Saving for youth sports: How to pay so your kids can play

Youth sports can be great character-building activities for children. They instill teamwork, communication, and discipline, which can pay off later in life. In addition to the physical benefits, children who play sports can also reduce stress, increase cognitive abilities and create better emotional well-being, according to the US Department of Health.

That said, participating in these activities often comes at a steep price. Sports can cost anywhere from $191 per year (for track and field) to $2,583 per year (for ice hockey). And with inflation at a 40-year high, that cost is rising. Wintergreen Research predicts the youth sports industry will grow to a $77.6 billion industry by 2026, up from $24.9 billion in 2019.

Our guide to saving for youth sports will help you understand the costs involved and plan for these expenses before they become unsustainable for your finances.

Youth Sports Cost

The cost of youth sports varies by sport. Expenses may include registration fees, equipment, camps, private lessons and travel. Travel, in particular, can be the biggest cost when you factor in fuel or airfare, hotel, meals, and other items. Travel costs average about $196 per sport, according to Project Play, a 2019 research initiative by the Aspen Institute to track youth sports participation and costs. This amount can vary greatly from sport to sport, with the average travel cost for field hockey, for example, being $934.

Project Play estimates that sports families spend an average of $693 per sport per child each year. Their study also provides averages for different types of sports. Swimming, for example, costs an average of $786 per year, while skiing costs $2,249 per year. A child enrolled in skiing and swimming would rack up $3,035 in fees in a year, according to this data

The graph below shows the annual costs of the five most expensive sports.

Key stats on youth sports spending:

  • Travel is on average the highest sporting cost for young people ($196 annually), followed by equipment ($144) and private lessons ($134). (Project game)
  • Sports most likely to be free for families are skateboarding and cycling, with 38% of parents saying they spend no money on skateboarding and 33% on cycling. (Project game)
  • Children from 6 to 12 years old, only 24% of those with household incomes of $25,000 or less played sports regularly, compared to 43% of those with household incomes of $100,000 or more. (Aspen Institute 2021 State of Play Report)
  • 37 percent of male children participated in youth sports, while 30 percent of women did. (state of play)
  • The sport with the highest participation rate in 2020 was cycling, with 18.2% of children aged 6-12 participating, followed by basketball with a participation rate of 14.8%). (state of play)
  • From 2019 to 2020, the sport that saw the largest decline in participation was swimming (-23.6%). Meanwhile, tennis saw the highest increase in participation (37.7%). (state of play)
  • The three states with the highest percentage of reported sports participation among children ages 6-17 are North Dakota (67.4%), Vermont (66%) and New Hampshire (65.8%). (National Child Health Survey 2019-2020)
  • The three states with the lowest percentage of reported sports participation among children ages 6-17 are Louisiana (46%), New Mexico (46%) and Arizona (46.1%). (National Child Health Survey 2019-2020)
  • School work was reported as the main reason why kids don’t play sports in surveys from several regions, including Harlem, New York; Mobile County, Alabama; Seattle-King County, Washington; and Hawaii. (Aspen Institute Youth Community Surveys)
  • There is a gap in youth participation in sports between low socio-economic schools and high socio-economic schools; 24.6% of eighth graders in low socioeconomic schools played sports, compared to 36.1% in high socioeconomic schools. (state of play)

How to fund youth sport

  1. Open a savings account for sports expenses and contribute to it regularly. When looking for a savings account, look for high savings rates, no minimum account balance, and low or no monthly fees. Some savings accounts may also offer bonuses that can contribute to a sports spending fund.
  2. Set up automatic transfers. There are several banking apps as well as third-party savings apps that can help you automatically transfer money from a check to a savings account, such as Digit and Current. Even if you set up automatic transfers to save just $10 every two weeks, that’s still $260 saved in a year.
  3. Take advantage of travel rewards. Many sports require regular travel, so it makes sense to earn rewards on those travel expenses. Travel credit cards can offer cash back or points redeemable for hotel stays, rental cars, flights, and meals. Just be sure to pay the balances monthly to avoid interest charges.
  4. Check for fundraising opportunities. Some youth sports teams hold fundraisers to help offset the various costs of participation, including equipment and travel costs.
  5. Consider low-income or free options. Organizations like Every Kid Sports and the Kids Play USA Foundation work with low-income families, providing them with resources so their children can play. Local organizations, such as the YMCA, may also provide opportunities for assistance.
  6. Encourage your child to accept a summer job. Washing cars, walking the dog, or babysitting during the off months could be a way for your child to learn about money management while inspiring them to save for sports.

How to cut costs and set a budget

Even with fundraisers and lower-cost options, you will likely have to pay some out-of-pocket expenses for youth sports. However, knowing the costs in advance and preparing a budget can make these expenses more manageable.

Here are some ways to budget for youth sports costs:

  1. Include sports expenses in your savings goal. Consider creating a separate line item in a budget to save for miscellaneous youth sports expenses, including participation fees, camps, uniforms, equipment, and travel expenses.
  2. Anticipate costs that may arise at different times of the season. For example, you may have to pay equipment and registration fees at the start of the season, then pay specific travel fees as the season progresses. Knowing about upcoming expenses can help you save ahead of time.
  3. Reduce your costs by buying second-hand sports equipment. Equipment can be one of the biggest costs in youth sports and one of the biggest areas where you can save. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist or retailers like Play It Again Sports are a few places to get used (and cheaper) equipment.
  4. Pool resources to save money. Carpooling for local games or getting a group hotel rate can reduce fuel and travel costs.
  5. Look for volunteer opportunities within the sports organization. By volunteering, you could reduce or eliminate participation fees.
  6. Register as soon as possible. Many sports organizations offer discounts when you register early for games and tournaments.

At the end of the line

With inflation high and youth sports already quite expensive, it’s important to know what to expect when paying for your child’s sports participation so you can prepare ahead of time.

Some ways to reduce the burden of these costs include setting a budget, fundraising, and finding low-cost alternatives. Consider opening a savings account and contributing to it regularly. Then you can build a fund for sports expenses while earning interest.

— The original version of this story was written by Sean Jackson.

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