How NOT To Go Broke as a Youth Sports Parent: 4 Major Ways You Can Start Saving Money Now

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Odds are, if you’ve found your way to this post, you’ve dropped some serious cash on your kids sports lives!  Well don't fret, these 4 tips will help you start saving, like yesterday!


Odds are, if you’ve found your way to Sideline Society, you’ve dropped some serious cash on youth sports. Former U.S. soccer goalie Hope Solo recently said that many families were being priced out of soccer, with an average of $15,000 being spent annually. Time magazine cites a survey that found that the average was closer to $1400. In my area in Florida, it is possible to join a recreation soccer league for $75, plus new cleats and shin guards. Add obligatory orange slices, and you’re done. But as kids get older, the maximum can certainly approach the $15K mark, especially if they join a higher-level team.

My middle-school son is on a competitive soccer team. Each year, the expenses creep up. We’re not on the Hope Solo level yet, but I can see how people get there. Each year, you add another away tournament to your schedule. This summer, my son went to two out-of-state residential camps. Our club schedule just came out, and this year we have six out-of-town tournaments that require overnight stays, plus all the regular league play. Some parents pay for private lessons. The registration fees, uniforms, hotels, and eating out … it all adds up.   

 
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Soccer isn’t even the most expensive youth sport. That dubious honor goes to lacrosse (average annual cost: $7,956) and hockey (maximum annual cost: $19,000).

My sympathies, parents.

Pay-to-play is definitely a problem, particularly in youth soccer. The San-Diego Union Tribune just had a great article on this. It’s definitely not something I’m going to be able to fix in a blog post.

So given the system as it currently exists, how do we pay for all this? (I’m not going to address the why in great depth. Short answer: So our kids can get sweaty and stay out trouble and because they love it). I’m also assuming that the majority of us are not independently wealthy and diving into gobs of cash a la Scrooge McDuck.

But what I will do, is lay out for you some money-saving tips in order of applicability, with the stuff with the wider appeal for most parents first, followed by stuff that’s better suited for people with kids who are on travel teams or families who just like to travel. There are many ways for our money to work smarter for us. They won’t pay for a whole travel season, but they could ease the strain on our pocketbooks. (Note: I am not compensated by or affiliated with any of the companies I mention.)

Method #1: Save on Gas

If you’re parent to a kid who plays recreational, school, or travel sports or who takes vibraphone lessons, you’re driving them places. We live in Florida, an area where the traffic patterns are drastically different in the summer and the winter. When our season begins in the fall, it maybe takes us 40 minutes to drive to the soccer fields. In January, we have to switch fields and traffic increases exponentially with all the snowbirds, and it can take us 1 ½ hours to get to practice. Rinse and repeat four times a week.

 
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One of the easiest ways we can save money is on gas. For my rewards card, I save at least 5 cents a gallon. That may not sound like a lot, but at any given fill-up, I’m spending 50 cents less than everyone else at the pump. And I can do things to earn a bigger reward, like eating at certain restaurants. I use the Shell Fuel Rewards program, simply because I have a Shell gas station near me that generally has good prices. But Exxon-Mobil, Speedway, and BP also offer their own loyalty programs.

Of course, if you really want to spend less on gas, it pays to drive a vehicle that consumes less to begin with. I drive a station wagon. It’s not sexy, but it sits lower to the ground, so there’s less wind resistance and better fuel economy. My husband has a plug-in sedan with a back-up gas tank. His battery generally lasts him enough to get to work and back every day. The increase in our electric bill was less than the reduction in what he spends on gas. Speaking of saving money, we bought both our cars used and so far, they’ve served us well. No matter what you drive, keeping the tires properly inflated will give you the best fuel economy.

Method #2: Internet Shopping

I’m not saying that the days of our Target and Costco runs are done, but the internet has definitely changed the way we shop. If you don’t start your shopping at a portal, you’re leaving money on the table. I’m talking about Ebates, Upromise, Swagbucks, TopCashBack, Ibotta, and the like. There are a lot of them out there. Cash Back Monitor and EV Reward actually tell you which portal gives you the best deal for a given store. These are new revelations to me!

Here’s how it works: Let’s say your daughter Mabel requires a new lacrosse helmet. You know Dick’s Sporting Goods is running a sale. So you start at Cash Back Monitor and search for Dick’s Sporting Goods. You see that Ebates is offering 5% back. Clicking on the Ebates link brings you to the Dick’s website, where you can do your shopping as normal. When you buy that $109 helmet, 5% or $5.45, goes into your Ebates account. Disclaimer: I don’t know if that’s actually a good price for a lacrosse helmet.

