A lot of people want to self-study economics outside of school but aren’t sure where to start. They doubt if it’s even possible.
As someone with a bachelor’s degree in the subject, I can say that self-education is an extremely viable, not to mention economical, path for learning the basics of this fascinating discipline.
To help you systematically learn economics on your own, I created this 11-step self-education roadmap.
It’s designed to help you get a foundational education in economics — one that’s about the same as the education econ majors like myself receive at college, albeit without the mandatory classes in other subjects.
The roadmap’s steps and sequence are based on my own undergraduate experience, as well as other college curriculums I’ve perused.
I also tailored the roadmap to the self-learner and made some additions that I wish were present in my curriculum when I was in school.
1. Read a Few Introductory Econ Books to Gauge Your Interest
In my first Econ course, microeconomics, we jumped straight into the textbook. Everything was graphs and definitions, nothing that revved me up to study the subject. It was as if the administration was leaning into the whole “dismal science” identity.
Looking back, I think they could have retained more students in the major had they assigned some readings of popular, less academic economics books.
Below I’ll introduce you to some of the best beginner econ books for self-learners. By reading these you’ll be able to see the cool ways in which economics can be applied to the real world. Plus, you’ll learn some of the basics of the discipline, which will prepare you for the next steps.
I read Freakonomics my sophomore year of college, on my own accord. Something clicked when I read it. I instantly saw how the economic methods and theories I had learned could be used to discover fascinating truths about the world.
For example, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner find out the answers to questions like “which should be feared more, swimming pools or guns?”, and “do sumo wrestlers and school teachers cheat?” Grab this book if you want to see a rogue and curious economist in action.
Although its author is sometimes biased towards free-market capitalism, Basic Economics is known by many as the best citizen’s guide to economics. Thomas Sowell, an Economist, wrote it for people who want to understand how the economy works, without that uncomfortable experience of staring mindlessly at graphs and equations.
At 704 pages, it’s definitely a long book, but it’s written without jargon so you’ll rarely, if ever, have to stop and re-read passages. Plus, despite its length, people love it. It’s currently the #1 best-seller in Political Economy Books on Amazon and has a rating of 4.9/5, which is pretty unheard of for a topic as politically-charged as the economy.
Oh, and if you’re interested in politics, you’ll probably like the political science roadmap. Studying poli sci alongside economics will give you a unique perspective into the nature of society.
The Economists’ Hour
My dad, also an economics major, read The Economists’ Hour and loved it, so he lended it to me. I found it fascinating to learn the history of an era when economist’s had extreme influence on policy and politicians, including the president.
It was also interesting to learn about the different major economic ideas that affected economic policy in our country post 1960. This book is perfect for the autodidact interested in the intersection of government and economics, as well as some good storytelling.
It was only after college that I picked up Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life. Dixit and Nalebuff taught me how to use game theory, an area of study in economics, to outmaneuver the competition in various everyday situations.
The book highlights the principles of sound strategic thinking by discussing case studies across a wide range of disciplines, from politics and gambling to sports and movies. It’s an engaging and instructive read. In FiveBooks’ article Best Introductions to Economics, Tim Harford, author of the classic The Undercover Economist, places it at number one.
2. Learn Micro and Macroeconomics
Most economics majors take intro to microeconomics and intro to macroeconomics in their first year of school, in that order. This was my experience when I was a student, and it’s confirmed by many curriculums from top universities, such as Yale’s.
A grounding in these two foundational subjects will prepare you for harder material down the line.
Below I’ll share some of the best online courses you can use to get your basic economics, as well as a textbook route for those who just want to use 1 textbook to learn each subject.
MIT Principles of Economics Course – MIT OpenCourseWare
MIT OpenCourseWare publishes real syllabi and materials for thousands of courses, including this one for introductory microeconomics. On the course site, you’ll find not only problem sets (with solutions), reading assignments, and exams, but also lecture recordings from live classes, which is rare for the site.
For example, here’s the lecture on demand curves and income restraints:
I chose an MIT course for learning microeconomics because a lot of self-educators run into feelings of doubt, and I’ve found that the best way to overcome that doubt is to use learning materials and methods with the stamp of approval from an institution you can trust.
As a note, this is one of the only MIT courses that actually lists lecture videos. Most just list the materials, exams, and readings, so this is a real treat for those teaching themselves economics.
