Advertiser Disclosure

News

How to Make Your Child’s Expensive Activity Fit Your Family Budget

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

iStock

Every time the Olympics roll around, we hear stories about parents making significant financial sacrifices to raise elite athletes. But if you have kids, you don’t need to raise an Olympian to know that supporting a talented, passionate child can strain the family budget.

Roughly 40 percent of American families spend more than $1,000 a year on their children’s extracurricular activities, and 20 percent spend more than $2,500 annually, according to a January SunTrust survey of about 510 adults.

Some families spend a lot more.

MagnifyMoney spoke to three families with children who have exceptional interests or talents in sports, arts or cultural experiences to learn about the costs, decision-making processes and money-saving tips related to helping their children pursue their passions. While families have different priorities and values, they have one thing in common: They want the best for their children and have to make financial sacrifices to make it work.

Common obstacles

Deferring retirement savings

Peggy Chen and her daughter, Sophia, who is holding her trophies from piano competitions. (Courtesy of Peggy Chen)

Peggy Chen, 58, of East Brunswick, N.J., is a single mother who supported her daughter Sophia, now 32, and son Albert, 28, as they pursued their musical talents and passions growing up. The siblings eventually became professional musicians, one a pianist, and the other a violinist. But in order to focus on her children’s futures, Chen had to put hers on the back burner. She didn’t save for retirement while raising the kids.

The costs were high from the beginning. Growing up, Sophia played three pianos, including a Steinway grand piano the family bought for about $25,000 when Sophia was 9. She took an hourlong lesson with a top-notch piano instructor each week, who charged $70 an hour in the 1990s. If she was preparing for contests, the lesson would last 30 minutes longer. Chen herself accompanied Sophia to almost every single piano lesson and competition. The constant piano maintenance, tuning, travel and lodging for competitions also ate away a huge part of the family disposable income.

“There was no budget,” Chen said matter-of-factly. “We’d squeeze out however much money was needed to pay for her practices and performances.”

Chen’s then-husband took home about $25,000 a year as an accountant. Chen, a violin teacher, supplemented family income by giving lessons at home. Although barely scraping by, the couple wanted to give the best to their first child, developing her talent in any way they could.

When Sophia was in 8th grade, Chen and her husband divorced. Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant who had never worked in the U.S. and couldn’t even tell the difference between a checking and savings account at the time, had to work three jobs. Her top priority was making monthly mortgage payments to avoid being homeless.

Even at such a difficult time, Chen continued paying $70 for Sophia’s weekly piano lessons. Being extremely frugal allowed her to take care of the necessities and support her budding musicians.

“I’d be thrilled if I saw a penny on the ground, as if I won a lottery,” she said. “I didn’t dare to waste a nickel.”

Still, Chen said she had no financial planning. She only started saving for retirement a few years ago, when Sophia and Albert had both graduated from college.

Putting off paying down debt

The Rechkemmer family from Iowa has five children. It is not easy for the parents to financially support all the children’s extracurriculars. (Courtesy of Molly Rechkemmer)

Josh and Molly Rechkemmer live with their five children in a suburb outside of Iowa City, Iowa. He is an architect and she a part-time academic adviser and lecturer at the University of Iowa.

Their kids — Gracie,18; Sam, 16; Hannah, 13; Kate, 11; and Luke, 9 — are all involved in arts or athletic activities. Most days, each kid has two things going on after school.

The family is constantly in their minivan, traveling to different games, auditions, training sessions, competitions and rehearsals. The busy schedule has meant their finances are always tight.

Despite painstakingly budgeting and planning ahead for big payments, covering expenses for the kids’ extracurriculars have hampered the Rechkemmers’ ability to pay down debt quickly. The couple has credit card debt, a mortgage, car loans and student loan debt.

“Partly we try to do it wisely, and partly we just also know that we’re only going to have these kids in our house for what? Ten years,” Molly said. “And so we want to do things for them to help them develop.”

Prioritizing their children’s activities means spending thousands of dollars they could otherwise put toward their debt.

“I think almost a minimum per kid per year is easily $1,000 on the low end, and probably $3,000 to $4,000 on the high end,” Josh said.

Private sport teams with out-of-town competitions are particularly expensive. The parents have to pay for all of the uniforms, training and tournament fees and travel. Just for one season of one club sport, the cost for this big family easily adds up to at least $1,000.

Choosing what’s ‘fair’ when you have multiple kids

When there’s more than one child, it’s not always easy to decide who gets more resources from the family budget.

For the Rechkemmers, it could mean going with inexpensive recreational sports leagues instead of a club team, Molly said. But other times they would go for the more costly option, like the club teams, if they see a gift requiring a higher level of time and financial commitment.

