I get it—after-school activities keep your kids off their screens and off your case. And parents like me have noble goals of getting our children to engage, build character and grow into healthy, well-rounded adults. Some (OK, me again) might even hope that cello lessons or soccer skills will translate into college scholarships.
But the cost of getting kids to try something new can really add up.
This semester, I’m paying $300 for flag football along with $100-plus for cleats and receiver gloves that my 13-year-old just “had” to have for tryouts. For my younger two sons, it was $150 for after-school clubs—reasonable, I thought at first—but the Ukulele Club ended up requiring a $70 ukulele and almost as much for the padded case. A ukulele!
Don’t get me wrong. It’s money my husband and I want to spend on the quest to help our kids find their “thing.” And we’re not alone: A 2019 survey from LendingTree revealed that 46% of parents spend more than $1,000 on kids’ extracurriculars annually, with sports teams topping the list (30%), followed by music (16%), dance (15%) and let’s not forget beauty pageants (3%) and debate team (3%)—plus all the gear, instruments, lipstick and costumes that go with them.
Here’s how to cut some of those costs, according to real moms (at a recent wine-and-cheese gathering at my kids’ middle school) and budgeting experts.
Get kids to chip in. The wise, middle school moms I know don’t say yes to every activity their preteens desire. “Otherwise, they see you as a walking ATM,” someone said as we passed around the pinot grigio. Tell your kids if they want to do something extra, they can contribute by earning cash mowing lawns or babysitting. That tactic also battles what’s sometimes called “entitled teen syndrome.”
Seek help from nonprofits. Many organizations offer special deals and free programs for families in need. The YMCA, for example, has ways to save on everything from swimming lessons to teen government programs. I sign my boys up for spring baseball during the early-bird registration period to save.
And getting a membership would save you even more. The Y offers monthly teen memberships for as little as $15, and families can apply for financial assistance too. “It’s about finding ways for kids to participate without worrying about financial barriers,” says Shannon Gowen of the YMCA of Greater San Antonio.
Limit activities. The temptation to do all the activities due to fear of missing out is real. Kids often feel pressure to join their friends in doing literally everything—and so does your budget. According to the LendingTree report, 52% of parents spend more than they can afford on children’s activities, and 42% put the tab on their credit cards. Enrichment shouldn’t put you in debt. Heed the advice of my friend Mary Laslie Balogh of Birmingham, Alabama, who has three girls: “One paid activity per child, per semester.” You’ll save money—and your sanity.
Make extracurricular expenses a Christmas or birthday gift. You can even wrap up the registration form with a bow! When asked for gift ideas from grandparents or godparents, invite them to feed extracurricular interests. My youngest got a cooking class for his tenth birthday, and now he’s our resident omelet maker.
Consider monthly instead of weekly classes. Of course, my 10-year-old chef enjoyed his cooking class so much that he now wants weekly classes. Our budget can’t handle that, but we’re looking at a monthly class to support his newfound passion.
Plan for the inevitable. Rob Bertman, a certified financial planner and founder of Family Budget Expert, talks a lot about “irregular but predictable” expenditures, noting that irregular expenses are actually not that irregular after all. For instance, I didn’t know my sixth-grader would want to learn the ukulele (so random!), but I could have foreseen that he’d want to join some sort of club. Build in line items that anticipate extracurricular costs so you’re not taken by surprise.
I’ll remember that lesson while adjusting this month’s budget to the sound of ukulele strums in the background.
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Jennifer Chappell Smith has more than 25 years’ experience writing about lifestyle, personal finance and more. She and her husband live in San Antonio, Texas, where they’re raising three boys, ages 12, 11 and 9.