Kids' sports can get expensive. This is how parents can save on costs.

How parents can save money on kids’ sports

Note 8/6/21: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has roiled plans for school sports and recreation entering the 2021-22 school year. Seek guidance on the safety of participation for your family from the CDC and your state’s health department.

Watching your kid compete on a team can be one of parenting’s great pleasures, but sports can be a real workout for your wallet. While the days of pickup games in the park are not entirely gone, schools are increasingly replacing free programs with “pay to play” arrangements. Participation fees, equipment, uniforms, training, and travel can really add up. Putting one child in a team sport for a single season can cost as much as $5,000. Now that’s taking one for the team!

Thankfully, whether your kid is a novice diver or a varsity soccer captain, there are ways to manage the high costs of athletics. If you’ll pardon the many sports puns to come, here’s your game plan:

Ready, set…

  • Talk costs with other parents. Before your kid commits to a particular sport, tally up its associated expenses and consider whether you can afford them. Ask the youth league or school coordinator how much you’ll have to pay in years to come. Is there a huge bump in costs at the next level? Chat with other parents to get a sense of incidental costs, such as chipping in for snacks or travel.
  • Take it slow. I don’t need to tell you that kids tend to change their minds, so don’t go all in at first. Find a low-key class or recreational league for your budding athlete to get a taste of a new sport. And encourage them to focus on one sport at a time, rather than spreading themselves (and your own finances) thin over several activities.
  • Choose the right team. Teams and leagues aren’t one-size-fits-all. For example, if your kid’s goal is to get a sports scholarship or to excel on a regional level, then perhaps an elite, traveling club—with its relatively high fees and travel costs—is the right choice. But if your child just wants after-school fun and exercise with their friends, then a less competitive—and more affordable—program should fit the bill.

“YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, local churches, and parks and recreation departments are already subsidized, so that can leave smaller amounts passed on to families,” said Christy Keswick, co-founder and CEO of Good Sports, a nonprofit aimed at increasing participation in youth athletics. “They often have free or discounted programs based on income. This can be good especially if people have multiple kids playing at the same time.”

Gearing up

  • Pick a low-equipment sport. Sports gear “is the major driving factor of the costs of programs,” Keswick said. For parents, these expenses may recur annually as your child grows or, in some team sports, switches positions. Fortunately, some sports require less stuff. Choosing between swimming and softball? A swimsuit and goggles may set you back less than bats, mitts, batting gloves, cleats, helmets, hats, and uniforms. One survey found that the most expensive youth sports were football, baseball, softball, and hockey. The least expensive? Swimming, diving, volleyball, track & field, and cross country.

If your child’s heart is set on an equipment-intensive sport, read on.

  • Go secondhand. It’s safer, not to mention cleaner, to get some items new, such as helmets. But feel free to go secondhand for other goods, like bats, rackets, and balls. Check out Play It Again Sports or Sideline Swap—especially for equipment your child is likely to outgrow. And don’t forget to sell your own kid’s old equipment. Make a habit of checking in on Craigslist, relevant Facebook groups, and your local charity shops to see what’s available.
  • Swap away. Chances are, a lot of your neighbors and fellow parents have garages cluttered with idle sports equipment from seasons past. Hosting a swap—with refreshments—can be a great way to pick up free sports gear, while getting rid of the stuff that your own mini-Olympian has outgrown.
  • Buy during the offseason. The smart money is on buying soccer balls and swimsuits in the dead of winter, when they are more likely to be on sale. And big retailers often have semiannual clearance sales to get rid of last season’s styles—a great opportunity to snag shoes and clothing. Don’t be afraid to buy a size or two up, so your junior athlete is all set for the next couple seasons.
  • Explore financial aid. Talk to the coach or league coordinator about financial aid, or reach out to a nonprofit like Good Sports, Kids Play USA Foundation, or your local YMCA. If you are feeling extra motivated, you can contact local businesses or national brands to request financial support and sponsorships for your kid’s teams—or just host a bake sale.

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Hitting the road

Even if they’re playing exclusively on their school teams, you’ve still got to get your kid to practices and even games—whether they are crosstown or across the country. Here’s how to travel smart.

  • Sharing transportation responsibilities with other families—or having your kid take public transit, if that’s an option—is an obvious money and time saver.
  • Travel smart. To save costs on away games, consider hosting potluck meals for visiting teams, or even putting a visiting family up for the night. Hopefully they’ll return the favor when your kid’s team is visiting.
  • Keep it local. Nip the travel issue in the bud by steering your child into a league that keeps its games local. Travel teams are increasingly popular, but they may be financial overkill for many families and kids.

Training days

If your child gets serious about her sport—or if she’s just getting started and needs some extra help—you might face the cost of clinics, camps, or specialized training outside of what’s offered by the team.

  • Shop around for an instructor. If hiring a coach is too costly, consider hiring an older varsity athlete in your kid’s school, or asking local teams, like a single-A baseball club (most of whose players make very little money), if there are any players looking to make an extra few bucks doing one-on-one lessons with your kid.
  • But be realistic. Extra coaching can be helpful, but be wary of coaches who overpromise results to keep you paying up. Realistically, very few children are destined for a sports scholarship—and that’s okay. Sports should be all about fun and teamwork—not breaking the bank.

Children’s sports can teach your kids about physical fitness, discipline, and teamwork. Just be sure to avoid injuring your finances while you provide these lifelong benefits to your kids.

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