Updated on 09.18.14

Cutting Down Costs of After-School Activities

Trent Hamm

'School's Out for Summer!' by Conspirator on Flickr!The routine is familiar to many parents. You have an out-of-town school or extracurricular function, whether it be a sporting event or a club meeting or something else, and after the event, your child is quite hungry, so you solve the problem quickly by stopping at the nearest restaurant and buying some quick (and fairly pricy) convenience food. Quite often, if you’re along, you’ll indulge, too.

Over the course of a season, this pattern can become very expensive. Looking back at my own school days, I can remember periods where I would have an out-of-town match every week for three months, paired with some weekend tournaments as well. This really added up.

Luckily, my parents found several good ways to cope with this, and listening to the wisdom of some of my frugal friends has taught me a few more tactics to use for these situations.

10 Tactics to Cut Hidden Costs of After-School Activities

1. Plan ahead

On your way out the door, fill a thermos with soup and pack a sandwich and a piece of fruit or a granola bar for your child. This can provide a nice energy boost when your child needs it. One way to make this easier is to prepare serving-size freezer bags of soup in advance – just make a large batch of soup, fill up some small bags with enough soup for a good serving, then freeze the bag. When you need it, just unfreeze it, warm it up, and drop it in a thermos.

2. Have a lot of healthy but convenient foods at home

Another tactic is to simply make sure you have convenient but healthy foods available at home. Encourage your child to wait until you’re home, then quickly produce these foods. Some good ones include homemade frozen burritos (which can be easily made), grapes, and bananas.

3. Talk to your child about the situation

Most teenage children are reasonable about simple things such as this. Take a moment and talk to your child about the situation, especially if it’s becoming a pattern. Point out how much money that adds up to over a season so that they see that it’s much more than just a one-time expense of $10.

4. Encourage your child to use allowance money for this expense

If the child does not wish to wait for a bit to satisfy their cravings, encourage the child to use their spending money on it. This is a tactic that my mother used with me several times and it was quite effective – she’d simply say we can wait until we get home or you can spend some of your own money now. Usually, I’d wait.

5. Talk with other parents

If a lot of other parents are feeling the same pinch as you, talk to some of them about the situation. You may find that many of them also want to break down this routine and save some money, and if you have multiple sets of parents who are together in the same frame of mind, the culture of spending at such events can begin to change.

6. Coordinate efforts for snacks

One big thing that coordinated parents can do is set up a combined effort to handle snacks after events. Have each child bring a dollar to the events, then on a rotating basis, one set of parents provides snacks for the whole team and collects the dollars. A big jug of juice, some sandwiches, and some fruit can be perfect for this.

7. Budget for all school expenses in advance – and involve your child in the process

At the start of the year, make a realistic budget of school expenses including these extracurricular activities – and budget in advance for these costs. Get your child involved with this as well, so he or she can see the bigger picture of overall expenses for the year. Then, turn such “incidental” expenses into a line item, and talk about how to budget for them. Perhaps, right then and there, you and your child can come up with a plan that works for both of you.

8. Split the costs with your child

One potential plan is to simply split the costs of such incidentals. Perhaps you’ll cover incidental food costs for a certain number of events during the year, but your child will cover the rest out of personal money. Perhaps you’ll agree to a stipend for each such event, with spending beyond that coming out of your child’s pocket.

9. Create a “tit-for-tat” arrangement

Another option is to give your child a chance to “earn” such incidental money through doing chores. Perhaps two nights’ worth of dinner dishes is equivalent to a meal out after a school event, for example. This way, you’re exchanging value with each other and giving your child a lesson in the actual value of work.

10. Cut back on school activities

If none of these tactics work, it’s worth considering the possibility that your child is involved in too many activities – or at least in too many expensive activities. Look into cutting back on an activity or two next year, giving your child more focus on the activities that are truly important while also giving your child more free time to explore his or her own interests.

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  1. You could also simply pack snacks and food to bring with the child (during after school events).

    One of the key lessons my parents taught me early on is that buying prepared food is a bad thing (cost is high, quality is low compared to choosing your own ingredients, and nutrition is often very bad). Here’s a recent post on food, my parents, and getting started with cooking at home on Scordo.com: http://www.scordo.com/blog/2008/12/getting-started-with-cooking-a.html

    Also, one of my goals as future parent is to produce a well rounded child, so I think *some* after school activities are important. I would certainly restrict it to: 1. a single sport, 2., a art/culture activity, and 3. social acitivity.

    My two cents…

    http://www.scordo.com/blog/blog – a practical living blog.


