Updated on 12.03.14

How to Deal with the High Cost of Children’s Sports

Here are some ways to keep your kid's athletic endeavors from devouring your time and money.

Pop Warner football game

Football, baseball, and hockey are among the most expensive sports to enroll your kids in. Photo: Brian McDermott

After much thought and consideration, my husband and I decided that it is finally time to get our kids started in a few sports and activities this year. And since our two daughters are only 3 and 5, we chose to begin this chapter with a weekly gymnastics class we thought our girls would enjoy.

Taking place on Wednesday nights at 6:30, the class will cost a total of $125 for the two of them each month. Since we were looking for something fun yet affordable (and indoors for winter), gymnastics seems like the perfect fit… at least for now.

Although I enrolled my children in their first sport willingly, I didn’t take this decision lightly. As we all know, getting children involved in sports and activities can be expensive in both time and money, and it can be a slippery slope that can escalate over time and last for years.

I personally know several families who have made huge investments in sports like volleyball, football, and soccer, and those investments have often come at the expense of other important things like family vacations, saving for college, and quality family time. And, the older the children get, the more expensive and time-consuming those endeavors seem to become.

In fact, many of my friends and acquaintances have complained to me about the high costs of children’s sports and activities, financially and otherwise. One friend recently warned me of the horrors of year-round soccer.

“Never put your kids in soccer,” she said, “unless you want to spend every Saturday and Sunday of your life watching.”

She then went on to tell me how hard it is to say “no” once you’ve started down this path.

“We’re in deep,” she said. “This has literally become our entire life.”

Sounds scary indeed.

Since my kids are still young, I want to take a thoughtful approach now – before things get out of hand. I want my kids to learn and grow. I want them to get involved and stay active.

What I don’t want is to get in so deep that there is no way out. And I know I’m not the only one.

The High Cost of Children’s Sports

The cost of enrolling children in organized sports is spiraling out of control, according to Kids Play USA Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization aimed at reducing the financial barriers for youth sports, with the biggest cost being general participation fees that can range from $50 to $1,000 or more, depending on the league and sport.

Further, sporting equipment can easily run in the thousands of dollars in certain cases, most of which must be picked up by the family of the child.

Parents spend an average of $671 per year on youth sports, according to the National Council on Youth Sports, and more than 20% of parents spend more than $1,000 or more on sports every year — for each child. Parents surveyed ranked football, baseball, and hockey as the most expensive youth sports, although basketball, soccer, gymnastics, and golf weren’t far behind.

Kids Play USA Foundation notes that other less popular sports cost exorbitant amounts of money as well. For example, they note that ice hockey “can cost as much as $10,000 per year per child due to equipment, facility costs, enrollment fees, and coaches.” It may sound hard to believe, but it’s true.

And when you start tallying up everything involved, it’s easy to see how those costs could add up that way. In addition to general participation fees, parents might be saddled with all kinds of expenses ranging from equipment and uniforms to meet fees, coach fees, and sports camps.

Of course, that says nothing of the time investment often required by families whose children join sporting leagues and/or traveling teams. The time spent driving to practice. The time spent driving to and from games and tournaments. The travel expenses for overnight or out-of-town games or matches. All of that time can add up quickly and must be subtracted directly from quality time a family can spend doing other things.

Because unlike money and income, the time we have with our children is a zero-sum game.

Saving Both Time and Money on Children’s Sports

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to cut down on the high cost of children’s sports, both in time and dollars spent. And in my opinion, it’s much easier to become informed and make thoughtful decisions ahead of time than it is to try to rein things in once they’ve already gotten out of hand.

We want our kids to be active – to learn to be part of a team – but we also want to keep our financial house in order in the meantime. Here’s how we plan to accomplish both goals now and in the future:

Choosing One Sport Per Season, or 2-3 Per Year

Right now it’s gymnastics, but perhaps we’ll move on to softball once spring arrives. Either way, we have already made the decision to have each child in only one sport at a time.

In addition to time spent learning new skills and being active, I want my kids to still have time to “be kids” as well. I want them to relish in the wonder of childhood, to ride bikes in the neighborhood and walk with me to the park down the street. I want them to spend entire Saturdays doing nothing but playing outdoors with their friends, getting dirty, and climbing trees. And when school is in session, they need time to complete their homework as well.

Opting to participate in only one sport at a time will not only cut down on the time we spend at practices, games, and meets, but will also cut down on the financial investment as well. After all, each sporting event or activity added to the equation adds to the total tab of raising our children to adulthood. There is only so much money to go around, and I would prefer to continue saving steadily for their college educations as we have done so far.