“We’d love to say it’s always proactive, that we’ve intentionally made those decisions and thought it all through,” Molly said. “But a lot of the times it’s also reactive. An activity comes up and we have to make a decision whether or not they get to do it.”

Molly acknowledged that they haven’t always made the perfect decisions. There are things the family had heavily invested in, but the kids eventually lost interest. Retrospectively, they also realized that they might not have done enough for other kids.

Albert is playing the piano as his sister Sophia watches. (Courtesy of Peggy Chen)

Chen said she had never expected it would cost so much to develop Sophia’s piano talent. When it came to her second child, Albert, she downgraded the spending — she gave Albert violin lessons herself.

“I taught him myself, and he sat in the first chair,” Chen said. “I thought it was enough: no competitions, no anything else.”

Albert graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and violin performance. He now studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Making trade-offs

Emmeline dePillis and her family at the local Shichi Go San festival in 2008. Maria, then 7, is dressed in kimono on the right. (Courtesy of Emmeline dePillis)

Emmeline dePillis is a business professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, on the southernmost island of Hawaii where a large population of Japanese immigrants live.

Her older daughter, Maria, partly of Japanese descent, is passionate about Japanese language and culture. She is getting ready for her third extended trip to Japan.

For her last two trips, Maria went in a group where her school covered some expenses, but the family still had to pay more than $1,500 out of pocket each time. It cost less than if they had planned and paid for the trips themselves, dePillis said, but sending Maria on those trips meant putting off other purchases.

“Each time we were like, ‘Well, that’s a lot of money, but that’s a good deal,’” dePillis said. “And she loves it so much. It was like, ‘Well, maybe we can’t buy a new refrigerator this year, but it’s worth it because it’s such a good opportunity.’”

In the Rechkemmer family, a lot of other entertainment activities have to go: movies, concerts and short family vacations.

“Instead of planning a long weekend to take our family to Chicago and doing things like the planetarium, the aquarium and all those things, we might have a long weekend in Chicago where we spend most of the time at a baseball tournament,” Molly said.

How to make it work

Financial planners say plainly there are no perfect solutions to fund children’s expensive hobbies. But they stress that families need to take a holistic view of their finances, understand the level of risks and discuss with the entire family — yes, kids included — to make sure everyone understands the commitments and agrees on the sacrifices to be made.

To help families facing tough financial decisions around paying for kids’ activities, we gathered advice from parents and experts who have experienced these dilemmas firsthand:

1. Prioritize family values

dePillis said her family decided to fund their daughter’s Japan trips because her husband and her both value education highly.

“We see our daughter’s passion for Japanese culture as an educational thing,” dePillis said. “This is not just, ‘Oh, I’m going for fun.’ So if it’s ‘Let’s go to Disneyland’ versus ‘Let’s give Maria a chance to go to Japan for this educational experience,’ we would choose the educational experience for her.”

Prioritizing family values is the most important step to take in the decision-making process, experts say. There are no right or wrong decisions, but ultimately, the parents should thoroughly think why they are investing in the hobbies.

“The real way to be successful at this is to really identify what the family goals are, and then trying to balance out what their goals are for the future with what they think they can realistically provide for,” said John Rivers, a Clinton, N.J.-based financial planner at Newroads Financial Group.

2. Make a budget

In the Rechkemmer family, Josh, the father, tracks family spending almost religiously on spreadsheets, and he tries to budget for upcoming activities far ahead to make sure that they wouldn’t be hit by unexpected expenses.

The family budget for kids’ recreational and entertainment activities could go up to $10,000 a year. That translates to 10 percent of the family income.

Experts say there is no formula of how much should be spent on children’s hobbies that fits all families — again, it depends on family prioritization — but they do need to set a budget, look at the family finances holistically and trim expenses elsewhere.

3. Cut back on spending

When it comes to trimming expenses, pros say it’s more likely that the family’s lifestyle needs to change.

For example, when someone in the Rechkemmer family has a weekend sports tournament, they minimize the number of family members staying overnight in a hotel. For holidays and birthdays, Molly and Josh give practical presents for their kids, such as sports equipment, instead of the trendy electronic toys that their children long for.

Sam Rechkemmer plays baseball in May 2015. (Courtesy of Molly Rechkemmer)

For Chen, diligent saving on every single thing helped her get through the tough years. She barely had any expenses for herself.

“My life was pretty much bare-bones,” Chen recalled. “I’d always only buy food that passed expiration dates or was about to expire. You wouldn’t die eating it, anyway.”

