Everyone knows raising kids is expensive. But raising athletic kids? That can be downright exorbitant.
From cleats to skates, sign-up fees to game-day uniforms, the costs of participating in sports for the nation’s roughly 19 million kid athletes can eat up a serious chunk of a typical family’s budget.
On average, sports families spend nearly $700 per child, per sport annually, according to a 2019 survey from the Aspen Institute and Utah State University’s Family in Sports Lab. But some families shelled out much more — upwards of $9,000 per year on one child, even in seemingly less expensive sports, like basketball. Altogether, the survey estimated that American families spent some $30 billion a year on youth sports.
The high price tag is not a new phenomenon — at least, not if you have kids who’ve been playing sports fairly seriously. But the current economic climate is putting fresh pressure on this part of parents’ budgets. With average gas prices up 50% from last year and rampant inflation that’s pushed grocery prices up 12% in a year, extracurriculars are one of the only places families can cut back right now.
Here are seven tips to help you pay for youth sports:
1. Choose your kids’ sports wisely
Not all sports are created equal when it comes to cost. Equipment-heavy sports, like ice hockey ($2,583 per child, per year, on average), skiing ($2,249), gymnastics ($1,580) and tennis ($1,170) are going to be more expensive regardless of your child’s age or competition level.
If your kids are young or you’re just testing the waters, try choosing an activity on the lower end of the spectrum. Sports like flag football, cross country, basketball and soccer are among the least expensive, with annual average costs ranging from $268 to $537 per player.
Another easy way to save money if you have multiple kids is to sign them up for the same sport, says Travis Dorsch, an associate professor at Utah State University and director of the school’s Families in Sport Lab. That’s common in ski racing, the sport Dorsh’s two kids compete in. That way, parents can reuse hand-me-down equipment and avoid having to chauffeur kids to different practices and competitions.
2. Stay and play local
The jaw-dropping sums you hear about for youth sports participation come when you start playing for elite or travel teams. Those leagues tend to require year-round commitments, higher registration fees, and hefty expenses that come along with regular travel, says Darren Straniero, a certified financial planner in Darnestown, Maryland.
“Resisting the siren song of travel or club sports is, by far and away, the best way to reduce expenses if you’re looking to cut costs around athletics,” Straniero says. His five kids participate in a variety of sports including football, lacrosse, basketball, baseball and golf, though he and his wife have chosen to skip club competition.
More than a quarter of parents whose kids play in such leagues reported spending $500 or more per month on sports, according to a 2019 TD Ameritrade poll.
Those numbers demonstrate a widening division within youth sports, Dorsch says. On one end, community-based options are manageable for most families, with registration fees ranging from $25 to $100 for a season. But on the other end, runaway costs for private coaching and year-round competitions are pricing out a lot of families.
“A year ago, I would have said the same thing,” he says. “But now, given inflation and rising prices, especially around travel-related costs, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get better any time soon.”
In fact, across all sports, parents spent more on travel — roughly $200 on average per sport, per child — than on equipment, private lessons, registration fees or camps, according to the Aspen Institute and Utah State University data.
And that was before 2022, a year when both airfare and hotel prices have seen double-digit increases compared to this time last year.
3. Skip brand-new equipment
Regardless of whether your kids play on a more affordable community team or in a highly competitive travel league, they’re going to need gear. Buying second-hand is an easy way to shave some dollars, Straniero says.
This tip applies to all ages, competition levels and sports, but it’s a real no-brainer if your kid is new to a particular sport or position — there’s no need to buy new equipment before you know if they’ll stick with it. The same is true if your player is at an age where they’re likely to outgrow equipment quickly, Straniero says.
“My daughters have gone from size 4 shoes to size 9 shoes in two or three years, so we’ve burned through soccer cleats like nobody’s business,” he says.
For peer-to-peer online sales, try SidelineSwap, a company launched by former college athletes with the goal of becoming a sort of eBay or Craigslist for sports gear. More than one million athletes and sports families have joined the platform to buy and sell gear, according to CEO Brendan Candon. The average savings off retail price is about 50%, though it varies based on the condition and quality of the item.
There’s also Play It Again Sports, which sells second-hand sporting equipment at about 300 locations across the country. Used Easton baseball or softball backpacks there are priced starting at $14.99, compared to $30 to $45 for similar backpacks bought brand new from Easton’s website.
