Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Unschooling on a budget

I've heard quite a lot of comments recently about how expensive unschooling must be, from people talking about resources for doing what the children are interested in, to a scornful remark from a parent that it would cost a fortune for children to choose what to eat like mine do, so they should just eat what they're given (And ironically this was from an autonomously-educating parent, who I'm sure had heard a million times from people that if they let their children learn what they want they'd never learn anything. I think the advice applies here that you shouldn't interrupt someone who's already doing something, in order to let them know that what they're doing isn't possible. It's good to keep an open mind until you've actually given something proper consideration).

Obviously unschooling families are going to have budgets right across the spectrum, and as with many aspects of life it might well be easier when there's lots of money available. It doesn't by any stretch of the imagination mean that it's not possible with less though! When I blog about the things we've done, I sometimes think what an expensive week it looks like, but I know different ;)

Squidge holding tightly onto all our worldly finances (aka his birthday money) ;)

When there's something one of my children becomes interested in,  I have a look at different aspects of that thing, different things surrounding it, and consider which they might personally like, and from those I think of different ways to make those affordable for us.

When there's something that I think of or see that I think would be cool to show them or I know would be the kind of thing they like, I look at ways to make it do-able on our budget.

That all sounds obvious, but it's no different from any other area of life for non-unschoolers on a budget. Some of it is straightforward, some takes a bit of thinking, and some goes on a list for us to work out how to afford it!

I thought I'd put together a list of different things that make it easier for me to facilitate my kids' interests and bring interesting things into their world. For people living on a tight budget, I'm sure a lot of this will sound like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, plus it's by no means exhaustive but hopefully some things on it might help someone.


Charity shops - These are great for so many reasons. I've found loads of interesting bits and pieces over the years: games, puzzles, books, DVDs, computer games, and completely random items that are interesting for whatever reason. Some have been snapped up straightaway by the boys, some have hovered around the house for ages and become interesting to them at a later date, some are still about and may or may not become of interest. It's all good! The other thing charity shops are brilliant for is helping to give children a sense of abundance without having to spend a fortune; A couple of weeks ago the boys asked if we could go and buy a new toy, so we popped to the charity shop and they bought everything they wanted (I think it was two little toys each, two board games, a card game, a DVD and a present for Moppet) and it cost less than five pounds; they felt listened to, had stuff to interest them for ages, and it was within our budget.

Ebay reminders and snipers - There are lots of tips for getting things cheap on eBay, from using sites like Fat Fingers, to searching for 'local pickup only' listings which typically go for less, to using snipers like Goofbay to try and win the auction before people have chance to up their bids. Sometimes it takes some patience, but a lot of things can be picked up relatively cheaply. We've had musical instruments (our violin was five pounds), toys that would have been way out of our price range otherwise, lots of video games, retro consoles (most recently a Playstation One for 99p!), and today an utterly bargainous trampoline.

Make things instead of buying - Sprout saw Grass Heads somewhere the other day and said he'd like to do one, so instead of paying over ten pounds so they could have one each, we made one each for them using an old pair of tights, a couple of googly eyes from a big pack that cost less than a pound, and some chive seeds that were 99p (although I could have waited until ours flowered and had free seeds!). For another example, they want a 'spy kit' at the moment, so I've downloaded them some free spy apps while they wait, and I'm putting something together mostly from things we already have.

Resource swaps with other home educators - It's great to have resources around the house, but the likelihood is your children won't need everything they have all of the time, and on the flipside if they do develop an interest it might be that it's shortlived. So if they want to play the guitar (or build a model of Cologne Cathedral, or play badminton), it might be worth seeing if any other HEors have one you could borrow to start with. 

Regular giveaways - Set yourself reminders for things that come up regularly so that you don't miss out on them. For example, the Potato Council give away seed potatoes and growing kits every year, and the Open University often give away really lovely free resources (our favourite so far has been a fossil guide).

Google 'free resources for teachers' - and similar. Lots of companies give things away, from tomato seeds, to recycling information, to water saving devices, to bee friendly seed kits, to computer software, and are often happy to send these to private individuals and home educators.

Freebies boards on mse - These can be really good for things that might be of interest one day, things to strew their paths with. We've had a few completely random things from giveaways shared here.

'Value' ranges - Well worth checking out for interesting things. Squidge is into unscrewing things and fixing them at the moment, and helping Gruff work on cars, and I got him his very own (adult, functioning) toolkit from the Tesco Value range for less than £1.50.  

Specialist ranges - This might sound counter-intuitive  but actually sometimes good quality things aimed at specialist users are cheaper than the standard offering you might find in a high street store. For example, Sprout and Squidge wanted to try out some street art, and when we looked at spray paint at high street stores it was coming in at about 8 pounds a can. At Monster Colors who specialise in supplying street artists, it was around a quarter of that. 

