Buying used curriculum is like taking a shortcut when I drive. If I am familiar with the area through which I'm being re-routed, I can save some time. But if I get lost trying to take a shortcut, I may end up woefully behind! By the same token, I can really stretch my homeschool budget by finding great used-curriculum values. Yet I haven't effectively saved money if a particular pre-owned purchase is not the wisest choice for my family. Here are some ways to "know the shortcuts" when navigating the used curriculum options, and save in the long run.
Set Goals. Have a list of the goals you have set for your children. Know what you are looking for and why, whether new or used. Keeping those objectives in front of you as you shop can help you select bargain items that will best meet your needs for the year.
Make a List. Shopping without a list can be just as disastrous on the swap boards or in the resale shop as it can be in the grocery store! Make a list of the items in which you are most interested, with several alternative selections noted. Having a second or third choice pre-selected helps me to think quickly at a yard sale or curriculum swap. I make a list of all the topics we're covering this year in our units, so I can stay focused on my more immediate needs, and I can better resist the temptation to snatch up a bargain that won't really be useful to me for another year or two.
Be Specific. Specific titles are very useful, if possible. One year I accidentally purchased three "different" copies of the same well-known science book because the publisher had changed the cover several times and I didn't recognize the title as a book I'd already purchased!
Know Your Audience. Consider your own teaching style and your children's learning styles. Just because something was recommended by a friend and is 50 percent off doesn't mean you will be comfortable using it or that your kids will "get it." On the other hand, this may be a good time to try something new, when it isn't a tremendous monetary investment.
Know the Prices. Do some research to familiarize yourself with the retail prices so you'll be better able to recognize a bargain. I go through my catalogs and mark prices on my wish list so I'll know who sells which items for what prices. That way, I'll know if a used item is enough of a reduction to warrant not getting it new. Also, ask around to determine what sort of discount would be considered fair in the used market for your particular needs. A reference book that might not often be found in the used market can command a price closer to retail than can a book that parents sell off regularly to buy the next grade level. Know what you are willing to pay.
Know the Publishers. Some publishers make such minor changes in books from time to time that an older edition may work fine for your purposes. Other times, the books may have been revised enough that other materials you have to coordinate (workbook, teacher's manual, quizzes, etc.) may no longer be compatible. When "new models" come out, call the publisher and ask about the extent of the revisions and how compatible your other components will be.
Look at the Dates. Check the copyright dates in the books. Determine if you are willing to go with a little older book in some subjects (say, history or art or language) to be able to splurge for the latest in science or computer technology. Publishing dates can be important if you already have three parts of your A Beka history program and just need another set of tests and quizzes, while you may be more than willing to settle for a five-year-old set of World Book encyclopedias at a library sale instead of shelling out more money for the newest version.
Be Creative. We have picked up books/magazines free or "dirt cheap" and cut out the pictures to illustrate stories, make posters, etc. I've heard of others who have cut out timeline figures from discarded books.
Cheaper Isn't Always a Bargain. A friend of mine recently purchased a public school math book because it was a little less expensive than the Saxon she really wanted, then found that she would have to pay $70 for a public school teacher's key for the course. This comes back to knowing what you want and how much it will cost you.
(By the way, the teacher's book may or may not be necessary; some texts have answers in the backs or you may be able to determine the correct answers. Some teacher books have not only answers, but super teaching ideas. If you aren't comfortable without it, consider buying it.)
Remember That Most Sales Are Final. While most dealers of new materials will allow a refund or exchange of items still in resalable condition if you change your mind, the average re-seller is generally not able to offer that luxury because he is already shaving his margin by selling at a discount. Similarly, the homeschool neighbor you bought the book from has probably already applied your book money to the electric bill. Be pretty sure of what you want, buy with confidence, and if it ends up not working out for you, list it on the swap board or in your homeschool newsletter classifieds!
Try to Get a Preview. If you aren't sure you are able to absorb a loss if it doesn't work out, try to borrow a copy of the book or material from a friend to look over for a few days, or to try for a week or two. Then you'll know if you're comfortable enough with the purchase of a particular used item to risk not being able to return it for a refund.
Where to Look. Ask your homeschool friends for recommendations of used book dealers and good swap boards (they are multiplying on-line!). Our state organization's e-mail update often announces used curriculum sales across the state. Check homeschool magazine ads and yard sales. Our weekly Trading Post paper sometimes has curriculum listed, as do some of the on-line auction houses and book sellers. Your state organization may have a listing of homeschool re-sale book shops.
Visit Book Annexes. Our local public school system regularly purges textbooks upon replacing with newer ones, and the older books go to an annex building which is opened to the public to take what they would like, free of charge. Use this source judiciously, as many public school textbooks may not be suitable for your home use. But I have picked up dictionaries, typing books for keyboard practice, books on local history, etc., and a few moms have gotten desks, maps, and more. Check with your local school district for more information.
Make Your Needs Known. Let local curriculum dealers and the moms in your support group know that you are on the lookout for certain items. People often have things on their shelves that they don't realize may be of value to others. Swap boards often have "Wanted to Buy" sections as well as "For Sale" listings.
Take a Friend. If you are a fairly new homeschooler, it can be a big help to ask a veteran homeschooler (especially one familiar with curriculum) to accompany you on your excursion. She can help you to focus on your list, explain if/how some items may be able to substitute for others, help you know what questions to ask of a seller, and guide you on prices. There's comfort in a second set of eyes to help navigate - it's like having someone to "ride shotgun" while you're taking that "shortcut to savings"!