NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jodi Furman likes to joke that she should paint her minivan yellow. That's because she basically turns into a taxi driver in the afternoons and on weekends, as she delivers her three children to various sports practices in Palm Beach, Florida. But the bill for all those sports is no laughing matter.
"There are costs for joining teams, for buying equipment, for arranging private lessons, for travel," says Furman, a 38-year-old personal-finance blogger at www.livefabuLESS.com. "It can really add up; I know families who spend over $10,000 a year on sports for their kids. Parents need to go into it with their eyes - and wallets - open."
The Furman family tab is slightly less, but still daunting: Roughly $1,200 a year for her 7-year-old son's hockey, about the same for each of her 4- and 9-year-old daughters' figure skating, and another couple hundred bucks apiece for all three to play soccer. And since kids have a nasty habit of growing, it means more costs every time they sprout a couple of inches and you have to fit them for new gear. But how can you look into their pleading eyes and say no?
"Parents are extremely vulnerable, because we all want the best for our kids," says Mark Hyman, author of "The Most Expensive Game In Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today's Families." "Any time we can help them, we automatically reach for that credit card. And the people in the business of selling all this stuff understand that very well."
That's why the costs associated with kids' sports seem to be ticking up and up. It's now estimated to be a $5 billion annual industry, which Hyman suggests is very conservative.
Parents aren't totally powerless, though, when it comes to kids' sports. There are actually quite a few ways to shave costs, without having to tell little Jimmy that he can forget about lacing up for the local hockey team. You just have to plan it all out beforehand, be smart about your spending, and not whip out the Mastercard for any sports-related whim.
A few tips:
1. Lower your expectations.
Parents have to evaluate what it is they want their kids to get out of the team sports experience. Maybe your kid is a budding superstar like baseball's Alex Rodriguez, but probably not. So instead of buying a $300 aluminum bat and signing them up for an elite club team and all those pricey roadtrips, go for the $40 wooden bat and the local rec league. It doesn't make you a bad parent. "You don't need to buy all that expensive stuff for them to have a quality experience," says Hyman. "They'll still have fun with their friends, but at a fraction of the cost."
2. Choose your sports carefully.
Not all sports are created equal, when it comes to the costs you're going to face. A soccer mom, for instance, sometimes isn't out much more than the cost of cleats and a pair of shin guards, even if those costs alone can add up year-after-year. But then there's a sport like golf, "definitely the most expensive sport our boys have ever played," says Ohio mom-of-two and professional organizer Andrea Sharb.
Just one example: A new set of $1,100 irons. "What we buy: Golf memberships so they can practice, private lessons, equipment, balls, clothing and shoes, and finally tournament entry fees, as well as travel expenses," Sharb says. "The push to excel at a high level is so significant these days that there's a lot of pressure for your child to play in a travel league, or take private lessons, or purchase the very best equipment."
A common-sense solution: If you have room in your schedule for one team sport, and your kid is fine with multiple options, then it's perfectly reasonable to sign him or her up for the one that isn't going to supersize your monthly credit-card bill.
3. Get creative.
With so many families in the same boat, it's a natural opportunity to band together with other parents and negotiate bulk discounts. Alternatively, for families who are particularly hard-pressed, many sports leagues have special programs that waive or reduce registration fees. "There might also be payment plans that will allow you to pay monthly rather than all upfront," says Furman. "Some private coaches and instructors might be willing to negotiate their fees, or be willing to barter for goods or services in lieu of payment."
4. Forget the shiny new equipment.
There's no shame in seeking out used sports equipment, since it's usually just as good and will save you serious cash as kids grow. Some stores even cater specifically to that need, like the national chain Play It Again Sports.
There are also local grassroots efforts to defray costs; the baseball leagues of Mark Hyman's two sons featured annual equipment exchanges, where families could drop off what they didn't need anymore and pick up what they did. If not, consider selling the stuff your kids have outgrown on sites like eBay, to defray the costs of additional purchases. That's what Andrea Sharb did, partially covering the bill for new golf irons by getting $200 for the old set. At least it's something. Sighs Sharb: "It seems there are no inexpensive sports for kids anymore."
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone; Desking by Andrew Hay)