s more instructive to ask the question the other way around: How much does it cost to send your kids to school? Because the answer is that it costs a lot. In fact, the Atlantic just ran an essay by a guy who is homeschooling because it’s more cost effective than sending his kid to a good school.

To live in a top school district, you have to be earning about $120,000. (Look, don’t tell me you live in a top school district and where the median income is lower than $99K. I’ve done my research. It’s not true. You are just deluding yourself that your school is a top performer.) Most people do not have the ability to earn $120K, so households in those districts have a lot of dual earners.

So then the cost of sending your kid to school is either:

a. That you are a low-income person for that area—which is psychologically very bad, because Daniel Gilbert’s research (and everyone else’s) shows that feelings of financial security are purely relative to the people around you, and you need to make the median income to feel secure.

b. That you have to have two parents working. If you homeschool, you can live in a poor school district , with under-priced housing, and have one parent at home. For most of us, the price of sending your kid to school is that two parents need to work full-time.

So you give up having a parent at home when your kids come home from school if you send your kid to a top-tier school. If you have one parent stay home to homeschool, you give up living in a good school district. You might give up going on family vacations (we don’t take vacations) or going out to dinner (we don’t go out to dinner either).

Homeschooling is a lifestyle decision, for sure. But so is sending kids to school. The real question, I think, is for each parent to ask themselves, would I rather be at work all day or would I rather be home with my kids all day? You have the choice—you can do either, but you can’t do both.

34 replies
  1. victoria
    victoria says:

    Well, there are a few other options: one is to send your kids to a magnet (the #1 school on that US News list has 32% “economically disadvantaged”, and most of the other schools towards the top of that list are magnets). In some places you can’t count on being able to get into a good magnet but in others you pretty much can. I don’t know anyone in our city whose kids haven’t gotten into the magnet of their choice, and only one has any reputation for being difficult to get into. And there are non-magnet schools on that list — though not at the very top — with much lower median incomes. Given the sheer number of high schools in this country (I read that there are about 125K, though I’m not sure how accurate that is), that’s still comfortably within the top 1% of high schools in the US and most parents would consider those schools pretty darned excellent.

    And that leaves aside the fact of whether an “average” (whatever that means) parent actually thinks their kid is best served at a top-tier school. I went to a public high school that has gotten a lot of national recognition, always does well on the US News lists, sends a few dozen kids a year to the Ivys or Stanford or MIT and sends pretty much everyone without tremendous special needs to a four-year college. I was a “schooly” kid; I did well there, and it served my brother well too. But the school had (and still has, from what I understand) a reputation as a pressure cooker, and the conventional wisdom in the area is that parents of kids who aren’t either on the AP/gifted track or accomplished in sports or music (and preferably both) are better off buying into one of the nearby catchments, because “average” kids tend to fall through the cracks at this school.

    But isn’t that all moot anyhow? You’ve made the case plenty of times before that even “good” public schooling is not good schooling.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      From what I’ve learned getting into a magnet school is hard because so many people apply and there’s only so many seats. That said, it’s like the lottery.

      • victoria
        victoria says:

        Some places yes, some places no. In my city most schools are at least partial magnets so they’re not terribly tough to get into. (The most popular charter, OTOH, generally can only take about 10% of the kids who apply for the kindergarten lottery, which says about all you need to know about the public schools where I live.) Where I went to high school the magnets were generally not as high-performing as the best neighborhood schools, so they were pretty easy to get into.

        And then there are places like New York where, from everything I’ve heard, it’s just cuckoo bananapants.

  2. Hillary
    Hillary says:

    I know this is an exception, but I live in Ithaca, NY where the median household income in 2009 was around 27k and Ithaca high school ranks in the gold category as one of the top 500 schools in the U.S. There is also a large and thriving homeschool community. Understandably this is an exception due to the its rural location and the presence of Cornell.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The schools I linked to are in the top 20. There is a huge, huge gulf between the very top and everywhere else.

      The correlation between ranking in the top and high median income is nearly perfect.

      Penelope

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I”m responding to my own comment. When I first started blogging I would have thought this was insane, but now I think, hm. It’s okay.

        Anyway, I guess it is contradictory that I think all school is bad but also that I think that top schools are so much better than the rest.