Freegle - Often people are getting rid of things by freegle that are still interesting or useful at the end of their life. Among other things, we've had various games, a little potter's wheel, a karate uniform, and some demi johns, all of which have been interesting in one way or another to the kids.

Being creative with their interests - An interest in karate, for example, doesn't automatically mean they want to do a karate class. They might want to watch karate videos, play karate games online or on the Wii, go to a martial arts museum, go to a martial arts festival, watch a tournament, play a board game, wear a uniform and play at karate, or watch Karate Kid (old and new!) Of course they might indeed want lessons (and if so, see Groupon heading!)

Google saved searches - Some things they love might be pricey, for example Lego. I have searches saved on Google eg 'Lego sale', 'free Lego', 'Lego offer' which give me a heads up. Which leads me nicely to...

Newspaper giveaways - Newspapers often have giveaways of everythiing from DVDs to Lego, the cost of the paper being a fraction of the cost of the item. We've had lots of really fun little Lego sets this way, and loads of DVDs we likely wouldn't have come across otherwise. 

Free magazines -  Without wanting to sound repetitive, Lego Club send out a free magazine to members, and we also used to pick up a free geology magazine at our local museum. We also get a free animal magazine (that Squidge loves) with our pet insurance.

Cheap magazines - You can often get '3 issues for £1' offers on magazine subscriptions, which work out great value if you can remember to cancel the subscription before the bigger charges kick in if you no longer want it. We've had a computing magazine and an animal magazine this way.

Amazon marketplace for DVDs - You can often get DVDs for 1p plus postage, sometimes totalling around £1.30. We've found it a great way to have movie nights on the cheap! Both boys love superheroes at the moment, so having watched most of the Marvel ones we've ordered Kick Ass at this sort of price this week.

Steam offers - Steam have an ever changing array of *big* discounts on games, often reducing big budget games to only a couple of pounds. They also do offers sometimes where if you buy one for you and another for a friend it's discounted, so making it more affordable to play the games with your children. Check out their indie games section too, where you can get some great games really cheaply.

Free software - There's often really good quality free software available to facilitate something they're interested in. Think Artweaver for painting and drawing, Gimp for photo manipulation, and Tux Paint for collages

Contracts - Although getting something like an iPad on a contract can work out more expensive in the longterm than buying one outright, it can make it an accessible option if you can't afford it outright.

Quidco - If there is something that you're going to buy or subscribe to online, always check whether Quidco have them listed. You can build up a fair amount of cashback by going through them each time.

Pound shops - Aladdin's caves of interesting things, toys, sweets, fun cooking utensils, sandwich cutters, glowsticks, Wii accessories, gardening things, DVDs and books, pound shops and 99p shops offer the same advantage as charity shops in giving that feeling of abundance to the children and giving us the chance to pick up fun things to do with them for little outlay. Our pool noodle racetracks, glowstick baths, vintage cartoon marathons, chair balancing game, and make believe toolboxes (among many, many other things) have all been done cheaply thanks to these shops.

Lidl and Aldi - Both of these sometimes have good value things in their special buys, such as microscopes, telescopes, and musical instruments. They also often have a focus on a certain area of world food, so would be good if you don't have many ethnic foo stores where you live. They both have email newsletters you can sign up for too.

Places to go...

Free museums, libraries and parks - These are the obvious things, but sometimes overlooked. Lots of free fun to be had!

Daily deals websites - Groupon, Wowcher, KGB, and especially Deal Zippy (which groups together all the different daily deals sites) are all worth signing up to as they very often have family days out, entrance tickets to shows and exhibitions, circuses, play areas, classes and the like at a massive discount. Depending on how you're fixed for transport it's a good idea to sign up for the alerts for your local one and any for the surrounding areas too as often something really close won't appear on your local one just because of that business's budget limitation. From daily deals sites we've had karate classes, the Good Food Show/Gardener's World, festivals, zoos, wildlife centres, theme parks, reenactment days, castles... basically done lots of interesting things for a lot cheaper than the asking price!

Taster sessions - A lot of classes - whether it's dance, karate, trampolining, or something else they fancy doing - have the option of doing a free taster session. We've found the advantages of this to be twofold: Firstly, the usual purpose of these is useful so that you don't pay for three months or however long of something they would have realised after one try just isn't the class for them; Secondly, for some children and some interests, one go might be enough. If their curiosity is satisfied after just the free session, then fab!

Annual passes - We've had various different annual passes since Sprout was a toddler, from Merlin (which is expensive but very worth it if you live close enough to any of the attractions to go much, the one year we had it we visited Alton Towers once or twice a week, Legoland in the summer, the Lego Discovery Centre a couple of times, and a couple of the Sealife Centres. Never was a pass made more use of!), to the Space Centre (which is automatically made into an annual pass just for paying entry, and as an added bonus has the free entry Abbey Pumping Station next door), to the Stoke museums pass (which sadly doesn't exist any more), to Shugborough Hall (which we didn't get nearly enough use out of as we were so busy with other things over the past year). We've got passes to a play area the boys love in our sights this year. 