  2. kristine says:

    Another hidden cost is gasoline- I informally alternate driving the kids home from late practices with another parent who lives around the block. Good for the wallet and the planet!

    And clothes! I have learned from experience to make a pair of black pants one of the staples in the fall, and to get white button down shirts for the kids once a year on clearance, instead of scrambling and overpaying when it is concert or awards time.

  3. Curt says:

    When I was a kid, after school we just got the neighborhood kids together for a game of football and played in our backyard. The only cost was in the clothes that got recked.

  4. Krista says:

    I have to say I’m not impressed that you had more options for making the child responsible for his or her own food, than for making the parent responsible for feeding his or her child.

    Parents are responsible for providing food for their kids. They’re not required to let kids dictate the menu, so if they can’t afford restaurant food,then they should prepare an alternative.

    If you want your kids to be responsible for themselves, that’s one thing. But that would be better achieved by making them pack their own after-school snack ahead of time than by waiting until they (and you) are hungry and cranky to give them a financial ultimatum.

  5. Michelle says:

    I’m glad you went for more ideas than just the “bring food or eat at home” route. When I was in high school and had activities like that, even though each kid rode with his/her parent, we all met up at the same restaurant and ate. To not do that would have been inconcievable to my 16 year old mind. I don’t want to be the mean parent who cuts my kid out of the social aspects of being on a team, so I appriciate the more frugal ideas on how to make it work. Thanks!

  6. Marsha says:

    I’m trying to apply a similar strategy to my own after-work activities/errands. I have to do some errands after work today, so while I was packing my lunch, I packed an extra snack to eat at the end of the afternoon, so I won’t be tempted to pick up high-price, low-quality junk food.

  7. miah says:

    I wouldn’t mind hearing how to make those burritos you mentioned.

  8. beth says:

    I still remember junior high in my small Midwestern town where half of the games would be at least a half-hour drive away. I was lucky in that my school would take a bus for the team and fans (not an option I see with current school budgets a lot of places these days), but it was the common practice that everyone would have a mini-cooler packed to the brim with dinner to eat on the bus on the way back to town (and share around the bus); we didn’t even consider other options.

    Nowdays, I keep a box or two of granola/energy bars in the car during all the sports seasons (no melty stuff in summer in Vegas, though!). Used to keep a case of water bottles too, but trying to cut out plastic usage, so we’ve all trained ourselves to fill our reuseable bottles to pack with game gear. This takes care of all but the latest events (when it’s too late at night to even consider having dinner when we get home). That plus heavy reliance on my crock pot to have food waiting when we get home has cut way down on our need for instant greasy protein after every game & practice.

  9. J says:

    This article can very easily be generalized for running errands with non-school age children. which can often interfere with their designated “snack time”. When you take the time to look, there are lots of places around to have a snack, and putting together the snack can very easily be done at home. There are many, many ways to transport drinks, too.

    I’ve also taken my bag lunch to the food court at the mall when co-workers want to go there to eat. I get the benefit of having lunch with someone, but don’t incur the cost of paying for lunch. Also I can usually grab the table while they are waiting in line, too.

  10. Breanne says:

    When I was younger, we’d most often pack and bring a lunch.

    If it wasn’t feasible to bring along food, or (as was more often the case) games went long and there wasn’t time to go back home or to the hotel to pick up the lunch we *thought* we’d have time for, a couple of parents would often run out to the local grocery store to buy a bag of buns (in bulk), some deli meat and maybe a head of lettuce or bag of carrots for some easy sandwiches. This was not only healthier and cheaper than fast food, but in my mind, tasted better too!

  11. Craig says:

    @Krista: I agree that it’s the parents’ responsibility to ensure there is food in the fridge at home, and that the food is nutritious. After a certain age (different for each kid but I was in charge of packing my own lunch from age 8) it is the child’s responsibility to either plan for his/her own day by packing it, or packing a few dollars for lunch/snack.

    There’s not many reasons that a parent should have to pack a lunch (much less a lunch and dinner) for a 14 year old kid. They only have 4 short years before they’re on their own: they need to start learning those skills now.

  12. Lunch is one of the major things adults waste money. If we teach kids how to pack lunch,their packing lunch habit will continue into adulthood and they will be able to save a lot of money.
    A Dawn Journal

  13. sara says:

    @Craig- my thoughts exactly- well put.

    When I went hungry at track practice, even though I’d sometimes guilt my mom into bringing me a snack, I knew that I was gaming the system and it was my own fault for not making my lunch in the morning or packing a snack. Kids are smart, and are really good at acting like its someone else’s fault.