        I guess what I think is that if you are going to send your kid to school, why not send your kid to the best school? Why do parents send their kid to a school that ranks 450 in the country? Like, why not just send your kid to the school that is 800 in the country? Because then you could definitely live off one income. (I know, I live in one of those school districts. Median family income: $34K.)

        Penelope

        • Paxton
          Paxton says:

          Wanted to reply to the reply of you replying to yourself just to keep this thing going.

          I do have a question though. What do you mean when you say “The correlation between ranking in the top and high median income is nearly perfect.”?

          • Penelope Trunk
            Penelope Trunk says:

            If you read rankings of top performing public schools (and remove all magnet schools) they are all in school districts where the median family income is very high. I have a bunch of links there to examples of cities that are in top ranked school districts.

            Penelope

      • victoria
        victoria says:

        If there were really a big gap between the top 20 and the rest, though, the rankings would be stable from year to year. And they’re not.

        Of this year’s top 20, 10 (all of which are magnets or charters, many of which are in large urban districts without unusually high HHI, and several of whom have high numbers of free/reduced lunch students by the US News numbers) were in the 2011 top 20. This year’s #4 school was #21. The others weren’t even in the top 100. Last year’s #3 is #31 now, and several others in the top 10 are ranked in the 30s. Last year’s #6 is out of this year’s top 1000 entirely.

        If you want to make the argument that family income is generally well correlated with school performance on conventional measures you’ll get no argument from…well, anyone, I think. If you want to make the argument that it’s impossible to get into a “good” school by the same measures without being affluent or being very poor for the school I don’t think the evidence is there.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          I’m not talking about magnets. And neither should most parents. Because if you make school district choices assuming your kid will get into a magnet you end up putting completely insane pressure on your kid who may or may not even be an appropriate candidate for the given school.

          Penelope

  3. Lori
    Lori says:

    the actual cost of homeschooling is probably nothing if you already have the internet; if you don’t, it’s whatever it will cost you to get the internet.

    the internet + a library card will give you everything you need except classes and extracurriculars, and you’d be paying for those even if your kids were in school.

    you don’t need textbooks anymore or workbooks — it’s all on the internet for free. and with MOCs (massively open courseware), the quality of free curricula online has gone through the roof. khan + MOCs + the free classes universities put up (you can, say, learn french for free) = low-cost, high-quality homeschooling.

    you could say you’ve lost an income, but if one of you works at home, you’re back in that game. these days, i think it pays to have at least one spouse outside of the traditional job market. you build up a freelance career, get some side income going, and you can do all the home and kid support, which saves you a ton of money and stress.

    two people working traditional jobs doubles your chance that one of you will lose your job and you’ll be in seriously hot water. with one of you outside that system building income streams and contacts, you can focus on living off one income and you’ll be much better prepared if the working spouse has a career stumble.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      For those of us that don’t make much money “losing an income” is actually breaking even because you have a person taking care of the household (making sure everything runs smoothly) and most likely the entire family will be healthier thus cutting down a lot of costs and doctor visits.

      Why? because when someone dedicates themselves to running the household then there’s no frivolous spending like there is when the 2 parents are working. No quick run for meals, more planned healthier homemade meals, no extra gas expenses for work, etc.

      This is, if you were in a tight budget. Some people lose an income but don’t care to cut costs as much.

      We tried to “live in one income” for a while by saving my paycheck and it worked out great. Now I just have to concern myself with earning just enough to have extra spending and saving money. Which is easier for me to figure out how to make about 500 bucks a month than to work full time and pay for daycare and run myself to the ground being all crazy.

      I know this is not realistic for everyone. But I think it takes planning and renouncing to certain things. It was easier for us because we always tried to live way under our means even when our means were ridiculously low.

      • Lisa
        Lisa says:

        I think you make a really good point about the two earner families spending way more. I can see that difference in my parents versus my in-laws. (all in their 50s so not retired) My parents are basically a one earner family, my mom works 10-20 hours a week as a pianist/piano teacher. Whereas my in-laws both work full-time, their joint income is probably at least 30% more than my parents but they are ALWAYS complaining about finances more than I’ve ever heard from my parents. The ILs eat out 10-20 times more often, always buy new cars, my MIL probably spends at least a third of her income on clothes for her and my niece, spend $800 or some ridiculous amount on daycare for the same niece, half of their groceries are spent on snacks for the same niece. As for my parents, they hardly ever eat out, live frugally, but they take at least 2 weeks worth of vacations every year, and they never complain about being short on money because they have very few things they want to spend it on. Your spending habits and priorities are everything.

