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How to meet the rising costs for student athletes

Maureen Dare of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a Detroit suburb, has a full schedule when it comes to her sons' athletics. Connor, 16, plays travel baseball, with an eye towards playing in college. Phillip, who is 14, is rising in the ranks of high school lacrosse. Between games and practices, the family frequently travels on weekends—and, often, out of state.

Hotels —often of questionable quality — can cost more than $100 a night. Boarding her dogs while she is away costs another $300. Feeding a family on the road can be expensive--and, sometimes, unhealthy. Last year, she estimates that she spent about $2,000 just on travel for her kids' sports.

So Dare, who works in marketing for a car company, decided to take a different path to keep her sons' sports travel affordable: She bought a camper, which has a monthly payment of $275.

“We're already looking at next year's schedule, and mapping out where the campgrounds are," Dare says. “That way, one of the boys can bring a friend and hang out at the campsite, rather than being bored watching their brother play a game they have no interest in."

Dare says they can prepare their own food in the camper, since it has a full kitchen. They can also bathe or just hang out. She says that campsite fees are only about $60 a night. Between cooking their own food and being able to bring her dogs along, she estimates she will save about $800 a month.

Dare's choice to buy a camper may seem extreme. But for her family, it's a logical solution to the rising costs of youth sports. It used to be that if your children wanted to play a sport, you'd sign them up for a local league, or they simply played on the high school team. These days, however, club and travel teams are often the most competitive, adding an extra expense to families' budgets.

In a 2015 study, The National Council on Youth Sports reported that the average family spends $671 on youth sports each year--and some families spend more than $1,000 per child. But since the benefits of sports have been well documented — the National Council of Youth Sports reports it increases everything from physical fitness to cognitive health to social skills —it's an expense that many parents are often willing to foot.

Here are some ways to cut the costs, without taking away from the fun or life lessons sports offer:

How necessary is that camp, clinic, or travel team? Davis Whitfield, the chief operating officer at the National Federation of High School Sports, says that when considering the costs of any sports program, parents should be clear about why they are doing it.

“Parents need to ask themselves, 'How often does my kid need to be seen in order to be considered for any kind of college play?'"

He says that high school programs are usually more than enough for college recruitment. If a student really is Division I material, Whitfield says that by their freshman or sophomore year of high school they will have had some serious interest from colleges.

Take time off: Whitfield says that even though there are leagues and camps year-round for most sports, children need to take time off. Otherwise, the risk they be injured, or burn out, increases. “You don't want a kid throwing out his arm at age 14," he says.

Go rec league when you can: Local recreation leagues through community centers and YMCAs are great places to build skills and enjoy a sport without being overly competitive or expensive. It's also a great way to sample several sports. Sometimes, however, club and travel teams are the only option. Parents should explore the best fit for their child's abilities.

Melanie Sheridan, a digital marketing strategist who lives in Carlsbad, California, has a 13-year-old son who is passionate about ice hockey. Unfortunately, it's not a sport offered at his high school. If her son wants to keep playing as a teenager—and evolve to any level of college play—she has to keep him in the travel teams, despite the costs.

Set limits on what you are willing to spend: There may be no way around buying new cleats or sneakers every year. But Sheridan says that she puts a limit on what she will spend on equipment such as hockey sticks, never going above a certain price limit.

"Just because his favorite player has a certain kind of stick, that doesn't mean it's right for him," she says. "When we buy gear we make sure it's appropriate for his age and the position he plays."

Used gear is also a good idea. Kids don't hit very hard, so items like shoulder pads and gloves don't get worn out, kids just outgrow them.

Ask about payment plans: Registration and tournament fees can be steep, so always ask if you can space out payments.

Pack food for after practice: It's normal that kids will be hungry after practice or a game, but hitting the local fast food spot, especially with a carpool of kids, can get expensive. Sheridan says that she encourages her son to pack a cooler of food for after practice. It's healthier and underscores that fast food is not part of the budget.

Encourage fundraisers: Even if parents can afford club and registration fees, Sheridan suggests having kids hold fundraisers, as she does with her son, so they understand there is a cost for playing. She says that club dues can be as high as $3200 a year, with an extra $1200 for tournament fees, so it's important to raise as much as they can.

“It helps kids take ownership of their sport," Sheridan says. “I also make my son pay for his own sock and stick tape so that he doesn't waste it or let all his friends use it."

Use creative carpooling: If a tournament is out of town—and every parent doesn't need to drive or even attend—consider packing the kids into as few cars as possible and have someone else drive with the gear. This can save on gas and give other parents a reprieve from constant traveling.

"I specifically bought a car that can seat up to seven kids, " Sheridan says. "When we went to Lake Tahoe, a bunch of kids piled into my car, while another parent drove a pick up truck with all the bags and sticks in the back."

Club sports and clinics have become the norm for youth sports. But, Whitfield says, "We're putting too much stock in them." He says parents should understand their motives for putting their kids into them. It's fine to pick up a few sports. But the truth is, a kid doesn't need to play 70 games a year.

For more tips and resources on mastering your finances, visit chase.com/financialfitness.

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