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When my teenage son announced he wanted to return to playing baseball, I was thrilled. Who doesn’t love sitting by a park diamond on a summer evening, watching a bunch of kids play ball?

Like many parents, though, I was surprised by how expensive organized sports had become. At a time when higher interest rates and mortgage payments, coupled with soaring inflation, are hurting household budgets across the country, how are families paying for such activities?

I grew up playing softball. Back then, my parents – who supported four children on one income – could comfortably afford the cost of registration, a glove from Canadian Tire and a pair of cleats.

But things are different now. There’s pressure on parents to give their kids the best of everything, and sports are far more intense than they were three decades ago. This means more time, more commitment and more money.

Canadian kids love their sports. More than four million children between the ages of three and 17 – 67 per cent – play an organized sport or take part in an activity, according to a January, 2023, survey from Solutions Research Group (SRG), a consumer research consultancy. Soccer was the most popular sport, followed by swimming, hockey, basketball, dance and gymnastics.

House league sports are quite affordable – a season of T-ball is about $250. As you start moving up in age and level of competition, the costs go up too – the registration for Rep baseball is $1,000, plus the uniform and equipment.

Then there’s the big cost: tournaments. They often involve travel, which means a night or two at a hotel, dinners out with the team, Tim Hortons runs and gas. It’s pretty easy to spend $1,000 on a weekend away.

What’s the total price tag? A 2019 survey by banking app FlipGive and Scotiabank showed that almost 60 per cent of parents spent more than $5,000 a year on sports, with 41 per cent spending as much as $10,000. The main costs are registration and fees, travel and transportation, equipment, clothing and shoes. And it’s not just hockey that’s expensive; activities such as competitive dance and cheerleading each cost about $8,000 a year.

For many families, this would be the biggest line item in the budget after housing, childcare and food. It’s a year’s worth of property taxes, a family vacation or eating out once a week. And that’s just for one child.

One of trickiest things about competitive sports is the cost creep. Chris Scheele, a financial planner in Edmonton who specializes in working with parents whose kids play high-level sports, said: “You see your kid fall in love with a sport and you just go with it and then, all of a sudden, you can see these costs creep up and you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

So how can parents manage these costs?

The first task is to check in with your child: Do they love it enough to play at the highest level? Talk with them about the time commitment they’ll need to make. And be honest about the fact that it’s a financial commitment for you and that there could be tradeoffs for the family.

If your kid loves it, and you’ve decided that you’re all in, find out how much this is really going to cost. Ask the coach for a cost breakdown and talk to other parents whose kids play that sport.

Next, look at all your spending for the past year and add it up. Include every dinner out, every haircut, every birthday gift you bought. Compare what you’re spending – and saving – to your take-home pay. Is the money there? What might you give up in order to fit this in? Mr. Scheele says sacrifices are common and vacations are one thing many sports families give up.

Another option for keeping costs in check is to see what you can cut out. Many sports have “extras” that are optional. Some of these extras – like a skating coach – can add as much as $5,000 a year to the cost of a hockey season.

Finally, talk to other parents about whether they need to attend every ski race, every volleyball tournament or every training camp. Chances are some are also feeling the financial pinch.

Anita Bruinsma is a Toronto-based financial coach and a parent of two teenage boys. You can find her at Clarity Personal Finance.

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