  14. Craig says:

    @sara: Haha, running was my sport too. Nothing is worse than knowing it’s your own fault that you’re starving and thirsty after running for an hour and you can’t do anything about it until you get home.

  15. !wanda says:

    This brings back so many memories. My last year in high school, in the fall semester, my Wednesdays involved staying after school for a little bit for some club, then being driven to my harp lesson that ran from 4:30-6:30pm, then being driven to my o-chem class at a college about 30 minutes away that ran from 7:00-8:30pm. That’s pretty much the only time we went to McDonald’s during my childhood (besides when we were traveling). It’s something that I think started through a lack of planning- the first time we did it, my mom belatedly realized that it was not good for someone who ate lunch at 11am (in school) to wait until 9pm or 9:15pm for dinner. And then it continued out of habit.

    I never received allowance, and any serious money anybody gave to me was confiscated and put into my bank account, so of course my mom paid; but I think she was happier controlling all my spending.

  16. Mike Sty says:

    “I never received allowance, and any serious money anybody gave to me was confiscated and put into my bank account, so of course my mom paid; but I think she was happier controlling all my spending.”

    That’s pretty much how I was. In fact, my mom packed my lunch all the way through high school – boy was I a lazy bastard haha. I was also guilty of things like getting fast food if I went out somewhere, like went to shop for groceries.

    Now that I’ve cut that out, I have complete control of my diet, and I’ve lost like 25lbs – it’s a lot HEALTHIER to avoid eating out, as well as less expensive. Also now that I have complete control of my finances (except tuition), I’m making lots of money :)

    Hooray for personal responsibility!

  17. Nick says:

    Carpooling works too, if you don’t mind missing a game or two, or just flat out can’t get there.

  18. Robin says:

    I really like this article, thanks. It always bothered me how much extra-curricular things cost – both explicitly and implicitly. Its crazy, I think, how hard it is to be frugal and still get the best for your kids. All the extra-curriculars are so important – they’re so good for the kids and general and basically are a necessity on a college application. Thanks for trying to find ways to make these things a little easier on the wallet!

  19. mary says:

    Hi, I think that one mistake is to start paying children for “chores” around the house — the “tit-for-tat” idea. As the mother of a nine-year-old, we’re trying to send the message that helping around the house — most anything related to the family — is the responsibility of the entire family. Sharing in household labor is the responsibility of all members — not just Mom. Trust me; Paying kids for chores is a slippery slope. Parents today do way to much for their kids, and are frustrated, tired and resentful to prove it. Managing the workload so Mom and Dad feel less burdened is part of the “hidden cost” of parenthood — and teaching to follow through with requests and pitch in is character-building! Maybe you won’t have to pay so much for outside activities because the best “programs” start at home…Good Luck!

  20. GayleRN says:

    One of the best things I did was only allow one extracurricular activity at a time. The boys had to make a choice, which in itself was a good thing. Even so with 3 kids there was always 3 activities at any one time. As far as extracurricular activities being “necessary” for scholarships and getting into a “good” college I found that quality won out over quantity in that process. None of my sons were athletic, so we concentrated on academics and music and scouting. Those hard won Eagle scout rankings weighed in for a lot on college apps. In other words depth of experience and proof of initiative and proved better than a variety of shallow experiences. That was given as one of the reasons that my son was given a full ride to a state university. He got a free education and no student loans!

  21. cv says:

    I think the tough part isn’t so much dinner on the way home from a soccer game, which can be handled with a bit of planning, but the times when there’s a lot of social pressure to do what the team/club is doing. We stayed late the week before a show opened in the drama club, and we were all expected to contribute a few dollars for pizza at least a couple of those nights. It wasn’t a ton of money overall, and it was only a few times a year, but looking back it must have been tough on some of the kids and parents who didn’t have much money.

  22. Diane says:

    I agree with Michelle. My son’s soccer team frequently stops together to eat after a game – parents & kids. Yes, it can be expensive, but part of the experience for us is what the coach calls “team bonding”~!

    Another aspect of this is that I’m making memories with my son, and that’s what life is all about… I don’t want him to remember that the team stopped for dinner as a group and he had a sandwich in the car!

    As for cutting back on the number of activities, all he does is play soccer – but with club soccer August – October, high school soccer November – February and club soccer March – May/June it is a year-round commitment for several evenings a week and many weekends, including many overnight trips to tournaments out of town.

    I spend more time with my son than most parents do at the age of 17… that time in the car is a great opportunity to talk and hanging around the hotel at tournaments is frequently family time.

    That said, for practices he packs granola bars, fruit, water & gatorade for after school snacks before practice or snacks on the way home.