University of Queensland Macroeconomics Program – edX
University of Queensland offers a 3-course introductory program on macroeconomics through edX, an online course platform. It’s self-paced and designed to take 5 months at 1-2 hours of work per week, but you can shrink that timeline with some hustle. At the end you get a professional certificate.
The course covers macroeconomic indicators, macro policy, and, lastly, international macro:
The only downside is that it does cost $497 — less than the price you’d pay at university, but still pricey. You do get a certificate at the end.
However, if that price is a no-go, and you don’t need a certificate, they do offer the three macro courses separately and for free on edX as well.
For example, here’s macroeconomic policy, nice and free:
If you liked the MIT experience from micro, you could also take their Principles of Macroeconomics. Just be warned that this MIT course does not include the lectures.
The Textbook Route for Self-Learning Micro and Macroeconomics
If you like to learn through textbooks, you can simply buy the textbooks students would use in micro and macro econ classes and read them. The advantage of this route is it can be quicker and denser, as some lectures are just regurgitation on what’s written in the books. However, you do miss out on the guiding words of a teacher.
Below are the two textbooks I’d recommend buying, both by Harvard professor Greg Mankiw:
Principles of Microeconomics, 7th Edition, by Gregory Mankiw
The textbook Principles of Microeconomics is popular amongst students, and Wall Street Mojo lists it as the best introductory microeconomics book for a beginner in their article. I like how it starts out by going over ten principles of economics in chapter one.
From this book you’ll learn the fundamentals without being bogged down by difficult economics jargon. Mankiw, the author, is successful in making micro interesting as well, mainly by showing how concepts play a role in real-life behavior and decision-making.
Principles of Macroeconomics by OpenStax
For your macro studies, The Principles of Macroeconomics textbook covers the topics you’d learn in most intro to macro college courses, and it’s rather affordable compared to other textbooks on the subject.
Reviewers of the book often state that it deals with concepts in a clear manner that’s easy for the beginner to understand.
3. Review the History of Economic Thought
Now that you understand how modern micro- and macroeconomists think about the economy, it’s beneficial to review history’s most influential economic ideas and the social theorists who thought them up. If you’re a nerd like me, you’ll love this part.
Not only does this show you the evolution of economic thought. It also forces you to use what you know about micro and macro to grapple with some of the greatest ideas. Not to mention, you gain some mentors and heroes (or enemies) in the process.
To gain historical grounding, I recommend reading The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers, one of my absolute favorite intellectual histories:
You’ll learn about the lives and ideas of Smith, Malthus, Marx, Keynes, Schumpter, and other giants of the social science. And reading it will be a nice holiday from your econ courses and textbooks, which are often more about math and established concepts than about groundbreaking ideas.
If the word “philosophers” got your heart racing, consider checking out my 9-book reading plan for self-learning philosophy.
4. Take 3+ Beginner-Level Economics Courses Online
I’m defining beginner-level economics courses as those that do not require as a prerequisite any math beyond high school math. You don’t have to come in knowing calculus or statistics, and whatever math you do need they’ll teach you. Most of the courses, however, don’t require any math at all. They’re built for those with entry-level knowledge.
By taking 3 or more beginner courses you’ll see how broad the field of economics really is. It consists of so many subdisciplines and tangential disciplines, from behavioral economics to political economy.
You’ll also challenge yourself to think analytically about complex economic issues in a variety of areas, and you’ll learn methods economists use to solve these problems. These will help you figure out if economics is something you want to pursue as a career.
Below I’ve listed five courses to check out. Some are exemplary of my favorites in college, like developmental econ and the history of the US economy. All are enjoyable, enlightening, and highly-rated.
Yale’s free online course on Financial Markets, with live lectures, reading assignments, and problem sets (with solutions), gives you an overview of the ideas, institutions, and methods that allow society to create businesses, build wealth, and deal with risk. This one’s been on my list for a while.
Here are the first 5 of the 23 total lectures:
In the first lecture, Professor Robert J. Shiller teaches you the basics of probability theory through examples from the 2008 financial crisis. For anyone who can remember their parents, their peers, or themselves, struggling through these hard economic times, this course is surely going to be fascinating.
