How to raise good children without blowing the budget

4 Minute Read | Author: Sylvia Pennington

Finally got your breath back after opening the Christmas credit card statement? For many Aussie parents, a second wave of expenditure follows hot on the tail of the festive season tab, as the first tranche of fees for extra-curricular activities becomes due.

While some families limit children to one or two cultural or sporting pursuits a year, others devote a large slice of time and budget to clubs, teams and activities.

Sydney mother of three Melissa Sutherland is among the big spenders. Her daughters, Laura, 12, and Katie, 10, learn two instruments apiece. Weekly piano lessons come in at $30 a girl, while private lessons on the clarinet and trumpet respectively cost a further $30 apiece. Both girls play in the school band, which attracts an annual fee of $430 a child.

Younger brother Ben, 5, tickles the ivories in a group class at $20 a week. Sporting activities account for the remainder of the family's spend. There's swimming lessons for Ben at $16 a week and football at $60 a season, netball for the girls at $165 apiece, plus a uniform fee of $100, and in summer all three do Little Athletics at $100 a head.

It's a schedule that fills the week and empties the wallet, particularly at the start of winter, when the sports subs are due all at once, but that's the price of having well-rounded children, Sutherland says.

''I'm always running round,'' she says.

''When you add it all up … we're aware of the cost. I like to keep them busy. I think music and sport are important.

''We're pretty lucky that we can afford to have the kids involved in these things.''

The majority of parents appear to share her view. In 2011-12, 60 per cent of the 2.8 million Australian children aged five to 14 took part in at least one organised sport outside school hours, the Australian Bureau of Statistics says. Just over one-third of the cohort participated in at least one cultural activity - playing an instrument, dancing, drama - during the same period.

They're expensive years for parents and annual outlays of up to $5000 a child are not unusual in families where children do three or more activities, Melbourne financial adviser Steve Enticott says. ''For most people it is a fair impost, unless you're in the top 5 per cent,'' he says. ''It's the whole middle-aged, middle-life era where [children are] costing us pretty much everything we've got.''

Under pressure

Founder of the Stay at Home Mum website Jody Allen says many parents feel under pressure to enrol their kids in multiple activities, partly because of research which indicates those who participate in music and sports perform better academically.

''It's a huge cost and a cost that most normal families can't really afford,'' she says. ''Lots of parents are giving up a lot to make it happen.''

Those looking to curb their spend should consider limiting children to one activity for which they show genuine interest, Allen says: ''No point forcing them into things you like.'' Take advantage of free council sports days and complimentary first lessons to gauge children's interest before shelling out big bucks on tuition and equipment, she advises.

Other ways to cut costs include volunteering as a coach or team manager - a contribution which may allow your child to participate gratis, holding a sausage sizzle to offset uniform costs and selling old gear.

Or get the family to chip in, suggests Eugenie Pepper, co-owner of the childrenswear label Plum and mother of two.

Her son, Tommy, 5, attends a sports program four afternoons a week, at a cost of $600 a term. His tab also includes art and swimming lessons, at $250 and $330 a term respectively, and Nippers at $190 a year.

Daughter Chloe, 4, attends dance and swimming lessons at $210 and $330 a term respectively and is set to start a pre-school literacy program at $30 a week. Collectively, the costs are a major hip-pocket hit.

''It's a big whack at the beginning of each term when you have to pay them upfront,'' Pepper says. ''It is tough … even though we've got our own business, we're expanding, we've got to watch money.''

She asks the children's grandparents to cover a term of classes, in lieu of a gift, if a birthday or special occasion coincides with the bills. ''They're happy to pay - they see that [the children] have so many toys.''

Top tips

Saxophone lessons and soccer subs draining your wallet? Here are some tips for managing your spend.

  • Take advantage of complimentary first lessons before buying uniforms and equipment for new activities – your child’s interest may not outlast the session.
  • Get involved – coaching or managing a team could earn your child a freebie for the season.
  • Don’t let old uniforms and equipment molder – sell them and use the proceeds to defray the costs of the latest activity.
  • Set an activities budget and ask the children to help decide how it should be allocated.