The community ed course catalog sits on the kitchen counter. I feel a simultaneous sting of excitement and dread.
The courses in this catalog are fantastic. They are fun. They are interesting.
They are expensive.
I know, too, that when the school year begins, the kids will come home with folders bursting with flyers and sign-up sheets for sports, for art and drama and music.
And those activities are expensive, too.
There are so many things that my children want to do. And so many things I’d love for them to try. But I have to balance children’s activities with a budget. We simply cannot do it all.
The quandary of being a responsible parent
When I was a kid, I didn’t participate in very many activities. In fact, I can only recall a handful of things (Brownies, swimming lessons and a computer class) that I did after school and during the summer until I was in high school. Money was tight and we lived about 20 minutes from town, so we just didn’t do a lot.
I did not become a failure in life because I wasn’t in every enriching athletic and cultural activity. I remember being disappointed at times, but I understood the reasoning behind my parents’ decisions.
When my kids started getting old enough to do things, I felt driven by a desire to make things different for them. If they wanted to do something, I wanted them to be able to do it. I squeezed every last extra dollar from my budget and literally drove myself silly shuttling the boys from activity to activity.
And then I realized that if I was going to be a responsible parent, I needed to take responsibility for the crazy way we were spending our time and money on activities.
We simply could not sustain the level of participation for our family. We couldn’t really afford it. We didn’t really have enough time in the week for everything. And these were just elementary school programs! What would happen when the kids got to high school?
I realized we had to step back. We had to find a balance between what we wanted to do and within a budget. It was a lesson for both the children and us as parents. We must learn to be good stewards of both our money and our time.
How to balance children’s activities with a budget
The first thing we did was to look at all our commitments outside of work and school and immediately let go of ones that were not bringing us joy. If we found ourselves dreading an activity, we dropped it.
Then we discussed what things did bring joy. We talked about what activities really interested the kids. And the kids shared what activities they’d done in the past that they would like to continue.
From there, we set a budget for the year for activities. We discussed how we would find the money for those activities. For example, we may use money earned from a garage sale, selling things online, or by eating out less.
And we do our best to find ways to save on children’s activities.
Making children’s activities less expensive
The quickest way to save time and money is to limit the number of activities your children will participate in. Pick one or two activities per season (or year) for each child to participate in.
If your kids are close in age and share similar interests, try to steer them toward common activities. You may be able to get a discount rate for multiple children and you will save on transportation costs because you won’t be driving all over the countryside picking up kids and dropping them off.
Pay attention to the timing of activities. We live about 40 minutes from town, and our kids have an incredibly long bus ride. So we have to pay attention to what time the activities are so that we have time for dinner and homework. We also try to avoid situations in which we have to eat dinner out. Sure, we could pack sandwiches or soup for the road, but it is rather unpleasant to sit in a dark car when it is -25º F outside eating dinner in your lap in a minivan. Eating meals out – even if they are fast food – adds up quickly for a family of 5, so it’s easier (and cheaper) to find things that fit our schedule.
If money is extremely tight, your child may qualify for scholarships for some programs and activities. Sometimes parent volunteers are rewarded with discounts on participation fees. If you have a skill, you may be able to barter your skill for participation in an activity. For example, an artist friend of mine would swap set design work for her daughter’s dance lessons. A photographer may be able to swap team photos for registration fees.
Look for ways to save on uniforms and equipment. Can you buy (or borrow) secondhand items from a family whose child has outgrown them? Check your local sports shops for deals (some have a whole section of secondhand equipment for sale). Look at Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook for people who are trying to sell uniforms, musical instruments, and other gear. Ask other parents what they do. A friend of mine learned that there is an annual ski swap in her community, so she was able to swap skis her child had outgrown for “new” ones.
We also look for activities that are free or low-cost in the community. We are fortunate to live in an area that really treasures its youth. We can almost always find an activity appeals to the kids (like library programs or archery) that don’t cost a thing. Since many of these types of activities are just short workshops, they’re great for introducing kids to new activities without breaking the bank.
You can also figure out things we can replicate on our own at home. We can’t do every super fun robotics class or creative art class, but we can find activities to do on our own at home thanks to our friend, the internet. We find experiments, projects and crafts we can do on Pinterest and YouTube. All we have to do is gather up the supplies and we have some fun scheduled for a cold and snowy afternoon. The kids may not be on an organized sports team, but they can get together with other kids for a pick-up game at the neighborhood playground.
The Bottom Line
Kids just want to have fun, and you don’t have to spend a ton of money to make that happen. Set a budget on your time and your money, and then encourage your kids to create their own fun activities with whatever you have left in your budget and schedule.
Your kids will still love you even if they’re not in all the activities. They will not suffer irreparable social harm if they are not in every. single. thing. In fact, they may actually thrive because they have time to just be kids.