Introduction to Political Economy
I listened to Duke’s political economy lecture series on a car ride to a secluded lake house in the woods of Maine. Usually when I head off into nature I’m tired of society, but this series had me feeling curious and excited about it.
The professor is as intelligent as he is engaging. The stories he chooses to tell to illustrate the concepts really grab you.
I especially liked the one about the enterprising folks who loaded ice into their pickup trucks, brought it to a town that had lost electricity, and charged extremely high prices for it, only to get shut down by the cops for price gouging — a controversial subject.
History of the U.S. Economy in the 20th Century
I wish you could take Farley Grubb’s class on US economic history like I did in my college days. Fortunately, there’s another solid option.
The Great Courses offers a History of the US Economy in the 20th Century course, which takes you through ten lectures, each covering a different decade of the 1900s through an economic lens.
You’ll learn about the major economic events and trends of the 20th century, from the creation of the federal reserve to the stagflation of the 1970s and how the federal reserve chair ended it.
As in most histories, the government is going to be the main character, but you’ll also get a chance to learn about the experiences of regular citizens living through the economic shifts.
From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development
Have you ever been curious about why some countries develop quickly and raise the overall income per capita and living standards while others remain in poverty? If you are, this Oxford, edX-hosted Understanding Economic Development course is perfect for you.
You’ll learn the social and economic factors that lead to development along with different paths countries have taken to achieve consistent economic growth. This topic was one of my favorites in undergrad. It’s cool to learn about what governments can and cannot do to support their country’s development.
Behavioral Economics: An Introductory Course
This Udemy course covers the basics of behavioral economics, a relatively new branch of economics that combines econ and psychology to better understand how and why people behave as they do.
Behavioral economics challenges the assumption put forth by neoclassical economists that people are informed, rational, and self-interested decision-makers. UChicago has a helpful article explaining the discipline.
The guy who teaches the course, Brad Cartwright, has 7 other beginner-level econ courses on Udemy, and his students seem to love him. For more on behavioral economics, check out the book Nudge.
It made me realize how unconsciously influenced (fancy for dumb) I really am. Thinking Fast and Slow is another groundbreaking work in this field. I never finished it but someday I’ll get around to it.
5. Start Reading The Economist
While reading The Economist isn’t necessarily how one becomes well-read, it is how someone becomes well-informed, especially in regards to current economic issues and trends.
It’ll also help you apply the concepts you’ve learned to thinking about real-world events.
Don’t take my word for it. Take MIT Econ Professor Giavazzi’s. In his macroeconomics syllabus, he says this about reading The Economist:
“You are also encouraged to read The Economist, at least a couple times a month. It provides a good coverage of economic events, and will help you relate what you learn in the course to the real world.”— Prof. Francesco Giavazzi
The course he’s referring to is intro to macroeconomics, and his recommendation makes a lot of sense. Just look at the first title that popped up on the online magazine:
But The Economist also relates to many econ courses. For example, reading an article about a developing country’s new trade policy will support or contradict what you learned in a developmental econ class or book, thereby stimulating further, deeper thought.
Subscribing to and reading The Economist will also help you become more informed and conversational about economic issues and events, not to mention a more worldly person. It’s $199 per year, but you can also do it month-to-month for $19 per month and cancel anytime.
I used to read this magazine every morning with my coffee, but I have since switched my reading focus to novels and non-fiction books.
However, writing this article is making me want to put it back into my morning routine. When I was reading it consistently I felt like I was much better at conversation with peers, and that I had more insightful things to add to discussions about social and political issues.
6. Read a Few Classic Economics Books
This step is not a part of any economics curriculum that I’m familiar with, but it’s something that I wish was included when I was in school.
I graduated having never read Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, or Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics:
If I had come in contact with their ideas, it was only through books or lectures summarizing their ideas or riffing on passages from their texts.
So I felt like I was lacking something, and felt kind of rude about discussing, supporting, or attacking their ideas in conversation or writing without ever wrestling with their entire arguments myself.
That said, this step is optional, and probably one of the most difficult, but it’s also one of the most intellectually rewarding. These books can be the stones on which you grind and sharpen your thinking skills and powers of economic thought.
Here are a few classic economics books to read:
- The Wealth of Nations: This is the book where Adam Smith supports free market capitalism and puts forth theories like the invisible hand, the idea that people operating through self-interest will produce beneficial outcomes for society as a whole.
