Charlotte Mason Homeschooling with Free Books (or at least Really Cheap Ones)

My entire family is on a long-term mission to get out of the over $325,000 in educational debt my husband and I accumulated by our mid-twenties. Crawling out from under this huge debt is no small feat! And our choice to have me work as a full-time homeschooling mother and homemaker to our still-growing family does not make it any easier.

To accomplish our financial goals, I've learned how to turn a "beans and rice" homeschooling budget into a top-notch education for my children.

One of the key pieces of my low-budget Charlotte Mason homeschooling plan is using free books plus really cheap ones to build a homeschooling curriculum based on living books and materials. In this post, I detail exactly how I get so many free books and very cheap books and how I plan backward from the books I have to fashion an amazing learning experience for my kids covering many different subjects.

This post contains affiliate links. Read my full disclosure to learn more.

Can the Charlotte Mason method be low-cost?
The Charlotte Mason method is perfect for low-cost homeschooling! There is no determined set of books that makes an education "Charlotte Mason." Instead, being a Charlotte Mason homeschooler means following her method.

The best way to understand the Charlotte Mason method is to read her volumes on home education. You can find a brief synopsis of the method in her 20 principles (Read the 20 Principles plus a paraphrase on AmblesideOnline).

In Mason's own words (her 13th principle):
13. In devising a SYLLABUS for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered: (a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body. (b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity) (c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.
The freedom to choose ANY books that communicate knowledge in well-chosen language encourages me to use books from any time period that meet these requirements. With free public domain books, amazing free curriculum plans on sites like Ambleside Online, and book lists and links from many different bloggers, I can homeschool on a small and strict budget, using the following steps:

Step 1: Learn about popular books and authors used by other Charlotte Mason method homeschoolers.
Ambleside Online is a fabulous resource for homeschooling. Even in early days with preschool-aged children, when I wasn't even interested in being a Charlotte Mason method homeschooler, I loved this free resource for identifying great books for reading aloud, especially during our morning time.

Once I got serious about homeschooling from living books, AmblesideOnline's curriculum was always the first place I looked to learn about living books on different subjects. I've since learned about other sources for identifying living books. The ones I use the most are

Step 2: Learn to identify living books for yourself.
Living books are hard to define, but if you develop a taste for them, you can know them when you see them. Brandy Vencel has a great post about what living books are and are not and how to develop such a taste and I wholeheartedly agree that once I started reading more and more living books, as well as book lists of living books, I was able to identify living books for myself.

I look for books written in a literary style. Commonly characteristics include
  • SHOWING with descriptive words instead of TELLING with a bunch of facts
  • Chapters filled with paragraphs NOT bunches of graphics with boxes of text
  • Uses varied and complex vocabulary . . . there may be some words you don't know how to pronounce or that your children may not know.
Don't worry! Read some of the books from the sources in Step 1 and you will begin to get a feel for it.

Step 3: Buy living books BEFORE you need them.
Once you are familiar with popular living books and can identify living books for yourself, you can buy living books across the curriculum at used book sales at a target price of $1-$2. These books are not free, but they are very inexpensive.

My favorite places to shop are library book sales, which typically happen in the spring, and sometimes in the fall, but any large book sale will do.

Check out my best tips for scoring big at used book sales here.

Step 4: Build school plans around the books you can use for free: your books, library books and free ebooks. 
Make a list of the subjects you want to cover and then select books from 1) the living books you own, 2) the living books you can borrow from the library or a friend, and 3) the living books you can find freely available in the public domain as ebooks.

Using books from the public library can be a pain, especially depending on your library's loan period and renewal policy. To make the library a better source for your homeschool curriculum, check out my post on Best Library Hacks for Homeschoolers (from a Librarian). Using these tips I am able to find and use high-value books, audiobooks, and other homeschool resources for free.

Free ebooks are another way to add amazing living books to your homeschool for free. And you don't have to only use them on a device. Yes, you can have children read ebooks on a tablet, but you can also print them into booklets, bind them into mini-books, read them aloud to your children, or just use ebooks to preview books you may want to purchase.

My favorite source for ebooks is Google Books because the books are page-image PDFs, meaning they contain the actual pages of the original vintage book complete with illustrations. Once you add a free ebook to your Google Books Library, you can read it on your computer, you can download it as a PDF or you can read it on a tablet with the Google Play Books app.

I have several lists of free Google ebooks on my site:

If a high-quality page-image version is not available from Google Books, I find the best copy that is available from the following sources and use that one:
To keep things simple, remember that you can send PDFs from other sites to your Google Play Books app and mobi files or PDF files from another site to your Kindle app.

