My aunt and uncle were on thin ice financially – literally. My cousin’s ice skating career was taking off, and with it, the sport’s price tag as well. Between paying for her personal coach, ice time, skates, and costumes, my aunt and uncle were spending more than $10,000 a year on my cousin’s favorite activity. Oh, did I mention my cousin was only ten years old?
Hoping to avoid a similar financial fate, my parents started examining different youth sports options for me. They’d learned through my aunt and uncle’s example that ice skating was too expensive. I didn’t show any aptitude with balls of any kind, so there went softball and soccer. I’d shown promise in my weekly swim lessons at the local Y, and my parents figured, what do you need to swim other than a suit and maybe a pair of goggles? They naively signed me up for my first swim team at the age of seven. Little did they know how much it would cost them on an annual basis:
- Club team fees: $2,000/year
- Equipment (swimsuits – which wore out far more quickly than they anticipated): $500/year
- Meet fees: $300/year
- Travel costs for out of town meets: $1,500/year
In all, I spent nearly a decade with my hair in a swim cap and my head underwater. By the time I retired from competitive swimming after earning All-American honors in high school, my parents estimated they’d sunk (no pun intended) more than $40,000 on what they’d once believed would be a “cheap” hobby. My parents had always hoped to see a return on their investment in the form of a college scholarship, but a shoulder injury my senior year of high school put the kibosh on those plans.
The Youth Sports Juggernaut
My parents’ experience, like my aunt and uncle’s, isn’t all that different from what millions of American parents are going through right now. In fact, according to data published in the Columbus Dispatch, youth sports is a $5 billion – yes, billion, with a “b” – industry. It’s an industry where television rights to the Little League World Series are worth $30 million. It’s an industry where entanglements between players, coaches, and agents routinely ends up in the headlines, often with college athletes being deemed ineligible for situations that happened far in the past.
Follow The Money
Where’s that massive sum – $5 billion – coming from? From well-meaning parents like my own, who got sucked into expensive sports without even realizing it. And my sport of choice, swimming, isn’t even among the top 5 most expensive sports according to MSN Money:
- Ice Hockey (I can attest to this; my uncle – the same one who paid for his daughter’s pricy ice skating hobby – turned down an NHL contract to play in college back in the late 1960s)
- Equestrian (No surprise here!)
Three of the five – cycling, equestrian, and gymnastics – are individual sports, which means the athlete (and his or her parent) bears the brunt of the financial responsibility. Ice hockey, cycling, and equestrian require a prolific amount of gear, especially riding, where the athlete usually must pay to buy and stable another living being!
Unlike my cousin and I, who embarked in two very expensive sports, my husband’s family took a far more economical approach. My husband is one of four children, and, in an effort to streamline expenses, my in-laws funneled each of their children into the same youth sports. All four kids played baseball (my sister-in-law played softball) and basketball; the three boys also played football, while my sister-in-law learned volleyball. I asked my in-laws how much they think they spent on youth sports over the years; they estimated about $25,000 for all four kids combined – well below what my parents believe they spent on my swimming career. Here’s why my in-laws’ decision makes so much sense… and cents:
- Putting all the kids into the same sports paid off for my in-laws, literally. Instead of driving all four kids to four separate activities, they drove to one location, saving on transportation costs. They were also able to take advantage of multiple-child discounts when registering for certain programs.
- They focused on team sports instead of individual ones, which often carry a higher price tag.
- All of the sports my husband and his siblings played were offered at the middle and high school levels in their local district, meaning once the kids reached seventh grade, the school basically paid for the activities instead of my in-laws.
- They chose equipment-light sports and leagues wherever they could. For example, the Pop Warner football league my husband and his brothers played in did not require the young athletes to provide their own pads – the league did that for them.
- They avoided traveling teams, which reduced their costs dramatically, since they never had to worry about staying the night for an out-of-town weekend Little League baseball tournament.
- My father-in-law often volunteered to work as an assistant coach for the kids’ basketball teams, which earned all four children discounted or even free registration.
The Apple And The Tree
You know that cliched saying about the apple not falling far from the tree? It’s very true in my case. My daughter, who isn’t even four years old yet, is showing early promise as a swimmer – she can already swim an entire length of the pool doing front or back crawl without any help. After watching my parents shell out tens of thousands of dollars to fund my swimming career, you’d think I would have steered clear of it, but I didn’t; it is, after all, what I know best. I have learned some lessons though – hopefully I can put my swimming experience to good use and work as an assistant coach on her club team to save some cash.
Reader, how do you budget for your children’s sports and other activities? What do you do to reduce costs?