        • Lisa
          Lisa says:

          $800 a month, maybe that isn’t ridiculous….I don’t have a kid. But when my husband and I found out about it it pretty much cemented our decision for me to stay home when we do have a kid.

    • the two income trap
      the two income trap says:

      Elizabeth Warren wrote a very good book about this phenomenon called “The Two Income Trap.” I recommend it. It helped us decided to be a one income family.

      It was when my son went from daycare to school that I started staying at home, because he had daycare 11 hours a day (and with that, we still had to have one parent drop him off and the other pick him up) and a full day of school was only six hours. Neither one of us could either drop him off at 9 or pick him up at 3 and still work a full job (we both had corporate management careers), let alone deal with all the holidays, early dismissals, sick days… We would basically have had to hire a nanny for before and after school.

      Add to that the increased cost of living and the cost to one parent’s career of the other parent having a career (call it the mommy track or the daddy track), and it was really more expensive for us to both work. Since I got out of the way, my wife’s career has really taken off (now she makes more than the both of us did when we were both working).

      We left school because of problems I don’t want to get into, and I was already home, so … homeschooling! We find the cost for us to homeschool is less than the cost of schooling was, considering I had to buy tons of school supplies and then get hit up for money regularly. All the books my son could want cost less than I was donating to the school.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “A lot of people think they want to homeschool but they don’t think they can afford it. So they ask me: How much does it cost to homeschool?”

    You’ve done a lot of research on homeschooling. So my question is – How much time is needed (daily average) by you or homeschoolers in general to do homeschooling? I think a lot of people believe it’s six to eight hours a day (similar to school so this time commitment scares them) but I’m thinking it’s less than that.

    • Debt Free Teen | Chase
      Debt Free Teen | Chase says:

      We spent about 3 hours a day homeschooling but when you start homeschooling, learning and formal school lines are blurred.

      I read for about an hour or more a day, worked on my blogs and other “educational” things. So determining the time it takes is all relative. We didn’t unschool but we did combine learning with life.

      When I joined a hybrid school for high school, I didn’t spend more than 2-3 hours a day because I worked fast and finished my assignments without sitting in class all day. Some weeks I would work all day for a couple of days and finish early leaving time to do other things.

    • Jan
      Jan says:

      We’re pretty schooly and cover the provincial (Canadian) curriculum, spending 8-10hrs aweek on our core academics of math, science, socials, LA. That’s 8-10am (ish), Mon-Thursday mornings.

      Our non-bookwork time is much harder to quantify. Really, when does parenting end and unschooling begin?! I spend alot (alot, alot!) of time driving my children to classes, activities and to see their friends. But when they were in school I also did these things and didn’t call it “homeschooling” . . .

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Yeah. It’s a really good point. Everyone chooses how much time they want to spend with their kid, and that’s how much time they spend. This is true of homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers. There is no set amount of parenting time that either choice requires.

        Penelope

  5. clark
    clark says:

    Penelope Trunk saying she doesn’t take vacations or dine out is like Tim Ferriss saying he works four hours a week.

  6. CJ
    CJ says:

    Even in areas (like mine) where there is an enormous saturation of people making a few times the 120k salaries, many of the public school districts are rated to be very lousy and families have to constantly contribute financially to classroom and student needs. It is true there arre some of the top rated districts in the nation also, but I get asked a few times per month, every month for donations, purchases for fundraising sales, etc. from friends in both types of districts, rich or poor. plus the kids need supplies, transportation costs, etc. I still can’t get over how some of the top rated private schools to the tune of 40k per year tuition are not much “better” than public schools, ratings or no. The cost of homeschooling, strictly economically speaking is seriously cheap by comparison where we live.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Thanks Chase, Jan, and Penelope for the responses. Two to three hours/day (daily average) is what I expected. And I think that number would surprise many parents who send their child to school. I like what Chase said about being able to work fast and finish assignments without having to sit in class all day. I think sitting in class all day and working at the speed of the slowest student in the class can ultimately destroy a student’s motivation to learn or at the least negatively impact performance. Jan, I like what you say here – “Our non-bookwork time is much harder to quantify. Really, when does parenting end and unschooling begin?!”. Parenting never ends and there is no separation between parenting and unschooling imo. What your statement tells me is that you as a homeschooler have more time to parent and unschool since you’re not sending your children to school. So that basically answers my question – what’s the time difference between time that would be spent at school (total including transportation) and time set aside by you and the children to do “core academics”.

