When budgeting for back-to-school expenses, parents generally include routine fare such as 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.
Here are a few tips for prioritizing extracurricular events and keeping your costs down:
Focus on one sport or activity per kid, per season, especially if they involve multiple practice sessions or games per week.
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 such as Craigslist and yard sales.
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.
Sometimes the cost of an elective program is worth making sacrifices elsewhere in your budget. Our daughter loves theater arts, so we decided it was worth shaving our vacation budget to send her to theater camp. She'll make new friends and hone her dramatic and social skills in an environment that public school just can't duplicate.
Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs. Sign up for his free monthly e-Newsletter at www.practicalmoneyskills.com /newsletter.