You can search Facebook Marketplace for local sellers, too, or look for sports-specific rental options. With golf, for example, a set of kids’ golf clubs can cost a couple hundred dollars, even though kids will outgrow their clubs very quickly. With a Callaway Junior subscription plan, you can get a set of clubs starting at $15 a month, and when your kid is ready for a new size, you can swap the clubs for a larger set.
4. Spend your time rather than your money
If you have the ability to spend your time, volunteering to coach a team usually comes with a discount for your child to play in that league. Think of it as sweat equity.
Straniero has coached his kids basketball and baseball teams in the past, and his wife currently coaches lacrosse, which nets their daughters a free registration. As a bonus, he adds, this also typically gives you more input over the schedule.
If you’re not much of a sports person (outside of being your kid’s fan, of course), there are other ways to volunteer. One of the families Kathleen Prendergast, founder of the personal budgeting service Richer Than You Think, works with has a daughter involved in an expensive competition cheerleading program. To help lower costs, both for their daughter and other team members, the parents help organize fundraisers for the team.
“It's the first client that I've worked with where they've talked about fundraising, and organizing it, as a strategy for helping fit (the sport) in their budget,” Prendergast says.
You can also raise your hand to set up a carpool rotation so parents can share rides to practices or games and cut down on driving. That’s always an option to save money, but it’s particularly cost-effective now with record-setting gas prices.
5. Research the full costs (and ways to pay)
One of the challenges of budgeting for more expensive sports participation is that it’s sometimes hard for leagues to give parents a true, all-in cost.
Registration fees, equipment and the costs of uniforms are typically easy enough to map out. But at the elite levels, there are also specialized camps and private conditioning lessons that take place outside of the leagues. Travel expenses can be hard to nail down and often come in higher than families expect, Prendergast says.
She wishes more organizations proactively gave parents a high-end estimate — how much they will spend if the team (or their child) qualifies for all the out-of-town tournaments. That way, she says, parents can budget for a worst-case-for-their-wallets scenario instead of having to squeeze unplanned trips into their budgets.
In the absence of that, you should do your homework to come up with your own data. When joining a new league, ask the coaches for an estimate of tournament and travel-related costs or ask for a typical travel schedule based on previous years’ competitions, then research travel expenses yourself. Also ask whether paying fees in installments vs. a lump-sum upfront is a possibility, or whether there are early bird discounts in your sign up by a certain date — both are common in leagues around the country.
If you’re already signed up, start tracking your expenses closely. Prendergast says a majority of her clients with kids find that sports’ expenses are regularly higher than they expected once they sit down and actually do the math.
“They sign up and sign up and sign up, and all of the sudden, they have more activities and more expenses than they know what to do with.”
6. Set realistic goals
Six out of 10 sports parents polled by TD Ameritrade a few years ago said they thought their child would get a college scholarship that’d cover more than half of tuition. Those beliefs are out of step with reality.
Just 2% of high school athletes get a scholarship to play at the Division I or Division II levels, according to the NCAA. (Division III schools don’t award sports scholarships.) A full-ride athletic scholarship is even rarer. In many collegiate sports, it’s common to split a team-wide scholarship total among as many players as possible, so each athlete gets only a partial tuition break.
Anecdotally, Dorsch says he knows of families on the “college participation trajectory” that will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for a child to master a sport. In other words: the price they’re paying for the chance at a scholarship often ends up being just as much as they would have spent had they paid for college out of pocket.
“If your only end game is to earn a scholarship, you’d probably be better off putting the money in a savings account and paying for college yourself,” he says.
7. Ask your kid what they want to get out of playing
It can be hard for parents to deny opportunities to their kids. But consider this: Funneling thousands and thousands of dollars into sports doesn’t guarantee that your child will enjoy it more or get more out of it.
In fact, Dorsch and researchers at Utah State University found nearly the opposite: As parents spend more on sports, kids feel more pressure to perform. And when kids feel more pressure, they enjoy the sport less and want to participate less.
It may sound trite, Dorsch says, but try to talk with your kids about their own goals and reasons for participating. He recommends asking: What do you want to get out of this, and how can we structure this to make it more fun and rewarding?
You should, of course, feel free to talk with your kid about how much you're spending on their activities and why, he says.
"But that money doesn't, or it shouldn't, equate with pressure to score a winning goal."