Jude Boudreaux, founder of New Orleans-based Upperline Financial Planning, said the best strategy he’s seen is downsizing a family home. A client of his sold their big home and moved into a much smaller space — with no mortgage — to free up cash to pay for children’s activities.

Boudreaux said, typically, it’s easier to cut a family’s big-ticket expenses to make financial wiggle room. Parents need to make conscious decisions about whether or not to buy cars, or send their children to private schools if they also hope to develop their hobbies, he said.

But there is a bottom line: “Taxes must be paid. Utilities must be paid. Insurance must be paid,” said Lauren G. Lindsay, a financial adviser based in Covington, La.

After paying all the fixed bills and life necessities, families can look at the discretionary expenses and trim spending based on family priorities, Lindsay said.

4. Eliminate activities when needed

For the most part, the Rechkemmers try to stick to their budget, but there are moments when things get out of hand. The couple has periodically paused and reflected on the reasons they do all these activities.

“If it is to develop good friendships and stay active and be healthy and finding enjoyment in life, then that doesn’t need to come with the high burden of debt and so much stress,” Molly said. “If [the activities are] putting us into debt and causing so much stress, then it’s time to rethink if it’s all worth it and try to kind eliminate some things.”

5. Look for other resources or sources of income

Chen, the avid saver, said being thrifty wasn’t enough — she had to find other ways to earn more to support the family. Often she found herself participating in laboratory tests, earning $10 here and $20 there. Little things add up, she said.

At times, the mother and children all used their skills to support the family: Chen taught violin upstairs, Sophia taught piano downstairs and Albert went to students’ homes to tutor them in math.

You may be able to find outside help, too. For example, having Maria go on group educational trips allowed the dePillis family to save, as the school covered a large chunk of the expenses.

Lindsay encourages parents to explore financial aid opportunities before shelling out money for expensive extracurriculars, as some local camps and sports associations offer scholarships.

6. Talk to the children

Experts say the biggest “no no” when it comes to investing in children’s extracurricular activities is not consulting their opinions.

“Make sure it really is for them, not for us,” said Boudreaux, a parent himself. “Check our egos at the gate when we make the decisions.”

The kids need to be involved in the decision-making and understand the financial sacrifices the family is making, to make sure they will be as committed to the choice as parents are, Boudreaux said.

The dePillis family did that with Maria, and they worked out a plan together.

Maria is expected to enroll in the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Japanese Studies program in the fall. She has made an agreement with her parents to stay in state for college. The in-state tuition is about $7,200 a year. Maria has also agreed to stay home during college so she could avoid taking out student loans.

“If she had gone to an out-of-state school, we would be paying $20,000 a year or more,” dePillis said. “I mean, imagine saving that kind of money. We feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, we will send you to Japan as much as you want.’”

7. Understand the consequences

The reason why these decisions are tough is that essentially, every spending choice is a trade-off, and it’s hard for parents to picture potential future risks, Boudreaux said.

Some trade-offs, such as deferring retirement or putting off paying debt can have severe consequences, experts say. In general, financial planners suggest parents put themselves and their futures first.

“Kids can get their own loans, and we can’t borrow for retirement down the road,” Rivers said.

However, in families where children are expected to support their parents in their old age, maybe it’s worth making those sacrifices now, experts say. In that case, parents should explicitly and appropriately communicate with their children about the expectations.

Chen said she has no regrets about putting off saving for her retirement.

“She was so good,” Chen said. “It would have been a pity if she had given up after a certain level.”

Sophia eventually studied piano performance and English at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music. She became a journalist after graduation, but still keeps performing. “I am pleased that she has piano as a great lifelong companion,” Chen said.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Shen Lu
Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen Lu at [email protected]

Advertiser Disclosure

News

How to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

iStock
Parents often revel in the calm and quiet that comes when kids head back to school, but they aren’t likely to enjoy the excess spending that also accompanies the back-to-school season. According to the National Retail Federation, parents will set a record in 2019, spending an average of $696.70 per household on children in elementary school through high school.

 

“It was interesting to see the across-the-board increases in spending levels,” said Mark Mathews, vice president for research development and industry analysis with the NRF. “Elevated levels of consumer sentiment, healthy household balance sheets, low inflation and recent wage gains all seem to be contributing to a confident consumer who is willing to spend money on back-to-school supplies.”

If you’re planning a trip to the store before classes start, there are a few ways to curb the spending and save some bucks.

Plan ahead

No parent should set foot out the door for back-to-school shopping without first taking stock of what they already have. Plenty of old supplies from previous years might still be usable, especially arts and crafts items like crayons, pencils and pens, as well as more expensive things like backpacks, lunch boxes and calculators.

