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Has Your Child Taken Up a Pricey Hobby? There’s a Plan for That.

By Tim Mullaney

  • PUBLISHED February 19
  • |

Money was the farthest thing from my mind in 2012 when I watched my shy sixth-grader fall in love with theatre in front of my eyes. During the opening night of “The Full Monty” at a community theater, I watched as Sam got a laugh from the audience, and his eyes went big. 

He looked right at me—did I do that? I nodded back—yup. He beamed and went back to work.

But as my 12-year-old’s hobby grew into a passion, and maybe a career, I’ve had to make the concepts of art and money work together. And I’m not alone. It’s increasingly common for kids to develop pricey hobbies as they age into adolescence, forcing moms and dads to figure out how to make it work.

More than half a million kids play youth hockey—a neighbor of mine, whom I’ll call Hockey Dad—said he spent $17,000 last year on his son’s hockey. Other families on his teams (yes, plural) spend thousands more on private lessons. 

Almost a million Americans play youth football, and millions more play some form of youth soccer. Youth sports is a $15.5 billion industry—about the same as the NFL—according to Wintergreen Research. Spending $1,000 or more a month on it as a family is common.

If it’s not sports, the arts might light your adolescent’s fire. Voice lessons go for $100 an hour and up, as I’d discover while Sam explored his new love for musical theatre and acting. Acting lessons are in the same ballpark. Piano lessons can go for $60 per hour—or more for top teachers. 

In the last year, my wife and I have spent at least $6,000 for Sam to pursue his passion. That includes $2,200 for camp, $1,600 for application and audition fees for college theatre programs, and an amount I haven’t even tracked for lessons. And that doesn’t count the biggest expense—an arts school for his senior year in high school. It also doesn’t count the travel, including the four 1,000-mile round trips to school so far, the run to Michigan this summer for theatre camp and the many local jaunts for rehearsals.

So, How to Pay for It?
If you see your child’s new passion coming early enough, or begin your parenting journey with the knowledge that $10 plastic toys will eventually give way to pricier demands later (and trust me this happens), you could begin saving early, just as you try to do for college or retirement. 

It often doesn’t have to be much—a little bit salted away every month from birth in a savings account or certificate of deposit would have been more than equal to Sam’s theatre addiction a dozen years later. You could put aside money from cash gifts, too; this is a much better use of any money a six-year-old boy might get than buying his 10 millionth Yu-Gi-Oh! card. 

You can ask your child to swap his or her lessons or ice time for chores—if a teenager were to replace a housecleaning or lawn service, for example, that would cover up to half of many families’ expenses.

Families use lots of financial strategies to pay for their kids’ love of the arts, said Ellen Lettrich, a Manhattan coach who runs MT College Auditions, which helps high school juniors and seniors through a selective process to get into theatre camps.

Here are some of the strategies she’s seen—and some tricks I’ve used or observed myself.

●    Start small. My son didn’t head to an arts school after one opening-night laugh. He started with a weeklong day camp 15 minutes from home and some local group improv classes. Only after three years of theatre camp, and many more community-theatre roles, did we step up to voice lessons and expensive camps.
●    Build the costs into things you’re going to do anyway. Six years ago, our two-income family still needed summer day care, and Shakespeare camp wasn’t notably more expensive than a sitter. In fact, it was probably cheaper. Two summers ago, we built our summer vacation around our son’s camp in Chicago, seeing museums while he was at camp during the day. We made it our business to save part of the camp tuition by using cheaper hotels. This past summer, we built college visits around his camp in Michigan.
●    Volunteer. A coach of one of Hockey Dad’s several club teams is one of my friends, whose son is on the team. My friend helps coach in part for a break on the club tuition. Similarly, Lettrich said, high-school-age performers can often get a break on lessons by volunteering to help teach classes for their teachers’ younger pupils.
●    Barter. One of Lettrich’s former clients is a Broadway star whose mother bartered his dance lessons for graphic and web design services. Some kids can run a coach’s or program’s social media presence to work down coaching fees. 
●    Ask. In some cases, a youth who makes a big impression as a performer early can raise coaching money from crowdsourcing, Lettrich said. Also, both sports and performing arts programs often have scholarship aid—but you have to ask, Lettrich said. It’s not like college, where the financial-aid question is raised with nearly every student, she added. In Hockey Dad’s world, he said the more affluent parents accept that their fees help hold down costs for less wealthy families.

Then, and only then, should you think about college scholarships as a way to get a return on your investment, because most kids will never get there. My family will likely save $20,000 to $30,000 on college over four years, thanks to arts scholarships. But we were five years into this as a family before it became clear that Sam could compete at that level. Hockey Dad’s been at it for at least that long, and isn’t counting on his son ever playing in college.

Why Do It? Lots of Reasons
Team sports have always had the reputation for developing team play in kids, as well as the fortitude to excel that serves them in any field. That’s at least as true in a dance troupe putting on “The Nutcracker” for thousands of people, as well. The kind of focus it takes to dance or play sports at a high level makes those young people naturally good at rigorous professions like law, according to Lindsay Bierman, chancellor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Some acting training comes in handy for even mundane corporate presentations, he added, and organizing complex shows is great preparation for lots of jobs.

And it make the kids better people. An expensive hobby that turns into more can give them a passion that makes them strive, makes them grow and expands their horizons. And making kids our better, broader people is the business parents are in, after all. 

Tim Mullaney is a New York-based financial writer whose work has appeared in BusinessWeek, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post magazine and many others. His son is auditioning for a dozen leading college drama programs in winter 2019.

Learn how a CD ladder can help you build funds for your child’s hobbies into the future.

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