When budgeting for back-to-school expenses, parents generally include routine fare like clothes, school supplies and maybe a new backpack. But if your kids participate in extracurricular activities, whether it's sports, music lessons or art classes, you could be on the hook for hundreds -- or even thousands -- of dollars in additional expenses throughout the year if you're not careful.
As parents, we hesitate to stifle our children's athletic and creative urges, especially when it can be so difficult to drag them away from their iPods and Xboxes. But sometimes you've just got to step back, weigh the different options available and decide what you can afford without upsetting your other financial goals and responsibilities.
You'll face tough questions like, "Is it better for my child's future to spend $500 on a soccer day camp he'll really enjoy or to invest the money in a 529 College Savings Plan?"
My wife and I commonly wrestle with these types of questions. For example, last fall our son had outgrown his baseball equipment and was begging us for a new bat that cost $125. A year later, it sits on the sidelines because he prefers to use a friend's bat. (We're not complete pushovers, however: When he recently obsessed over a $200 pair of high-tech gym shoes, we said no.)
Among the best advice I've received from other parents is, when your kids are exploring new activities, don't overcommit your time or money until you know whether they'll stick with it or quickly move on to the next thing.
For example, before you sink a small fortune into private swimming lessons, start small with a summer class at your local Y or recreation center. If your kid shows a genuine aptitude and doesn't balk at long hours of practice, then you can explore more costly alternatives. Just remember who'll be driving to practice and out-of-town swim meets; in other words, make sure you can honor the time commitment before signing on.
Unless your kids show exceptional aptitude for particular sports right out of the gate, you may want to start with recreational-level programs where they can learn game basics -- often from volunteer coaches at relatively little cost. More competitive "club" leagues use paid coaches and may involve extensive travel to tournaments -- and may cost thousands of dollars a year in membership and event fees, equipment, hotels, meals and other related costs.
The main downside to taking the "recreational" approach is that it may be harder for your kid to make the high school squad, if that's the goal, because "travel" teams spend so much more time practicing and competing. You'll have to gauge their talent and competitiveness and determine whether it's worth the cost.
- Focus on one sport or activity per kid, per season, especially if they involve multiple practice sessions or games per week.
- Make sure outside activities don't intrude on study time. And don't schedule every moment of your kid's day. Children burn out from overwork just as easily as do adults.
- Form carpools with other parents. You'll save gas money and time, especially if your kids are practicing at different locations.
- Learn how much equipment and instruction the sport requires. Some, like soccer and basketball can be relatively inexpensive; while others, like horseback riding, golf and ice skating involve expensive equipment or facility rental time.
- Rent or buy used sporting equipment (or musical instruments) until you're sure they'll stick with the activity. Visit Play It Again Sports stores, online ad sites like Craigslist and yard sales. Or ask friends with older children who've outgrown their equipment if they'll sell or trade it.
- Seek out or form a sports equipment exchange in your community where families can donate outgrown or cast-off equipment and uniforms for others to use.
- It's probably better to invest in new safety gear, like helmets and masks, than to buy it used -- and potentially damaged. The same goes for items like shoes or baseball gloves that become molded to a child's body -- unless they were hardly used.
- To give back, donate your kids' used gear to charities like Pitch in for Baseball or the Global Sports Foundation that will share it with teams that can't afford to buy their own.
- Form a pact with the other parents to go easy on elaborate post-game snacks and celebrations -- the competition is between the kids, not the parents. And avoid overpriced sports and energy drinks, which are often laden with caffeine and empty calories.
Sometimes you'll weigh the cost of an elective program and realize it's worth making sacrifices elsewhere in your budget. Our daughter loves theater arts, so my wife and I decided it was worth shaving our vacation budget to send her to theater camp this summer. She'll make new friends and hone her dramatic and social skills in an environment that public school just can't duplicate.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.