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Pay to Play: Planning for Your Child’s Extracurricular Activities

From tennis to tuba to taekwondo, youth sports and activities can be incredibly rewarding – and pricey. Here’s how to make the best decisions for your family.

We all want what’s best for our kids, including the opportunity for them to explore their passions and develop into well-adjusted, responsible adults. Youth sports and other pastimes can be a great way to help them grow and mature – but they can be expensive too, potentially costing tens of thousands of dollars per year. Here are three questions to ask your child – and yourself – to help you decide how much to invest in your child’s activities, as well as tips on keeping these activities from breaking the bank.

What Is the Real Cost of Participating?

What makes estimating the costs of an activity so difficult is the different kinds of expenses you’re likely to incur. If your daughter wants to play lacrosse, you might reflexively consider “How much does it cost?” as “How much is the league membership fee?” But registration fees are just the beginning. We can break down activity expenses into three categories:

  • Upfront costs. These are the expenses you’ll need to pay just to participate. Entry fees, gear, a musical instrument, a uniform your child will likely outgrow – all of these should be accounted for right away.
  • Recurring costs. These would be any ongoing expenses throughout the length of the activity. Weekly lessons or tutoring sessions, venue rentals, camps, supplies and tournament fees are all costs you can anticipate needing to budget for.
  • Incidental costs. These are expenses you’ll incur that are indirect to the activity itself. The gas taking your child to and from practice, the meals you’re not eating at home after an away game or the hotel room for that weekend tournament out of state – you might not think to budget for them, but you’ll still have to pay them.

If you add up all these expenses, the total bill is probably more than you were expecting. A 2019 survey of 1,000 youth sports parents found that a year of youth ice hockey costs more than $2,500 on average, followed by skiing ($2,249) and field hockey ($2,125). Even activities with relatively few equipment costs, like gymnastics ($1,580) and tennis ($1,170), can carry a significant price tag. If you’re considering how much an activity will cost, it’s critical you know what you’re signing up for.

How Dedicated Is Your Child?

This can be hard to predict with the fickleness of teens and preteens, whose tastes seem to change literally overnight. Just the same, knowing if a given activity is a passing fad or something they plan on participating in for years can give you a sense if a large upfront investment is worthwhile.

The same youth sports survey found that children’s interest in a given activity lasted about three years. That said, there was significant variation per sport: Interest in field hockey, for example, lasted more than five years – and with field hockey expenses exceeding $2,000 per year, those five years could require a significant investment. Gauging your child’s interest could determine if you should buy new or second-hand equipment, or if an investment into weekly lessons is worthwhile. For older kids, you might be able to talk about expenses and what your expectations are regarding their commitment – ideally in a way that doesn’t add pressure for them to perform.

What Do You Want Your Child To Get Out of Participating?

There are lots of reasons kids might participate in sports, from an opportunity to earn college scholarships to just a chance to play outside with friends. Your child’s reasons for participating might guide you into how much of an investment you want to make.

  • For social or exercise benefits. Youth activities can be a great way to get your kids out of the house (and off their screens) and playing with friends. If this is your primary motivation, your expenses might be lower than families that are more committed. Park and rec leagues might be more appropriate than travel teams, and renting a clarinet from a music shop might make more sense than buying new.
  • To develop proficiency. If your child seems serious about excelling in the activity, an environment with more advanced players could develop their skills as well as teach them about responsibility and leadership. Travel teams, tutors and specialized camps might be suitable expenses at this level.
  • To achieve college or even high school scholarships. If your student has shown talent and determination, you might harbor thoughts of earning a scholarship. If that’s the case, you should probably budget for specialized instruction, travel (potentially out of state), campus visits and tryouts. Just keep your expectations in check – only about 2% of high school athletes are awarded scholarships for college.

As you weigh the benefits of youth activities, be mindful of the costs beyond family finances. These activities can eat up a lot of free time – for them and for you – which can make it hard to balance homework, chores, an after-school job and time to relax and decompress with friends. It’s also not uncommon for families to trade vacation time for tournaments and out-of-state competitions –potentially missing out on opportunities to reconnect as a family. 

Making the Finances Work

Very few families have a “youth activities” line item in their budgets, choosing instead to absorb the costs as they come. Making sure the expenses are in line with your child’s interest level is key to keeping activity spending realistic. In addition to those mentioned above, here are other ideas on keeping expenses within your budget:

  • Limit kids to one activity at a time. Limiting your kids to one activity per season not only gives them time for homework and other interests, but it caps how much you might need to spend at any one time.
  • Buy and sell used equipment. A used piano might make sense for a beginner, and if you think a new one is appropriate down the line, you can trade up by selling the one you have. Just be careful with used sporting equipment – you don’t want damaged gear that might compromise your child’s safety.
  • Volunteer. Could your child’s organization benefit from an assistant coach, team organizer or someone to mind the front desk? Beyond the benefits of working with kids, you might score a discount on the registration fees.
  • Carpool. Want to save on some of those incidental costs? Working out a ride-sharing arrangement with other parents could save you time and money.
  • Start small. If your child wants to try a new activity, you might not have to make a big financial commitment. Local schools or youth organizations often offer mini-courses after school or over the summer that are time- and budget-friendly. And many music stores sell or rent used musical instruments for beginning musicians.

Generally, the more involved your expenses get, the more important it is to have a budget that works. This is especially true with your child’s activities: If your kid’s after-school track and field club suddenly turns into weekend-long tournaments out of state, you’ll want to adjust your budget to accommodate the increase in spending. Just make sure you’re not compromising your other goals: It’s natural to want to support your kids, but this support shouldn’t come at the expense of your college or retirement plans or emergency fund.

The information reflected on this page are Baird expert opinions today and are subject to change. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. All investments have some level of risk, and investors have different time horizons, goals and risk tolerances, so speak to your Baird Financial Advisor before taking action.