Estimating the Real Costs and Budgeting Appropriately

The easiest way to plan and prepare for the high costs of kids’ sporting events is to simply be aware of the costs to begin with — and I mean all of the costs.

Gymnastics is easy — they already have leotards and they simply show up for class each week. However, I know the costs will become more complex and harder to estimate as my kids get older and try new things. Soccer, dance, and softball often require uniforms, for example, and come with other expenses such as team fees, equipment fees, and even camps.

Add in the often unknown costs of travel to and from games and meets, and it might be difficult to come up with an estimate at times.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t try. Asking for a list of fees and costs up-front is one way to find out what we might be on the hook for, and travel expenses will always be somewhat within our control to a certain extent. Some ways we might save on travel include carpooling with other parents, packing cheap and easy snacks for the road, and avoiding overnight stays whenever possible. All of those small moves will likely add up in big ways over the years.

Estimating the monthly cost of our children’s sporting events might not be easy, but it will be worth it. And once we do, we will simply add that amount to our zero-sum budget each month and try our best to stick to it.

Buying Used Sporting Equipment

Sporting equipment may be expensive, but buying used is one way to cut down on the costs.

Websites like Craigslist are a great place to meet local people who are trying to unload their kid’s used stuff, and online resale stores like SwapmeSports.com and UsedSports.com can broaden the possibilities even more by connecting you with people outside your region.

Meanwhile, entire retail stores like Play It Again Sports are dedicated to the sale of used sporting equipment, and you might be in luck if you can find one of these stores in your area.

The amount of savings you can find is often staggering compared to paying full retail. In fact, savings at stores like Play It Again Sports can be as much as 50% off retail price, and for equipment that is often in “like new” condition. Luck out and find something on Craiglist or at a garage sale and you could even save far more than that.

Selling Old Equipment to Trade Up

Of course, used equipment can go both ways. If you have equipment your children have outgrown, you may as well capitalize on it by selling it online on Craigslist or eBay or trading it in at a resale store such as Play It Again Sports — which, on its website, advertises certain benefits for trading in your equipment, including discounts of 20-30% off of used equipment you choose to buy in the store.

So instead of letting old equipment sit idle, my plan is to trade ours in or sell it and trade up as well. We’ve already done this on a small scale with the children’s bikes and scooters as they have outgrown them, and with certain toys they have gotten too old to enjoy. Our strategy with sporting equipment will be similar, and will hopefully lead to a ton of savings over the years.

Choosing Local and Recreational Sports Whenever Possible

According to data from the National Council on Youth Sports, one of the best ways to participate in kid’s sports without breaking the bank is to choose sporting events carefully and wisely. That advice includes sticking with local, recreational sports whenever possible and staying away from some of the more expensive, organized sports.

Kids Play USA Foundation points out that “elite teams,” also called travel teams, are some of the most expensive options out there when it comes to children’s sports.

“The cost to participate on these teams can be quite exorbitant because of the extensive travel expenses that must be borne by the participating families. Depending on the sport and the team, travel expenses for these elite teams can range well into the thousands of dollars per child per season,” they note on their website.

Our hope as a family is to put our kids in sports that don’t take up too much of our financial resources as a family, but to also avoid the countless hours families of travel team members spend shuttling from town to town and state to state. That move alone should save us both time and money, and also help to preserve the quality family time we covet so much.

Remembering the Benefits and Rewards of Team Sports

It’s easy to focus only on the expensive nature of kid’s sports, but we must remember the benefits as well. A growing body of research shows that young athletes have a tendency to perform better in school, earn higher grades, and attend and graduate from college.

And the statistics show even more benefits for girls, specifically. According to research noted by Kids Play USA Foundation, female high school athletes are 92% less likely to get involved with drugs, 80% less likely to get pregnant, and three times more likely to graduate from high school than their non-athlete peers. As a mother of two young girls, who so badly wants them to lead happy and healthy lives, I simply cannot ignore those statistics.

The fact is, children’s sports have benefits that are hard to achieve elsewhere in life. They teach kids to be part of something bigger than themselves; they show them how to work with others and be part of a team. They also instill healthy habits such as exercise and physical exertion, and those habits can lead to a healthier lifestyle that can benefit our children for their entire lives.

But those benefits shouldn’t have to cost a fortune, which is why we should all take the time to weigh the pros and cons of every sport or activity we sign our kids up for. Kid’s sports come with plenty of benefits, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of saving for retirement, college, or any other long-term goal.

And it’s not just about money — it’s about using the precious time we spend with our children in a way that we can look back on and be proud of one day.

You can earn more money; no one on Earth can buy more time. And as we all know, our children are only young once.

How do you save when it comes to children’s activities and sports? Let us know in the comments section.

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