Step 5: Find free substitutes for books you cannot borrow or download for free.
As I am consulting all my favorite sources for living books, I often come across titles that I think would be a good fit for my school plans that I do not own and cannot borrow or get for free. I make a list with these titles and topics and keep my eyes peeled for something that may be a good substitute.

One way to find substitutes it to search your library's online catalog by subject. When you find a book on the topic, borrow out and see if it is a living book and a good fit for your needs. For example, that is how I found Washington at Valley Forge by Russell Freedman, which I am including in my son's history plans for next year.

You can also search the Simply Charlotte Mason Bookfinder as well as Amazon for books on a particular topic and cross-reference those with your library (use the Library Extension do this seamlessly--my post on Best Library Hacks for Homeschoolers (from a Librarian) shows exactly what this looks like).

If you find a vintage book published before 1923 it is in the public domain and may be available online.  You can search for a free ebook version through sites like Project Gutenberg, Google Books,, or Amazon. It was this process that led me from the Bookfinder to a free version of The boys of '76 by Charles Carleton Coffin. I cannot tell you how much I adore this book and how much I have learned from reading it! And I never would have found it if not trying to create an awesome low-cost curriculum.

You can also search for vintage ebooks on a particular topic especially if you are rounding out your other selections. For example, by searching Project Gutenberg for something to read for our study of Haydn, I discovered The World's Great Men of Music by Harriette Brower.

You can also check out An Old Fashioned Education for ebooks you've never heard of before. This is where I first learned about Clara Dillingham Pierson's Among the People series[online versions and ebook versions] including Among the Meadow People, Among the Forest People, Among the Night People, and the rest, which are great titles for learning about nature. Every member of my family enjoys them so much.

Step 6: Decide to purchase books only after careful consideration . . . usually only after looking at an entire book or ebook version
I almost NEVER discover a good book and buy it within a day or even a week. My space for books and my budget are limited so I like to take my time.

And, I almost always preview the book first, unless I have a very good idea of what it will be like given my experience with an author or a series. It is quite disappointing to spend our hard-saved homeschooling money on something that isn't quite right!

If possible, borrow the book from a friend or from another library, using interlibrary loan if necessary. At a minimum, download a sample, use Amazon's Look Inside feature, or preview the book on Google Books to see the table of contents and a sample of the writing. This allows you to assess the quality and the difficulty of the writing and see what it will cover.

Recently, I previewed 3 books using interlibrary loan. Two of them, Struggle for a Continent: The French and Indian Wars, 1690-1760 by Albert Marrin and Sewing School: 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make by Andria Lisle, I determined were ones I wanted to use in our homeschool. One of them (cannot remember the title!), I could tell as soon as I opened it, would not work at all.

Step 7: Talk to your friends!
Even after you decide what you want to purchase, try to talk to your friends first. Ask your homeschool group if they have used the book before. Maybe they have a copy to lend or to sell at a great price.

Because I talk about the books I love so much, I have friends who will gladly grab a favorite author of mine at a booksale for me! And I try to return the favor. If I see an amazing book for $1 you can bet that I will gladly gift it to a friend who will appreciate it.

Recently, I asked some moms about a science book I was considering for next year. Later, one of the moms emailed me and asked if I would want to buy her used copy for $5. This book is selling online for $15 or more, so I jumped at the chance to keep more money in both of our homeschool budgets.

I also lend books and supplies out to friends. Yes, I sometimes do not get things back and I do feel regret when this happens. However, I would rather live in world where we share freely what we have and what I happen to have in spades is living books :-)

Step 8: Slowly acquire selected books.
Put a book you want to buy on a "buy list."

Fun titles can go on an Amazon wishlist of gift ideas for your child. My mother was happy to buy Sewing School: 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make for my son as a Christmas present. My son has discovered a huge passion for working on these projects and we can thank Grandma over and over for such a wonderful present that keeps on giving!

Newer books can go on a private Amazon wish list or in an Amazon shopping cart saved for later. When a rare $5 off $15 coupon comes around, or you see it drop in price, you can go ahead and pull the trigger. I often wait until I've earned one or more $5 Amazon gift card from Microsoft Rewards, where my husband and I earn about $10 a month searching for a few minutes every morning.

Make a wishlist for used books on Thrift Books (referral link that gets you 15% off and me reading reward points). I love Thrift Books so much because once your order reaches $10, it ships for free. I can often buy 3 used books for less than $12, which is rare on Amazon. Thrift Books also has a reward program where you can quickly earn free books with purchases.

I also shop for books, especially more traditional curriculum books, from other homeschoolers and booksellers using Facebook and the resources on this post on Oaxacaborn: Where to buy used homeschool curriculum.

With these tips, I spend very little per year on living books for our homeschool, leaving more money for art supplies, math curriculum, and the various odds and ends of homeschooling life. I hope they help you stretch your homeschooling budget as they have mine. 

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