    • Jan
      Jan says:

      Bingo! Yes Mark, that is precisely why we homeschool. My children were just in school, but we found it such a time-suck. My goal in homeschooling is to offer the same quality of education (we have v. good local schools) but in 8 hours a week instead of 35+homework hours. It’s leaves more time to really live . . .

      It’s also a nice perk that we get gov-t funding to pay for books, classes & activities to homeschool in our province – since we’re talking about finances here, I’ve got to say this funding definitely helps. As a family of six living on one income, money is tight.

  8. Tina H.
    Tina H. says:

    Good post, Penelope! And even beyond the very real cost you share when sending a child to institutional school – the cost of not being really engaged with one’s children – are so many others. For example: the cost to a child’s individuality when s/he’s told day in and day out (by teachers and peers alike) that s/he has to be like everyone else and the loss of the joy of learning for learning’s sake as a child is forced to spend so much time doing ridiculous busywork, just to name a couple. It doesn’t matter if one is in the “best” district in the nation; if the measuring stick is crooked (as is the notion that institutional schooling is best for children), the results will not be plumb. It’s really just too high a price to pay, as far as I’m concerned.

  9. John K
    John K says:

    Penelope, you are getting a very high correlation between top public schools and median income because you are looking at school attainment as opposed to growth. The more important metric is what schools grow their students the most, as opposed to what schools have the highest attainment. Much of high attainment is caused by the family, hence the spurious correlation between the “top” public schools and income.

  10. Carole
    Carole says:

    I love this post. I have calculated my “salary” from time to time when I’m feeling as though the incredible work I do is recognized by no one at all. I am worth a lot! (My current workload includes 5th grade, 3rd grade, 1st grade, and the most challenging of all: the 2 1/2 year old youngest brother.)

    A week or so ago I overheard some conservative homeschoolers talking about the election, their discussion was fixated on a conviction that Obama (if re-elected) is going to outlaw homeschooling. It made me think of you and your blog. When are you going to write a post entitled, “Why Obama will never outlaw homeschooling”?

    • Tina H.
      Tina H. says:

      I believe that’s a post Penelope cannot write – because he would do it if he could. If he realized how counter-cultural homeschoolers are – how we’re raising our children to be independent thinkers instead of “sheeple” that go along with whatever Big Brother says (which was, to paraphrase the father of modern public schools, John Dewey, the actual goal of the system – and one at which they have been wildly successful) – he’d never stand for it. The more he can get to go along with his notion of being the country’s “savior,” the happier he is. But, hopefully, we’ll be done with him in little more than a month – and see the last of him on Jan. 20, 2013.

      • Joe
        Joe says:

        I think the reason Penelope can’t write that post is that all kinds of crazy people would come out of the woodwork and start ranting.

        • Carole
          Carole says:

          Okay, agreed, so the proposed title is off. Perhaps it could read, “Why Obama, or any other president, would never outlaw homeschooling.” Yes, homeschoolers are independent thinkers, and also have an incredible public service and voting record, hence my disbelief that a law would be passed (and stand) outlawing freedom of choice when it comes to education.

  11. Joe
    Joe says:

    I’m certain there are people who would like to outlaw homeschooling. I would guess they are people who think all children ought to go to public school.

    The last President to send his child to public school was Jimmy Carter. The current President doesn’t send his or her child to public school, and I don’t believe any President in the future will ever again do so.

    But that won’t change some people having kooky fears.

  12. Stacia
    Stacia says:

    Unfortunately, the way this discussion is framed presumes a two-parent family, and many, many of us are single parent families. To say that the options are “only” to send your child to a lower-performing school OR homeschool is out of the question when you are a single parent. Please be upfront with your assumptions when you make sweeping statements!

    • busymomof3
      busymomof3 says:

      A similar situation is mine. My spouse is excellent at his job, but does not have the prospects to earn enough for me to stay home. He also does not want to be the one home schooling the kids. I am hoping that my kids will have the same natural curiosity and motivation to learn that I do, and that will make public school work for them. Why such doom and gloom? I think the success of a child in school depends on many many factors. If it doesn’t work for any one of our kids, then we’ll reevaluate and maybe I’ll have to earn more to send my kids to a special school.

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