- Capital: In this foundational work of communist theory, Marx and Engels criticize capitalism, arguing that its motivating force is the exploitation of labor and that it will ultimately destroy itself.
- Capitalism and Freedom: Milton Friedman argues that competitive capitalism is the answer to economic and an essential condition of political freedom.
- The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: This book has had a huge impact on the last 80 years of fiscal policy. Read it to learn about Keynesian economics.
- Human Action: This book is one of the key texts on Austrian Economics, a school of economic thought developed by social theorists like Carl Menger, Frederick Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises, the author of this treatise.
I’m still working my way through these five as a part of my quest to read the greatest economic, political, and philosophy books ever written.
These econ ones are dense. So consider reading them intermittently as you progress through the rest of these steps. No need to read all five before continuing on.
Quick Note About Reading: Sometimes people, myself included avoid big tough book because we think we have to execute a perfect read of them or else it’s not worth doing. This is an unproductive way to think, and if sounds like you, I encourage reading my article on how reading perfectionism stops you from reading.
7. Pause and Take Stock of Your Learning Goals
So far you’ve done a lot of reading and thinking, perhaps even some solving if you did the problem sets and exams in the online econ courses that offered them.
I’m telling you to pause because the next part of your economics self-education will require more mathematics if you want to continue studying like an undergraduate, like calculus, higher level algebra, and difficult functions.
And then, later on, you’re going to have to learn some statistics and probability and econometrics, a course that will also teach you how to do regression analysis along with other mathematically-heavy procedures.
I just wanted to warn you. I know that some people do anything they can to avoid math, and that’s okay, unless the only reason you’re avoiding it is because you don’t believe you can do it. Then I recommend reassessing your beliefs. They might be limiting.
If you want to jump ship and start studying a field of economics that interests you, go right ahead. That freedom is the beauty of self-education in economics and any other skill or subject.
Keep in mind that courses like environmental econ or international econ, which I list in step 9, don’t require calculus, but still do have more math than the courses in the beginner section.
Now, if you want to get the exact education that an economics major gets, then by all means forge ahead. Your econ mind’s ability to logically reason and solve problems will thank you.
8. Study Intermediate Economics with Courses & Textbooks
Intermediate microeconomic theory and intermediate macroeconomics are core courses in an undergraduate’s curriculum. The best way to learn them is through online MOOCs, like those at MIT, or through textbooks.
These courses are more difficult than the former econ courses you’ve taken. Microeconomic theory was the course that caused a lot of my peers to switch to a finance major. It involves multivariable calculus and some high-level algebra.
Intermediate Microeconomic Theory
This MIT course provides you with the readings, lecture recordings, problem sets, and other materials you need to self-study intermediate microeconomics.
For example, here’s the lecture on uncertainty and linear programs:
In the course, you’ll learn the basics of consumer choice, the theory of the firm, and general equilibrium models. You’ll also learn the main methods and tools for studying these topics.
If instead of taking a course you’d like to study a textbook, check out Hal Varian’s Intermediate Microeconomics: A Modern Approach. It’s a classic on the topic.
Intermediate macroeconomics involves less new math than intermediate micro but is still conceptually challenging. For this topic, I recommend working through the textbook Macroeconomics by N. Gregory Mankiw.
Gregory writes simply and eloquently, making complex topics remarkably understandable and even fun to think about.
In an interview on FiveBooks, Raffaele Rossi, Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, has this to say about the textbook:
“It’s a classic and generation after generation of economists have gone through it. You cannot list five books on economics for undergraduates and not include this book. It would be like listing the five top guitarists from the 1960s and not including Jimi Hendrix.” — Raffaele Rossi
9. Explore Some More Intermediate Econ Courses
At this point, we’re starting to run out of online courses with lectures. That’s because so few autodidacts make it to this point in economics self-education. They usually stop after just receiving the basics of the field.
Therefore, there’s not much of a market for such advanced online courses. Luckily, MIT OpenCourseWare does supply us with their course syllabi, so you can use those to guide your studies.
My recommendation is to browse through MIT’s courses. You’ll often be able to tell if the course level is intermediate if the syllabus states that intermediate macro or micro is a prerequisite:
If you like having lectures, you could also look through Udemy to see if they have any econ courses that strike your fancy. They might not be truly intermediate, but they’ll still be educational and worthwhile.
