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How Can You Save Money on Kids Activities?

Kids are expensive.  It costs a lot to bring them into this world, and then once they are here they cost even more.  One of the biggest expenses with respect to children seems to be activities.  How can you save money on kids activities and sports while still being a good parent?

Two Types of Kids Activities: Organized and Occasional

Now let me start this off by stating perhaps the obvious.  There are two types of kids activities.  There are those that you do every so often, and those that are more organized and routine in nature.  I will touch briefly on the former, but really the later is the focus of this piece given my own situation.

The Occasional: Museum and Aquarium Memberships for the Win

So for the occasional kid’s activity, I have to say the best deals I’ve found are with museum memberships.  Children’s museums for example.  Often they only cost about $40-50 and reciprocate with other museums.  So the local museum provides a sunk cost option on rainy days throughout the year.    Meanwhile, when traveling you can hit up other museums at a discounted or free rate.  I’ve found aquariums and zoos also tend to do these types of things.  Finally, for those lucky enough to live near one, an amusement park membership is probably worth its value ten times over.  Basically any option with kids where there is something they are interested in, it has a one time small sunk cost, and you can go as many times as needed is like gold.

Organized Kids Activities: Sports, Lessons, Music, Ect.  

As I noted though, this piece more focuses on the organized kid’s activity.  I’m thinking more like sports, lessons, music, or any other of the hundreds of organized activities in which kids participate.  In today’s modern world there is a lot of social pressure to get your kids involved in activities early.  First, there is that live vicarious through your child angle.  Add to that colleges don’t just look at academics when deciding whether to accept a kid.   Those pressures mean organized kids activities are big money.

Now if you didn’t get from the tone of my last paragraph  I feel the drive to have young kids participate in activities at a young age for your own ego or college acceptance is miss placed.  After all, a child of 5-10 probably won’t even be doing the same activity come high school.  

All too often those that do continue at sports do so because of what their parents want, rather than what they do.  I  can remember as a kid continuing to play musical instruments solely because it was something my mother wanted.   Anyway, just consider the permanency aspect and desires of the child before writing that check for a small fortune for little Johnny’s private soccer tutor.  It’s probably money down the drain and may be making your child unhappy.

Our Children do Organized Sports

But I digress a bit.  Before I proceed I will admit to something.  Both my kids do 2 sports.  Swimming, which is huge in Delaware, and martial arts.    I spend a considerable amount of funds on these activities.  Probably about $2k a year if I am honest.

The thing is, neither my wife or myself did these sports. I just value being able to swim as an essential life skill.  I could care less how fast my kid swims, but I want my children comfortable enough in the water to be able to do anything there.  The swim team is my method for ensuring my children are exceedingly proficient at this skill.  Also, it helps to have some sort of organized exercise activity that tires young boys out before they come home.

Life Skills, a better parental motivation for kids sports.

Similarly, I signed my kids up for martial arts less out of a need for them to compete, and more because I want them to learn to focus and be disciplined.  Again generic life skills through a play based forum.

So my motivation is about our kids learning a life skill.  And I believe organized activities, especially sports, have a real place in a kids life in respect to learning life skills.  But here is the thing.  To learn those life skills your kids don’t need to go to the most expensive studio or coach.  They don’t need that brand new set of equipment.  And they don’t need to join that travel team that costs a fortune.  

It is About the Kids

What they need is to learn and to enjoy being kids.  So the key to saving money on organized kids activities is to not lose sight of that fact.    Anyway, with that here are my recommendations for keeping kids organized activities costs down:

Buy used equipment, or better yet borrow, until you know if your kid will stick with it.  Most kids change sports or activities like underwear.  It can be really expensive to acquire a bunch of high-end equipment only for your little one to find a new obsession next week.  Often times you can find used equipment in places like Goodwill, Facebook market place, or even at events sponsored by the sport itself.  Do a little digging and I’m pretty sure you will find options.

Don’t sign up for the most expensive camp or organization out there.  Let’s face it odds are one in a million your kid will ever go anywhere with their chosen activity.  Olympics or pro sports are probably a pipe dream.  Even if those things end up being possible, something your kid learns in camp when he’s five is not going to make them the next Joe Montana.  At best it might make your kid the one who runs towards the correct goal every time.   