 
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I don’t happen to use Ebates regularly, but only because I have established accounts elsewhere. Upromise is similar, but it deposits that money quarterly into a 529 account for your kid’s college fund. Some of the portals even work with certain Amazon departments. My bank and credit card both allow me to use their sites as a portal to earn cash back or travel points. It’s really free money. Most of these portals also work for booking hotels. More on that later...

Method #3: Credit Cards

If you’re a family that carries a balance on their credit card, then skip this section. No judgment from me. But the credit cards I’m talking about come with bonuses and higher interest rates. If you’re not paying off the balance every month, the bonuses won’t offset what you’re paying in interest. So keep working on paying down the principal. You can do it!

If you do pay off your balance every month without fail, congrats! Now, let’s make sure you’re making your money work smarter for you. The Points Guy has a good post on the best travel rewards credit cards for families. If you’re on a travel team and spend a lot of weekends on the road, I recommend getting a credit card that specifically rewards you with travel points.

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If you tend to fly one airline exclusively, it may be beneficial to use that airline’s credit card to earn frequent flyer miles. Same thing with chain hotels. I’m actually toying with the idea of getting one of these hotel cards. If I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.

A couple years ago, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card was offering a 100,000-point bonus to new customers. It was worth about $1500. I jumped on that. The Points Guy consistently ranks this card high on travel bang for your buck. Chase has dropped their sign-up bonus to 50,000 points, after spending $4000 in the first three months. That’s more in line with other major travel cards. What’s the catch? There’s always a catch. The annual fee for this card is $450 -- that’s high, for sure. But every year, they reimburse you for $300 worth of travel expenses, making the annual fee more like $150.

So what do you get for $150? The biggest perk is the travel points. On restaurant and travel purchases -- hotels, Ubers/Lyfts, airfare, automated tolls -- you get points equivalent to 4.5% of your purchase. If you wind up using the points on non-travel expenses, like gift cards, the value goes down to 3%. For the rest of your purchases, the card gives 1.5% for travel points. The points are flexible -- you can use them for hotels or flights -- and they’re easy to redeem.

I put just about all of our expenses on the credit card and pay it off every month, and the points add up. Last year, I used travel points to fly our family of four up to Boston for Christmas. This year, I booked myself a swanky hotel in Atlanta for an audition and paid for a tournament weekend at an Embassy Suites. All for free. I feel like at the end of the sports year, a lot of families are feeling the financial strain. If you have travel points in your back pocket, those final hotel stays of the year won’t hurt as much. Also, they may allow you to take a (gasp) non-sports-related getaway. I’ve heard those exist, like the Yeti, only warmer and with fewer sharp teeth. In our family, just about everywhere we go involves soccer in some form or another.

This card also comes with other perks that, for me, make up for the $150 fee:

  • Roadside assistance: Sometimes, you can change your own tire or charge your dead battery. Sometimes, the lug nuts are on too tight or you’re stuck on the middle of a Florida midsummer monsoon. Tows are free up to a certain distance.
  • Airport lounge access: You didn’t know you needed this. But it is lovely once you have it. It gives you complimentary entry to the Priority Pass network of lounges. There’s usually food and maybe adult beverages if that suits you. Every time, we give our kids the lecture that they have to behave when we go in. Sometimes it even works. Some of the airports have private rooms with a couch for napping. Since demand for lounges can be high, some airports have a backup location. We got a complimentary lunch at a rustic cafe at London Gatwick because the usual lounge was at capacity. It was fantastic. However, Chase just limited its access to the cardholder and two guests. Not so great for a family of four.
 
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  • Reimbursement of $100 for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, depending on whether you travel more domestically or internationally.

I signed up for TSA Precheck ($85) and gave my husband PreCheck for our anniversary. Yeah, I know taking him in for fingerprinting and asking whether he’s ever been convicted of a felony may not be the most romantic present ever. But one day, I’m hoping he’ll appreciate it. He’ll be able to keep his shoes on in airport security, the TSA agent will wave him on by, butterflies will flutter by, violins will swell, maybe even a flashmob will show up. And he’ll think, “THIS is the greatest gift ever.”

Maybe not.

Probably not.

But I could see him looking over at the longer general security line with its tired children shuffling along, and for just a second, thinking, “Cool.”