Nurturing local groups - Home ed groups don't have to mean dealing with hall expenses (although regular groups with an indoor space are definitely good!), meeting up with friends at the park can be just as good and free too. We also organise meet ups at our house for Lego days and Minecraft LAN days; themes can be a good way of setting something new up.

Free/cheap clubs and classes - Look out locally for different groups that might interest them, from Hackspaces to Kids Can Do It classes

Free activities - You might be able to find local businesses that run free activities, for example we have a farm nearby that often offers free pond dipping as part of its commitment to spreading information about the countryside. 

Off peak offers - Lots of places (health clubs, theme parks, restaurants and play areas spring to mind first) have lower prices during the day in term time that home educators are ideally placed to take advantage of!

National Schools Film Week no longer runs, but it's worth looking out for things like it that might be open to home educators as well as schools.

Shops - I was thinking independent shops, but actually even chain stores often have staff members who are keen to share their knowledge. Sprout's chatted to people in games stores, pet shops, lapidary stores, farm shops

Universities - One of the best days out we've had over the past year or so was at the Lapworth Geology Museum, where the professor put on a hands on session for a group of us, completely free of charge. I've come across similar things at other departments at other unis too, so definitely worth a search depending on what your child's interested in at the moment

Googling - 'Free places to go in *******' and 'Free things for kids in *******' and 'Free days out in *******'. We found a lovely little city farm this way, among other things, that we had never come across before.

Group/school discounts - If there's somewhere you want to take them, get in touch and ask about these types of discounts. English Heritage do free entry for home edders. Cadbury World do group rates and off peak rates. Even Alton Towers do home ed rates at certain times. That's just a random small selection obviously, it's well worth asking at most places!

Couchsurfing/Hospitality Club - Whether you want to stay somewhere or have a local show you around, these are great places to find hospitable families around the world who will put you up or show you around for nothing. We've hosted a bunch of times and without fail it's been a positive experience.

Newsletters and Facebook pages - Check whether your local libraries and museums have an email newsletter - ours send them out monthly with everything from knitting clubs to specialist talks to Gruffalo days to Chinese New Year festivals, with costs often free. Facebook pages for local places and events are good to follow, so you don't miss brilliant free things like Open Farm Sunday or local carnivals 

Skills and Info...

Special interest groups - A quick google or a scan of the noticeboards in local libraries and museums will often turn up local interest groups for various things from geology to geocaching.

Skill swaps - Whether it's with other home ed parents, or with other people, it's worth looking into as an option; If you can fix cars, for example, and your child wants to spend time learning from a professional artist, it might be worth asking an artist if they're open to a skill swap. As another example, I used to get riding lessons in exchange for mucking out stables.


For us, helping Sprout, Squidge and Moppet eat the things they want to eat is as much part of our unschooling lives as helping them visit the places they want to visit, or play the games they want to play. As well as their input on the shopping, some of this is knowing them, knowing what they're going to want when we're not at home, and knowing the types of things that they will and won't want to eat.

Out and about - I know that many times when we're out, both Sprout and Squidge will ask to stop somewhere for some sweets and a drink. Sometimes this is about wanting to go into a shop with some money and choose something, and sometimes it's about just wanting sweets and a drink. To make this affordable we sometimes get a big order from Approved Food with the types of drinks and sweets and crisps they like, and then we keep some in the car boot for them to choose from when that's what they want. (We also take out packed lunches, we're not just a mobile sweet shop ;) ) Much more affordable. 
The other thing we do is, if I know they'll want, say, an ice cream at a certain park, I do my very best to budget for that in advance. There's one park at which they tend to want an ice cream. Another where they tend to want a sausage roll. If I know we really can't afford anything that day and there's no particular desire to go to one of those parks, I'll suggest the park with no ice cream van, for example. If we go and they want things above and beyond that day's budget, another sausage roll for example, but I do have other money earmarked for something specific another day, I might talk to them and give them the option of using that money for the extra sausage roll.

Branded and 'fun' food - Sometimes we can cheat ;) Instructables is a font of genius whether you want to recreate Twix (nom), a giant Jaffa Cake (nomnom), or Pizza Hut Cookie Dough (nomnomnom). Elsewhere on the net you can find instructions to DIY pretty much anything from KFC to Haribo. It can be fun, cheaper, and more nutritious potentially. Sometimes it's about the fun wrappers or the meals-in-a-box-with-a-toy, all of which are totally do-able at home! 

Saving on other things... 

The cheaper you can do other things, the easier it will be to afford the things your children are interested in. If you don't already use Money Saving Expert it's got lots of great resources that are worth a look.

So there we go. Depending on your budget, some of those things might be useful, and some still out of reach. The essence is though that it's about looking at it different ways in order to try and provide an interesting world and facilitate the things that interest your children :)


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