You’re a mom. You’re wired to want more for your kids, and you’ll do what it takes to help them succeed, from helping them master long division to lending support during those tricky teenage years. For a growing number of American households, however, that includes a significant financial commitment to sports.
The average family with children as young as eight spends about $2,300 per year, per kid, on youth sports.1 But some who pony up for elite travel teams, equipment, specialized sports camps, and personal trainers incur costs of nearly $20,000 per year, per child, according to a 2016 Utah State University survey. In some cases, the survey found household spending on sports exceeded 10 percent of household income.
But there are ways to save, including:
Some sports cost more than others.
Lacrosse families, for example, spend nearly $8,000 per year, per kid while hockey moms spend roughly $7,000 per child annually, the USU found.
By comparison, parents spend an average of:
- $4,000 for baseball and softball.
- $2,700 for football.
- $1,500 for soccer.
- $1,100 for basketball.
How your child is participating in sports can dictate a large part of the cost. As noted below, sports available through a school or municipal recreation program can offer lower cost alternatives. But in many cases, especially in some of the more niche sports, participation means paying for membership in a privately run club league. Beyond that, different sports can require different levels of equipment and training, which can also be costly.
In most cases, parents write those checks without reservation because their kids enjoy playing and because they value the many benefits associated with sports, including physical fitness, personal discipline, and the opportunity to experience both victory and defeat. All are valid reasons to play.
But no kid’s sport should cripple the household budget.
Indeed, parents who struggle to pay for their kid’s athletic pursuits should never prioritize sports over putting money away for their own retirement or their kid’s college savings plan, said Chris Toadvine, a financial advisor with Stonebridge Financial Planning Group in Winter Park, Florida.
“Parents have to let their budget dictate what is possible,” he said. “When the Joneses are eating cat food in retirement, keeping up with them will not be nearly as appealing. Spending money that they cannot afford on elite sports camps and programs is not an expression of love if the parent ends up being dependent on their child later in life.”
(Calculator: How much do I need to save for college? )
Nor should most families throw money at sports for the sole purpose of bettering their child’s odds of landing a scholarship, said Tom Balcom, founder of 1650 Wealth Management in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida. It’s a bad bet.
“There are many parents we see who hope or need their child to earn a college sports scholarship to offset the cost of tuition,” he said in an interview. “Using these funds for a 529 [college savings account] or prepaid plan may make more sense.”
According to 2015—2016 data provided by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Savingforcollege.com, just 2.3 percent of undergraduate students in bachelor’s degree programs received athletic scholarships, an average of roughly $12,000 per recipient.
Need another reason to keep your spending in check? Pumping thousands of dollars into sports may send the wrong message to your child.
Travis Dorsch, assistant professor and founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University, said that his research found an inverse relationship between the amount of money families spend on organized youth sports and their kids’ level of enjoyment and commitment to the sport. “The more money families spend on sports, the less their children enjoy it,” he said in a prior interview, noting the findings of the study surprised even him. “We would have expected that kids of means are going to have more fun and be more committed because their parents can afford all the best equipment and coaches, but we found the exact opposite.”
That said, moms (and dads) who wish to help their kids develop as athletes without breaking the bank need not restrict their kid’s participation. Instead, they should look for opportunities to slash their costs and, above all else, focus on fun.
Recreational leagues, for example, are far less expensive and may be a better fit, said John Engh, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“There are cheaper ways to play,” he said. “Most recreational agencies still offer drop-in programs that are competitive for older kids so your child can still compete and have fun. And they are very cheap so they’re a great alternative to elite clubs.”
There may be less cachet, but athletes in recreational leagues often get more playing time.
“Being on an elite team isn’t necessarily going to advance those kids as players,” said Engh. “They may be used as a backup player or get stuck playing the same position.” By contrast, he said, rec-league coaches typically rotate the players in different positions and give everyone equal playing time.
It’s one thing to commit to an expensive team, but quite another to find out later that the registration price did not include tournament fees or a uniform.
Before you put your money down, contact the program directly to get an estimate of total costs so you can budget accordingly — or make alternate plans if it falls outside your budget.
It’s worth noting that many youth sports programs are willing to offer discounts or even waive fees for low-income families. If you think you might qualify, ask.
Other ways to pare down costs include carpooling to practices, tournaments, and games.
And don’t miss out on early bird specials. Many leagues offer an initial reduced fee when registration first opens that could save you $100 or more per kid, per season.
Be aware that the cost of youth sports to your family is not just financial. Will your work schedule allow for late night practices and 5 a.m. games? (We’re looking at you, hockey moms.) Are you willing to spend all weekend at a swim meet that’s two hours away? And if you have younger children, do you have babysitters lined up or will you bring them along?
Finally, consider whether your little athlete can handle the rigor of playing for a travel team. He or she may need more downtime than the sport will allow. Remember, a balance between academic, social, and extracurricular activities is key for healthy development.
Another great way to save on sports is to volunteer (or have your spouse volunteer) as a parent coach, which may enable your child to play for free or for a reduced fee. Many recreational leagues rely on parent coaches to keep their programs afloat.
Coaching your kid’s team can be a rewarding experience for both you and your child. It also gives you an opportunity to serve as a positive role model.
Take note that parents who volunteer as coaches may be required to take special training and/or submit to background checks. They may also not be permitted to coach one of the teams on which their child plays. But the extra effort could put more money back in your pocket.
The cost of equipment can be significant for certain sports. Hockey, football, lacrosse, and skier moms can easily drop $500 a year on gear.
You can cut those costs in half or more by buying used.
Many leagues and local sports stores sponsor equipment swaps in which parents trade their kid’s used gear as they outgrow it. Consignment stores also sometimes carry sports gear, as do stores like Play It Again Sports, which sell new and used sports and fitness gear. And don’t forget to search through online marketplaces like Swapmesports.com, eBay, and Craigslist.
“With the internet today, you can get just about anything you need lightly used,” said Engh. “There are great ways to save on used gear, even in your own community. Just be resourceful.”
Lastly, moms of avid athletes may wish to encourage their kids to try out for their middle school or high school teams, which is a great way to bond with their classmates and display school pride. It’s also a great way to save.
Most school-sponsored sports are paid for either in part or in full by the school district, parent booster clubs, and student fundraising.
Playing sports in high school has statistically been shown to help students achieve better grades, budget their time more effectively, and develop stronger leadership skills. Plus, it’s fun.
“It takes some research, but parents can find less costly tournaments, lessons, etc. that will still allow their child to play sports,” said Balcom.
As a mom, you want only the best for your kids, but that doesn’t mean you must spend top dollar to expose them to sports. By seeking out programs that fit your budget, and paring costs where possible, you can give them the chance to grow as an athlete in a setting that works for the whole family.
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1 Utah State University, “The Impact of Family Financial Investment on Perceived Parent Pressure and Child Enjoyment and Commitment in Organized Youth Sport,” 2016.