Method #4: Hotels

If your child is on a travel team, you definitely need to read this section. It might also be helpful for planning family travel. My husband is team manager, so travel planning often falls to me. P.S., I love doing it.

Say it with me people, “Spuh-read-sheet.” When the year’s schedule comes out, I look at which games and tournaments are far enough from home to necessitate hotel stays, and I enter these into my spreadsheet with the date, location of the field, potential hotels, and whether it’s been booked. Right now, I have six entries. I’ll have to add more as the year goes on.

For some of these events, teams are required to stay at designated tournament hotels, and we have to book through a specific website. I strongly dislike pay-to-stay. It means I’m not able to work my portal magic, and the only bonus I get comes from my credit card. It also limits parent choice. However, it does save time.

For other events, some teams may reserve a block of rooms at the same hotel. We’re just starting to move toward this model. The kids like staying together, and the parents can hang out or coordinate dining/laundry. Based on my limited experience with this, it seems I’ve been able to knock off $10-30 a night. Having the hotel sales director return your calls appears to be the first hurdle.

In some cases, you’re on your own for hotels. In those instances, here are my recommendations.

Step 1: Join the rewards programs for major chain hotels

And others, which all have their own loyalty programs. If you book through a site like Expedia or Kayak, you won’t get to earn hotel points. But if you book on the hotel’s website, you can earn points that can be cashed in for free stays. Put your reward programs into a spreadsheet so you can keep track of them. Include airline and rental car reward programs in here too. I keep my reward ID number and the latest tally of points in there. I don’t know how many reward programs I’ve signed up for and then lost track of. The spreadsheet has saved me.

Step 2: Use Google Maps to scout out what hotels are near your sporting event

Plug in the venue’s address and then use the “nearby” button to check out close hotels. You can also see if the hotel is in the middle of nowhere, near a major highway, or close to a shopping center, just in case little Johnny forgets his left sock at home. It happens. Too often. Google Maps also provides hotel prices and reviews, so you can do a little comparison shopping. You could also do this task on a travel portal like Expedia or Kayak.

Step 3: Once you’ve found a hotel you deem suitable start at one of the portals

(That I mentioned in Step #1).  Free breakfast is nonnegotiable. A kitchen in the room is a major plus.  I recommend using one of the portals of portals (e.g., EV Reward or Cash Back Monitor) so you get the best deal.

Step 4: Going through a portal, book on the hotel’s website using their rewards program and pay with a credit card that will give you extra bonuses for travel (see Method #3).

Okay, that was a lot.

Let’s run through an example. So let’s say after doing your research, you decide to stay at a Holiday Inn that’s $100, a nice round number although a little low for my region. If you start at one of the portal of portals, you’ll see that you can get 8% back on IHG hotels (Holiday Inn’s parent company) if you start at Ebates. So that’s $8 back right away when you book on the IHG website. Then if you book with a credit card that gives 4.5% back for travel, that’s worth $4.50. So that’s $12.50 back total.

Stack on top of that whatever points the IHG rewards program offers, probably around 1000 points. IHG allows you to use your points to help pay for hotel stays beginning at 5000 points, although I don’t believe that amount would fully cover a stay.

What about Airbnb, you ask?

We’ve definitely stayed at our share of Airbnbs. We’ve mostly had favorable experiences. Last year, four team families rented a farmhouse and had the whole team over. Kids were collecting eggs and dangling out of a treehouse. It was magical. But generally speaking, you’re not going to earn loyalty rewards with Airbnb or get a portal discount. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Sometimes, you save money just by cooking your own meals.

Is any of this going to change your life? Probably not. But none of us should be paying full price for this sports travel if we don’t have to.

I’d love to hear how you’ve been able to save money on sports travel. Leave your best tips in the comments below!   


Thanks to Sideline Society Community member and contributor, Kelly Young, for sharing this AH-MAZING post with the community this season!  I definitely think I've been leaving some money on the table, but at least now I know where to find it!

I hope you too find a way to take advantage of these awesome money saving ideas amazing ideas and save some money for next season.

Until next time, Sideline Hacker.  Keep hacking that sideline, because they appreciate you for it, and so do we, for ALL that you do! 

If you're in search of support and community around your #SidelineLife and beyond, check out our FB Group for Sports Moms: Sideline Hackers.

 

Author bio: Kelly Young has been writing as a journalist since 1999.  Her work has appeared in prestigous outlets such as, The Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, USA Today, New Scientist, and more.   

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