Below I’ve listed some that reflect econ courses I liked in college (except for game theory — didn’t take that one in school):
- International Economics 1 (MIT): Learn about international trade, offshoring, foreign direct investment, and more.
- Energy Economics and the Environment: Study the intersection between economics, the environment, and energy, and learn topics like externalities, climate policy, and more.
- Game Theory (Open Yale Courses): Learn about strategic thinking, Nash equilibrium (seen a Beautiful Mind?), adverse selection, and more.
You can consider courses like these your economics electives. Don’t let any college curriculum restrict you though. At this point, prioritize taking courses or reading books on economics topics that grab hold of your interest.
10. Learn Statistics, Probability, & Econometrics
At this point, you’re where I was during my senior year of college. That year, I finally finished statistics 1 and 2, finite math (probability-focused math), and econometrics. All of them were tedious but enjoyable in that they seemed applicable to real world economic analysis.
For example, in econometrics we ran regressions using software to test how classroom size affected the average test scores of a group of students. I could imagine myself using these skills to answer questions in various fields.
Below are three courses that can replicate this statistical part of economic study:
- Introduction to General Statistics: This Stanford-designed course will empower you with a foundational understanding of statistics and knowledge of key concepts like sampling, randomized controlled experiments, tests of significance, and more.
- Introduction to Statistical Methods in Economics: This MIT course teaches you the statistics and probability economists need. It does so mostly through readings, so you’ll need the following textbook: Probability & Statistics for Engineers & Scientists.
- Econometrics: Method and Applications: This Coursera course is meant for advanced undergraduates in economics and finance. Any previous statistics knowledge that it requires it covers in its Building Blocks Module. You’ll come away with knowledge of simple and multiple regression, binary choice, and more. Plus you’ll do a final project.
If you study these courses diligently, you’ll likely walk away with a better understanding of the statistics and econometrics than I have today, since it was senior year and I, prioritizing socializing over studying, often crammed for these exams. In other words, I did well on the tests and then by the next week I had forgotten almost everything I learned over the past three days. Retention requires consistent interaction with the concepts, procedures, and definitions.
11. Follow Your Curiosity & Keep Studying
Having learned everything an economics major learns in college, you’re more than capable of choosing economics topics, even graduate level ones, gathering materials, and studying them on your own.
Hopefully by now you also know which topics and sub disciplines in economics interest you the most, so you can be deliberate about which courses to take and which books to read.
Perhaps you’re even so enamored with the subject that you feel a degree in economics from a university is the way to go. Or maybe you want to make a switch into a more analytical career where you can swing around your newly chiseled intellect.
Regardless of what you plan to do with your knowledge, I recommend you continue studying something, whether it’s more economics, another social science, or something totally different.
Below are some of my other self-education roadmaps that would pair well with economics:
And as a self-directed person, I recommend listening to your most effective motivator: your curiosity. Give it the attention it deserves and it will lead you to the subjects and fields in which you can truly make an impact, or at least have fun exploring.
Can You Learn Economics on Your Own?
It’s definitely possible to teach yourself economics by reading the right books and textbooks, taking the right online courses, and staying disciplined and curious. I say that as someone who holds a bachelor’s in the subject and rarely showed up to class. You’ll see even better results if you do problem sets and exams, which you can find in online course syllabi through websites like MIT OpenCourseWare.
Bottom Line: Self-Learning Economics
Learning economics on your own outside of school is no easy feat. It requires dedication, discipline, and resourcefulness, as well as a bunch of other autodidact personality traits.
But self-studying economics is a rewarding process, and after even just a few months of consistent study you’ll see the world, human behavior, and the economy in an entirely different way.
Not to mention, you’ll start to think more logically and analytically, and you’ll have picked up other skills and knowledge unique to econ majors.
You’ll also have a new understanding of causation, and, for better or worse, you’ll often find yourself wondering about the causal chains of events, issues, and trends, trying to get to the root of the matter.
I hope this self-education roadmap of how to self-study economics like I did as an undergraduate serves as a helpful template and resource directory for your own self-education project in econ.
If you’re interested in learning about how to self-study other subjects and skills without forgetting them or wasting time, check out my guide on how to become an effective autodidact in 7 steps.