August 2, 2013
When budgeting for back-to-school expenses, parents generally include routine fare like 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:
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.
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