A boy holds onto a flutter board as he swims in a pool. He wears goggles on his forehead.

How do parents afford their children’s extracurricular activities?

A 2018 Ipsos poll showed that 32 percent of Canadian parents go into debt for their child’s extracurricular activities, spending an average of $1,160 over the school year.

Some of these activities may be available for free through school, but another recent report published by People for Education found that, in Ontario, access to these activities is more likely in higher-income neighbourhoods (meaning the people that need free activities the most have the least access to them). 

My kids will often approach me with a request to try a new activity—karate, parkour, soccer, you name it. And while I’m thrilled that they’re excited about things, I inwardly cringe at the idea of spending so much money (and time) on multiple sports and activities.

But I also recognize the value of organized sports, so we try to make at least one extracurricular happen for our kids each season. I’ve felt bad about not providing more in the past, but apparently, I shouldn’t. 

“Although extracurriculars are good for kids, too many can cause a lot of stress,” Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry, told Parents Canada.

In short, extracurriculars can provide a great physical outlet and chance to try something new, but we don’t need to put pressure on our kids or ourselves to have a packed schedule (and we definitely don’t need to go into debt for them). 

Here’s how some families choose to spend their extracurricular budget, and how they make it work with different budgets and time constraints.

Reallocate childcare funds to extracurriculars once they start school

A parent who prefers to remain anonymous pays about $4,000 per year to support their two children in Cub Scouts, theatre, and fencing. And would like to sign them both up for music lessons, which would cost another $5,200 for the year. 

“The way I justify it,” they say, is that “once upon a time, we were spending $24,000 on childcare. I reallocate about half of that to activities. A portion goes to miscellaneous kid things. And a portion of it goes to their future education fund.”

A girl and her piano teacher sit in front of a piano as the teacher shows her which keys to press.

Spending less/within their means

Other parents spend a small fraction of their earnings on extracurriculars, feeling that it just gets to be too much. 

“My kid participated in a marching band this year, which was his first thing ever like that,” says one parent. “It cost $30. I also buy us a family pool pass so he and I can go as much as we want in the summer. I think it’s about $250. So less than $300 for a year.”

Rebecca, a mom of one, agrees that less is more: “We do rec sports for $80 a season. Theatre is usually $50 a show.”

But she draws the line at high school baseball, which costs $500 a season where they live. “That feels wild to me. I won’t go into debt for extracurricular activities. Nor will I spend half the weekends away for travel ball.”

Hannah, who has two kids, spends about $3,000 a year total on both kids for soccer, Spanish classes, and the other classes they take.

“I don’t think they’re particularly overscheduled, and this is not a financial strain on us,” she says.

Paying for the must-dos (and keeping schedules relaxed)

“We will always pay for swim lessons because that is a life-saving skill,” says one parent. “But, for other activities, so far we have only done a few rec things for our oldest. We have friends with older kids who are busy every weekend day and multiple weeknights for a large chunk of the year, and that honestly feels way too stressful to me.”

Use free or low-cost options (like school clubs and town/city lessons)

“My kids don’t do a ton of activities and some are free or through school (chess club and storytelling club),” says one parent. “[We do] ice skating lessons through the city that cost around $150 per child, and skateboard lessons for my younger kid, which are $30 a session and we have two or so a month.”

Investing in the family’s mental and physical health

For Emilia, who is expecting her fifth child, extracurriculars are a great way to manage her family’s multiple ADHD diagnoses. “My kids want to be active,” she says. “My oldest two do club soccer, which is over $2,000 per kid. Then you add in the cost of cleats, training gear, extra training sessions and camps, and the cost of gas/food when they play because their games are always about an hour away.”

Support the kids’ passions, regardless of cost

Elizabeth, a mom of three kids who play competitive soccer, says it’s expensive but worth it. “They love it and give it 150 percent but it’s several thousand just for tuition.”

A parent of a 13-year-old competitive soccer player on a travel gold-level team pays to make her child’s dreams work. “Uniforms are $300, plus cleats, shin guards, etc.” they say. “Team club fees are $2,095 and he does club in the winter at $130 and soccer camps in Florida in the summer (camp is $210 but the hotel takes it up to closer to $1,000).”

A girls' soccer team trains together outside on a sunny day.

Prioritize (and accept grandparent help)

Kate, a mom of five kids with an age spread of three to 12 years old, says it’s really hard to find an activity that will work for all of her kids.

“Swimming is a priority because that’s a lifesaving activity. Grandparents have generously supported that for the last couple of years (about two weeks of sessions each summer),” she says.

They also do little league, ski lessons, and volleyball, but always prioritize keeping their family’s schedule and their finances in order, and not going overboard.

“I am absolutely not willing to go into debt to support extracurricular activities,” she says, “and I am willing to take multiple breaks per year because I feel like kids’ activities need to be functional within a large family. I also think kids need periods of unstructured downtime now and then.”

Reallocate their restaurant and travel budgets to extracurriculars

Lucy, a mom of three in the United Kingdom, tends to fund their activities by taking money away from other areas like eating out or vacations, but would never go into debt for extracurriculars. “I try to strike a balance,” she says.

Her eldest plays soccer, her middle child plays guitar, and her youngest does ballet. And, as a family, they have memberships to the National Trust (which allows them access to historic sites and nature reserves) and English Heritage, which are budgeted for. You can find similar organizations here in Canada available to families, such as discovery passes with Parks Canada.

How have you managed to fund your child’s extracurricular activities? Let us know in the comments.

Read more about extracurriculars on a budget:

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