Both our martial art studio and the pool are mid-priced options.  We couldn’t use the YMCAs martial arts on the low end as it wasn’t structured enough, but we didn’t send our kids to the high-end karate place down the street that advertises on TV either.  Any sport you choose you are probably fine middle of the road for young kids.

Don’t wait until the last minute to signup.  Most sports and camps are cheaper the earlier you signup.  So if you know little Jane wants to do karate this summer than consider signing her up for a summer camp in January.

Consider volunteering your own time for a discount.  For the swim team, we get a discount every year for volunteering to help maintain the pool.  Too specific?  You could volunteer to coach, watch kids, or any number of other options.  Many times, but not always, those volunteering opportunities will afford your child at least a minor discount.

Try to group activities.  It’s easy to account for your direct spending on kids activities in your budget.  But how much are you spending on indirect costs like transportation or eating out because you can’t get home before the event after school?  It can be significant to drive between practices, meets, and feed the kids in the gaps between both. 

I’ve found a good way to reduce the time in the car, thus decreasing costs of gas and time, is to try and group the activities.  If you have multiple kids try to get them involved in the same activities.   (In our case this has an added benefit as we get a discount for the sibling for both sports. )  Or barring that at least ones that meet near each other or at the same time.      

Plan Meals around group activities.   Going along with grouping, plan your meals ahead and where possible pack them.  We do this a lot, usually packing a good dinner for the kids and us parents eating later.  Even when we do go out to eat between activities we plan where we will stop up front.  That pre-planning can significantly reduce the cost of eating out as caused by kids organized activities.

Take time to do the same activities outside the organized event.  So regardless of whether our children had swim practice, I take them out to the community pool a few times a month just for fun.  From time to time I take my kids to a safe place in my house and let them practice martial arts moves on dad.    That non-organized aspect is critical step in both reducing costs and helping your children to get the most out of the activity. 

First, free time allows your child to experiment without the pressure of performing in front of their friends.  Second, it brings your child a different perspective on their activity that they might also enjoy.  Finally,  there is one last benefit.  For those that still can’t get past their parent egos and believe their kid will be the next Michael Jordan, the reality is the only way your child will ever become truly good is by practicing on their own or with family/friends.   The reality is the biggest key to successful athletics is the cheapest.  Repetitive practice on one’s own.  Just remember don’t force them, if that’s what they really want they’ll be motivated to do so on their own.

Remind yourself, the point of the activity is your kid’s enjoyment and general life skills.  Not to go pro.

Do your kids do any organized activities or sports?  Do you do anything to keep your costs down?

5 Comments

  1. Laurie@ThreeYear
    [email protected] May 23, 2019

    I agree with a lot of points in this post. I regularly struggle with what to get my boys involved in, but you’re right: it boils down to them having fun and learning life skills.

    For my guys, seasonal stuff seems to work better, where we have practices for a little while and then it winds down (like swim team, which they’re currently in, that lasts six weeks). Great point about no-stakes practice, too! They need the chance to practice the skills they’re learning and have fun.

  2. Xrayvsn
    Xrayvsn May 23, 2019

    Unfortunately my daughter inherited the same physical skills as her dad so sitting back and managing a young professional athlete went out the door. lol

    Not only are school sports costly in terms of equipment etc, but it can be a huge time suck as you go to or pick them up from evening games, practices, etc.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance May 23, 2019

      So true. I spend most weekends during the summer at swim meets.

  3. Joe
    Joe May 23, 2019

    My son participates in the rec soccer and basketball league. It’s not cheap, but I think physical activity is good for him. Otherwise, he’d be inside playing with the tablet.
    Besides, the rec league really isn’t too expensive. Soccer is around $200/year for the spring and fall season. Basketball league at the rec cen cost around $60 or so.
    I’d like to sign him up for martial art again at some point. We tried earlier and he just didn’t like to follow direction. Maybe it’ll be better when he’s older.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance May 23, 2019

      I’ve found it really depends on the teacher. Our son does great with his current group but when he did martial arts with the YMCA it failed miserably. Then again maybe it is just not what he’s in to.

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