  23. Bryan says:

    I never thought about the cost associated with these activities. I guess it’s because I don’t have kids, but now that I read your post I realize my mother should have cut us off after all those baseball games.

    It started with McDonald’s after a game, back when they actually gave out animal crackers, for a quick meal on the way home. Then it turned into collecting “this week’s new happy meal toy!” Such bad habits.

  24. Another Marie says:

    We are at the Y three times a week. Periodically the kids ask to buy something from the vending machine. But I tell them I refuse to buy expensive food from a machine next to a drinking fountain and 1 mile from our kitchen. Exception: I bought water when in labor so I didn’t have to keep getting up and down to drink at the fountain. (The child who had been told to put water in my bag hadn’t.)

    We keep granola bars, drink boxes, and bottled water bought at a warehouse store next to our garage door for times we know we will need a snack while out.

  25. Chris at BuildMyBudget says:

    I used to spend a lot on junk food before and after lacrosse games and it really added up. Some of these tips would have been great back then! Nowadays I think it’s best to provide healthy food which your child can turn into a good lunch. This way you’re still providing, and they are learning to take care of them self.

  26. Mule Skinner says:

    Kid sports are amazingly expensive! A year or so back we did “swim club”. I never knew that swim suits could wear out, but they regularly do when you swim competitively. And goggles get lost. Prescription ones! There is a participation fee of about $200 per semester, and insurance, which seems to be for the purpose of paying the swim club’s lawyer if you sue them. There is a cost to participate in meets.

    And then, when the meets are held, there are vendors available with all kinds of swim stuff. And a photogrpher to sell you pictures of your child in mid-butterfly. But the most interesting was this: When our team was the host, we had a food canteen. Parents of our team members contributed the items that would be for sale (so the team had zero overhead in this profit center!). And parents were recruited to work at various jobs, including running this canteen. I asked to be cashier, and found that there was a credit system for the home team. I would just write the item and price on a page with the family name of the kid getting his latest snack. Some families had 30 or 40 dollars of this. Others just used cash so there was no reckoning how much they spent.

    We have dropped out of swim club.

  27. When my daughter was in Girl Scouts, her honor guard and camp staff meetings were in several cities all over southeast Michigan.

    So I learned to bundle up those trips with shopping trips to stores and other errands I wanted to run out of town.

  28. Sandy says:

    To me, it’s amazing how expensive High School activities can be. I imagine that any parent of a kid on a travelling team already knows about this.
    Beware the cost factor if any activity your darling is involved in is asked to be on the travelling team….hotels, meals out and the above mentioned uniforms (including special shoes or costumes for the dance groups), photos, and the sharing of snacks. My friend’s daughter was on the girls’ tennis team, and for the 2 month program, it cost over $300 with the expected costs. Snacks (which wasn’t a granola and water, but a pretty bag, 3-4 items, and drink), plus “secret sister” gifts 5 times, plus the above. WOW. So, I think Trent’s last idea…the one about choosing the 1-2 activities that she really loves, is the best one. Then get ready to shell out a bunch.
    One other thought. When your children are under, say 10 or so, they can do many things that are really cheap or free and love every minute. It’s not until Middle school and HS that the costs soar. If you raise your kids while they are young, knowing that the expensive stuff will happen, you can do really cheap stuff while they are young, and not feel as if you are cheating them out of something. Just start saving small amounts specifically for when they get older. It will get spent!

  29. Chelo says:

    As a single parent of an active child I know exactly that costs for sports and activities can add up. But having the child be responsible for the cost of the activity may be a bit much for younger children. Maybe for high school kids that are at working age can work some how to assist in paying some of the cost but shouldn’t education be before making money??? We all want our children to be well rounded but again the same question comes to mind… Does my child want to participate in this activity or is this something that I as a parent want he/she to participate in?????

  30. Sara says:

    I was on many sports teams as a child, and it was common for teams to assign post-game snacks to one person for each game (kind of like your suggestion #6, except that if the snacks are evenly distributed, I don’t see the point of collecting money; seems like it would make it more of a hassle).

  31. Marcia says:

    It’s amazing how much these things have changed. I was on the volleyball team in HS. We would take a team bus (so no parents) to our away-games.

    If we won, we would stop at Burger King on the way home. If we lost, no stop.

    We were poor, I didn’t get an allowance, but my mom REALLY did everything she could to make sure I had at least $1 to buy a serving of French fries. It meant a lot to me.

  32. Suzanne says:

    Great post, Trent. I liked the range of alternatives, since one solution doesn’t fit all families.

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