The parents at my children's school must think I'm getting kickbacks from my local gym. Whenever I overhear them complaining about the costs of their children's sports, I tell whoever will listen how much I value my family's YMCA membership.
This is the spiel I give: I used to spend $60 a month just on swimming lessons for my two kids. Now, for $120 a month, the whole family gets unlimited gym access, which includes swimming lessons, martial arts and dance classes, crafts, a number of indoor sports, including soccer and basketball, a games room and a giant bouncy castle - my children's favourite.
There's affordable child care on site, special events and camps, and the YMCA offers financial help for families who cannot afford to pay the membership fee.
As an added bonus, my children's portion of the membership - $60 a month - qualifies for the children's fitness tax credit, for which the gym sends a receipt each year. You can claim up to $500 a year for each child under 16 enrolled in a qualifying program. These programs are generally those that last at least eight weeks, or five consecutive days for camps, and involve strenuous physical activity. More details are available on the Canada Revenue Agency website.
Of course, my kids also have interests that my gym doesn't offer, such as skating and piano lessons. For those, I head to my city's parks and recreation department. The classes are large and run through local community centres, which keeps the costs low - sometimes starting at as little as $4 per class. The quality is usually not as high as a private instructor would offer, but it allows us to try new activities and not sweat it too much if the kids lose interest halfway through.
Here are a few more ways to control your spending on children's activities:
1. Think secondhand
Every spring, a girlfriend and I make a list of our most-wanted items, along with our children's shoe and clothing sizes, and scour our respective neighbourhood garage sales for gently used bikes, skates and other equipment. Resale clothing and sporting goods stores are a good source for discounted items, as are websites like Kijiji, Craigslist and Freecycle, where you can sometimes find parents offering up used equipment for free. Don't cheap out when it comes to safety, however. Helmets and life jackets, unless you know and trust the donor, should be bought new.
2. Buy in bulk
For certain activities, you may qualify for a discount of up to 40 per cent for each additional child who signs up for lessons after the first enrolment. Keeping activities in the family also allows you to reuse the equipment you buy.
3. Sign up early
Many private leagues and camps offer early-bird discounts for those who sign up well before the season starts.
4. Keep it local
Public leagues are much more economical than private clubs, which often require children to travel out of town to play in tournaments.
5. Try before you buy
Ask if it's possible to sample a class before you commit. Alternatively, try a week-long March Break or summer camp, rather than sign up for a whole season. Find out if you can borrow or rent equipment from the league while you decide.
6. Avoid expensive sports
Fees and equipment costs vary greatly for different sports. According to Investopedia.com, the expensive sports are hockey, cycling, riding, gymnastics and cheerleading, so if you're trying to stay on budget, encourage a love of economical sports, such as swimming, football, baseball, tennis and running.
7. Swap your skills
If you love to bake and a neighbour plays the guitar, offer to have their children over for kitchen classes in exchange for music lessons. Use your imagination.
8. Even cheaper: free activities
Find out which sports teams your child's school organizes and sign them up. Community centres and libraries often offer free activities for kids. And don't overlook your local parks and beaches. Tossing a Frisbee, going for a bike ride or kicking around a soccer ball won't cost you a cent.