Parents are going into debt over their kids’ extracurricular activities

Signing kids up for extracurricular activities could bring them extra income someday. Or at least, eight in 10 parents in a new survey are hoping — especially considering that two-thirds of them have gone into debt to pay for those soccer, ballet, painting and piano lessons. surveyed more than 700 parents with young children who participate in sports, hobbies and other passion projects outside of class. And the more that these moms and dads spent, the more they thought that it would pay off in the long run: 90% of parents who dropped at least $4,000 a year believe their kid will earn money from that activity, compared to 75% of parents who spend less than $1,000 who said the same.

“And what the survey showed is, it’s not just sports parents who have these big dreams and big hopes for their sons and daughters; it’s music parents, it’s cheerleading parents, it’s debate team parents,” Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst at CompareCards, told MarketWatch. Indeed, sports were the most popular activities (reported by 30% of parents), but folks are also footing the bill for music (16%), dance (15%), gymnastics (12%), cheerleading (9%), martial arts (8%), beauty pageants (3%) and debate teams (3%), with about half (46%) spending more than $1,000 annually, and a quarter (27%) coughing up more than $2,000.

This supports a recent University of Michigan poll that found 55% of parents said school-sponsored sports teams and extracurricular activities helped boost their child’s college application. (Granted, that was skewed toward wealthier parents, as three times as many low-income parents as high-income ones said that the benefits of these activities were not worth the cost.)

Many parents are overextending themselves to give their kids these opportunities. Sixty-two percent of those in the survey revealed they have been in debt for their kids’ activities, and one in three are still paying off a related debt. What’s more, almost one in 10 (9%) of those in debt owe more than $5,000, and 27% owe more than $3,000. “They do hope that perhaps those efforts in terms of time and money may be rewarded with maybe a scholarship, or maybe a professional career,” said Schulz.

In fact, families could wind up spending more than $200,000 in total on private school tuition, SAT tutors, living in a good school district, as well as sports and music lessons to groom their kids for getting into a good college. Athletics alone can run between $100 or $499 a month, according to TD Ameritrade. And sports play such a big part because recruited athletes have been shown receive the largest admissions advantages independent of academic merit — which is why many of the dozens of high-profile parents arrested in the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal gamed the system by bribing their kids’ ways into elite universities through sports teams.

But music lessons can also run $40 to $60 per hour (or more than $3,120 a year); language lessons $30 to $45 per hour (or $2,340 a year); and art lessons $30 to $60 per hour (or $3,120 a year), according to Thumbtack.

San Francisco Bay Area mom Vered DeLeeuw figures that she and her husband have spent about $20,000 on extracurricular activities while their daughters (now 17 and 19) were growing up. The sports, clubs and lessons that have run them about $1,000 or $2,000 a year have included dance, gymnastics and swimming, as well as Hebrew lessons.

“We live in an extremely competitive world, and it’s also a world where many parents feel that their kids are their most important investment and their proudest achievement,” DeLeeuw, who runs the Healthy Recipes blog, told MarketWatch. “I will do a lot to increase their chances of success. And extracurricular activities are part of that — of enriching them, giving them more tools, helping them develop into the best people they can possibly be. Developing skills and talents outside of school is important. And in the case of the Hebrew School, for example, it’s also a way to preserve tradition, language and cultural identity.”

But she admits that while she and her husband have been fortunate enough to be able to meet these financial demands, she recognizes that by spending around $20,000 on their kids’ extracurricular activities, “that’s money that did not end up in our nest egg. So in this respect, it was a sacrifice.”

Veronica Hanson enrolled her daughters, ages 5 and 7, into activities when they were each just a few months old. It started with swimming and music classes, and now the girls are already fluent in Japanese thanks to their full-time language immersion lessons. They’ve also been involved in the Girl Scouts, acting, soccer, rock climbing, art, hiking , yoga, cooking, ballet and gymnastics. And the family takes trips every year, including a recent European excursion, to further broaden their growing perspectives.

