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5 Tips if Your Children’s Activities are Wrecking Your Finances

by Chuck Bentley November 11, 2016

Dear Chuck,

My wife and I are struggling with the costs of our children’s extracurricular activities, which seem to be getting more expensive all the time. One of our sons wants to be on a travel team for sports, which is not only expensive, but includes the costs of hotels, food, and all kinds of incidentals to participate. And there are music lessons for two others, school fees for any activity (from speech club to Latin) along with the incredible pressure to do all these things to help our children compete with their peers, who are also taking classes, going to sports camps and paying for lessons of all kinds. I am concerned not only with the costs but also the pressure to keep up with the Joneses when it comes to kids and activities. But of course we want our children to have the skills and experiences they need to be successful. Do you have any advice?

Parents under Pressure


Dear Parents,

With four sons myself, I feel your pain, and you are not alone. In fact, the peer pressure and even emotional blackmail (which we can apply to ourselves) can lead to some dangerous financial choices. Add that to the reality that these costs are on the rise. Time magazine recently reported “according to this year’s Backpack Index — an annual look at the cost of school supplies and other expenses compiled by The Huntington National Bank and nonprofit Communities in Schools — the increase is a little over 7%, across all grade levels.” The costs averaged about $739 per child, per year, but were reported as higher in high school, and even more intense for parents with kids involved in high-level sports.

Anyone with a child in sports knows that financial pain. RetailMeNot, an online coupon site, reports than many parents are spending about $671 per sport with 1 in five spending more than $1,000.Travis Dorsch, an assistant professor at Utah State University, has studied parental spending on sports, and found that struggling families are paying up to 10.5 percent of their GROSS income (total income before taxes) on their children’s sports.

But to be fair, it’s not just parents with kids in football making that kind of investment. Raising a professional ballerina, from age three through high school, can cost $100,000. And there are those paying thousands of dollars for music lessons, private tutors, theatre camps or gymnastics. Entire industries have been built on the back of parents who want to give their children every opportunity to do well.

The truth is, however, that this level of spending is hurting a lot of family finances. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the most common financial mistakes people make, depending on their age. In their 40’s, many parents hurt their long-term financial interests by spending too much on children’s activities while saving too little.

Certainly the Bible does tell parents repeatedly to instruct children about their faith and the right way to live in this world. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

But there is no Bible verse saying “Thou Shalt Pay for Every Sport/Hobby/Interest Thy Offspring Desires.”

Choices need to be made. We need to model good stewardship, not just good sportsmanship!

  1. Look at your budget to identify how much you can spend on outside activities and still meet goals like those for savings and debt reduction. Crown has some great free tools for developing a budget if you haven’t organized one yet. But take a look at exactly what you are spending on classes, sports and outdoor pursuits. I encourage you to cap spending on children’s activities at 10 percent of after-tax income at the very max. And if you cannot afford that, lower your cap. One friend I know only allows his children to enter very low cost sports. His children have chosen cross country and track which do not involve all the equipment of other sports.
  1. Talk with your kids about their passions and the costs of their activities so together you can make a choice to invest in one at a time. Like you, I wanted my children to have everything from guitar lessons to outdoor adventures. But consider that God has made each of us unique with certain strengths and weaknesses. Invest in skills that will benefit your child long-term, and downgrade those activities that don’t represent their strengths. In my home, we will pay for one creative outlet, based on the skills of our children. But if they really want more than one, there are other ways to achieve that.
  1. Work with your child to earn extra money to pay for those extra activities in which they really want to engage. I’m sure you’ve seen how carefully kids spend money when it’s their own. Your children will work even harder to get the benefit out of their pursuits when they help cover the costs. And consider whether paying for one of their activities might be a good birthday or Christmas gift from you or loving grandparents. Learning and experiences can be more valuable than things in boxes on a holiday.
  1. Look into the tax implications of some of your child’s pursuits. According to Trae Bodge, senior editor at RetailMeNot, save all your receipts as some states offer tax write-offs for education and enrichment, a possibility that you will need to investigate. “It varies per state, but in general, 25-50% of the expenses are deductible and most states have a cap of anywhere between $250-$500 per student. States have different rules for what qualifies as an education-related expense, i.e. clothing for extra-curricular activities are usually only deductible if the clothing cannot be used outside of that activity – football cleats are deductible but basketball sneakers are not,” he told Forbes.
  1. Spend some time in prayer as well, asking for God’s direction about what kinds of experiences will best benefit your children and about what your own motivations might be. Is it possible that your child is in a sport to please you, and not really because they are interested?

Getting our kids the right tools is important, but part of that training needs to be an understanding of the costs and implications of making a choice. It’s not about saying “No” to 10 expensive options, it’s about saying “Yes” to a few that will reap long term benefits to their mind, body and soul.

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