It's peak Alberta summer right now; everything is green, the days are long and the sun is finally shining. Which feels like the worst time to utter those three dreaded words: back-to-school.
But it really is true; the early bird gets the worm. This is an especially apt metaphor for all of the extracurricular activities that start up when September rolls around. After-school and weekend programs like hockey and swim practices, or dance and music classes, can make the school year an even more expensive and busy time for families.
According to a recent survey issued by TD, four in ten (40 per cent) Albertan parents with kids under 18 spend $1,000 or more per child on extracurricular activities during the school year, with another 42 per cent spending up to $999.
Half (51 per cent) of parents say they have to limit the number of, or not sign their kids up for, extracurricular activities due to cost.
Here are a few financial planning tips for the remaining summer weeks to help you set up your loved ones for an eventful and affordable school year.
• Avoid costly surprises: before signing up your child for an extracurricular activity, think beyond the cost of the class itself. Sometimes it's the incidental fees related to that class or league -- such as the purchase of equipment or an instrument, or accommodations for weekend tournaments -- that breaks the bank. Be sure to thoroughly research the class and ask instructors or coaches about all of the materials needed and any extra costs before signing up.
• Before the school year starts, create a budget and stick to it: create a budget for all the annual expenses you can think of related to that extracurricular activity, then add another five to 10 per cent extra to cover potential surprises like the end-of-season framed team photo or a championship sweatshirt. Online budgeting tools can help you determine how much you'll be spending monthly and ensure you stay on track. Saving a little each month and putting it into your savings account or TFSA can also help offset extracurricular expenses.
• Shop around for discounts: you can find bargains on used equipment and gear (and instruments, too) at yard sales or consignment stores, through friends and neighbours, or even online. Considering that kids will most likely outgrow equipment and gear quickly, there are plenty of gently used items available. Look for opportunities to also save on the activity, through group buying options or online deals.
• Don't invest too much off the bat: if your child is young or starting an extracurricular activity for the first time, consider signing them up for classes offered through the city's park and recreation department, as they can be less costly than going the private route. As younger children are still discovering what interests them most, you may not want to invest too much in one activity at this young age.
• File your receipts: keep a record of all your child's extracurricular activity costs and payments as some fitness and art classes could be tax deductible on your tax return. They're also a good reminder of what items you paid for this year when it comes time to plan for the next time around.
Financial planning during the summer can be trying, but the payment for your invested time -- happy, enriched and active kids -- is so worth it.
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This is their extracurricular hobby or leisure time so be sure to see what your child is interested in doing. Don’t push your agenda for what you wish your child would do with his or herself.
See if your child can observe or even participate in the activity before committing. See if they can attend a friend’s class or a drop-in.
Explain to your child that you are paying and making a financial commitment on his or her behalf. When the refund deadline is approaching, have your child make his or her final decision about continuing or dropping out. If they decide to drop out after the refund date (and you are now paying for lessons they are not taking), the child could be asked to contribute financially to offset some of the expenses you’re absorbing. This can be just a symbolic gesture rather than the actual amount you are out, and it should be discussed in advance so the child knows this is part of their decision process. They should not feel this is a punitive action, but simply a way of holding the child accountable, just as you have been. It’s practice at real life.
Keep your upfront investments low until you know your child is deeply in love with their sport or hobby. If you drop a small fortune on a grand piano or top-end hockey equipment, you may feel your child owes you a return on your investment.
Find out what the problem is and try to solve it together. It could be they don’t like their instructor, not karate. It could be the level they were placed in was not a good fit and they feel they are not keeping up. It could be they thought they would be signing up with friends, but the friends got placed in a different group. For some kids it may be they are embarrassed they don’t know their left foot from their right and can’t follow the instructions being given. Rather than abandon the entire class -- solve the problem instead.
And finally, if you have a child who seems to only stay motivated when they are excelling or are at the top of the class, it’s a whole different problem to solve. Some children expect to be good without putting much effort into learning. They want to play piano and guitar like Taylor Swift after the first lesson, or play like Beckham at preschool soccer. These children need to correct their ideas that mistakes are personal shortcomings and instead see them as opportunities to learn. Lessons are about “mistaking your way to success.” Point out how their effort and improvement is leading them to their goals of playing and ensure them that with hard work they’ll get there if they stick it out. Normalize feeling discouraged with the plateaus that can happen and the frustrations of wanting more results. This is the fine art of encouragement and some kids need a lot.
Follow Brian Gervais on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BrianGervais_TD