“I have two daughters who are part of our world’s future. My husband and I invest everything we can into making sure our kids are global citizens who can contribute to progress,” Hanson, 33, from Lake Oswego, Ore., told MarketWatch. “I think it’s important to let them explore a bunch of different things when they’re young.”

She and her husband rely on a few revenue streams at different parts in the year to cover these costs, including a vacation rental property that pulls in a lot of money during the summer, and running a network marketing business, as well as her entrepreneurial site Vacay Visionary. “It is a huge investment,” she admitted. For instance, the girls are doing 10 different weeklong summer camps this summer (including outdoor skills and computer coding) that cost around $350 a week per kid. “That’s $700 a week just in care and activities for your children,” she said — running up to $7,000 for the summer. But she noted it’s better to have them explore something for a week at a time, to see if they actually like it, instead of signing up for, say, a summerlong arts class that they get bored with after a couple of weeks.

And Portland, Mich., mom Shelly Schneider drops $3,000 a year, or a grand apiece, on her three children: a son, 7; daughter, 10; and son, 12. The two oldest are in a theater group, and her daughter sees a vocal coach and is in the Girl Scouts. The kids have also played tee ball, soccer and football, and all three are taking piano lessons.

“This is low,” Schneider, 39, told MarketWatch, as the extracurricular tab would run even higher if they joined traveling sports teams instead of the local city leagues, for example. City league fees run $30 to $120 a season (not counting the uniforms) compared to the upward of $1,000 in the traveling leagues (which also require traveling to away games almost every weekend). Plus, she and her husband work from home (she runs CBD supplements site 113 Solution, and he’s in insurance) so they don’t have to pay for child care, and they’ve paid off their debt, so there’s wiggle room in their budget to invest in all of these hobbies.

“Through all of these things, [the kids] are proving themselves and building confidence, building relationships and growing their little brains, and that’s very important,” said Schneider, noting that all three children are straight-A students, and community theater has helped the two oldest with their public speaking. “I believe the arts are a very important part of learning and opening up the brain to help you with other subjects. Learning music is proven to help with math and science. And if they learn to love science and math, that can really expand their careers.”

These parents were able to make it work, but as the new survey showed, many others are getting thousands of dollars in debt. “It’s noble to support your kid in the pursuit of their dreams, but it’s also important for a parent not to do that in a way that can wreck their own dreams of being financially stable and retiring someday,” said Schulz.

His five tips include:

  • Consider lower-cost alternatives: “There are a lot of options in terms of lessons, whether it’s sports, music, cooking or whatever other passion you might have, that you can find (free) on YouTube,” he said. Make do with those until you can save up enough for lessons. Or make like Schneider and see what affordable sports leagues or clubs are being offered by your local park or library.
  • Save for the expense. If your kid will need several hundred or several thousand dollars for that special league, camp or competition, make saving for that a priority in your budget. Putting away a few extra dollars a week adds up.
  • Have hour kids pitch in: This will also reveal how passionate your child actually is about the activity. “If your kid is old enough to mow a lawn or walk dogs, or they could pull in a little bit of money to put toward that instrument or that expensive selective soccer league — if they are willing to do that, it could be a pretty good indicator that they are super into it and they want to keep doing it,” he said.
  • Use credit card sign-up bonuses strategically: Maybe instead of taking $1,000 out of your savings for that cheerleading camp, pay for it with a new credit card, and use those savings to pay down the credit card bill, Schulz suggested. Many cash-back cards will give you a $100 or $150 cash back bonus after you spend $500 or more during the first three months with the card. “That money back can be really useful, and help extend your budget a little further,” he said. Just be sure to use the new card wisely, and only charge what you can pay off in full once you get paid.
  • Remember: You can put yourself first: “It can be hard for parents to think of themselves and their own needs when it comes to their kids’ passions and dreams,” said Schulz. “But if you don’t do that, then you can end up doing yourself, your kids and your family a disservice by making things harder for yourself financially down the line.”
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