Crossing a few items off your list is a good first step when it comes to saving, but learning how to budget is also important. It’s tempting to run down the back-to-school aisle and grab every colorful notebook and snazzy pencil case in sight, but it doesn’t make a lot of financial sense. Create a realistic budget based on the items you actually need, and try your best to stick to it. If possible, do most of your shopping online, since it’s easier to keep a running tally of how much you’re spending as you shop.

Be smart about sales

Although you’re bound to run into many back-to-school sales this time of year, you don’t need to buy 12 notebooks just because they’re cheaper right now. In fact, you shouldn’t assume the sales price is the best price at all, said consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. Instead, always comparison shop.

“Run a quick Google search online or on your phone to see if another store is selling the same or a similar item for less,” she said. “Most big box stores will price match, so you won’t even have to drive to another store to get the better deal.” For example, Target,Staples and Walmart all have price matching policies.

Clip coupons and shop discount stores

Coupons have definitely made a digital comeback, with countless apps and websites dedicated to listing all your options in one place. “Spending a few minutes looking for coupons can help you get a better discount,” Woroch said. “Use apps like CouponSherpa, for instance. Or, use the Honey browser tool, which automatically searches and applies relevant coupons to your online order.”

Many stores also offer discounts to valued customers who sign up for their rewards program, like Walgreens and CVS, while craft stores like Michaels regularly offer discounts. Don’t knock purchasing basics like paper and writing supplies from the Dollar Tree, either — you might be surprised by what you find, and those types of items are often the same quality wherever you buy them.

Tax advantage of tax-free holidays

On select dates throughout the year, different states offer state sales tax holidays, or days where you can purchase items without having to pay sales tax on them. You can find a full list of the 2019 state sales tax holidays here, but some upcoming ones include:

  • August 18-24: Connecticut, clothing and footwear
  • August 17-18: Massachusetts, specific items costing less than $2,500 per item

Split bulk purchases

You can usually save money by buying certain items — like construction paper, pens, pencils and folders — in bulk, but you can save even more by splitting those bulk items with other families. Not only is this a great way to share savings, Woroch said, but you can earn rewards faster by charging everything on your card and then having the families pay you back.

Redeem your rewards

If you have a cash back credit card, now’s the time to use it. “Most credit cards give you the best redemption value when you opt for statement credit or have the cash rewards deposited into your bank,” Woroch said. “You can set this money aside for back-to-school shopping.”

Alternatively, Woroch suggested checking to see if your particular card allows you to redeem points for gift cards to retailers where you plan to shop.

Use discounted gift cards

Besides redeeming credit card points for retailer gift cards, you can also scour the web for cheap gift cards online. Planning a trip to Target? Scan websites like Raise,Cardpool and CardCash first. These sites buy and sell unused gift cards at a discount, meaning you can save on purchases you were planning to make anyway.

Consider having your kids contribute

Depending on your child’s age, back-to-school shopping might be the perfect time to start having them contribute to their own goods, especially if they earn an allowance or have a job. Talking to your kids about money at a young age — whether about budgeting, saving or spending — will help them develop solid money habits that will pay off in the future.

Parents already seem to be catching on to this idea. “It was surprising to see how much of their own money kids are contributing towards the back-to-school bills,” Mathews said. “Teens and pre-teens will be spending $63 of their own money, which works out to $1.5 billion overall. This is significantly higher than the levels we saw a decade ago.”

Although the news about increased spending on back-to-school supplies may be alarming, these days there are more ways than ever to save. A little ingenuity, resourcefulness and research can go a long way.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Cheryl Lock
Cheryl Lock |

Cheryl Lock is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Cheryl at [email protected]

Advertiser Disclosure

News

Survey: Most Americans Have Raided Their Retirement Savings

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Successfully saving for retirement requires dedication and self-restraint, but more than half the country admits to robbing their future selves in order to satisfy today’s spending needs, according to a new survey by MagnifyMoney. While the economic pressures bearing down on workers today make their actions understandable, the hard truth is that many Americans are turning an already-difficult task that much harder by tapping into their retirement savings early.

Key Findings

  • Approximately 52% of respondents admit to tapping their retirement savings account early for a purpose other than retiring: 23% have done so to pay off debt, 17% for a down payment on a home, 11% for college tuition, 9% for medical expenses, and 3% for some other reason.
  • About 29% say there are some scenarios where it is a good idea to withdraw money early from a retirement savings account.
  • Around 60% of respondents do not know exactly how much they have saved for retirement. Just 40% know the exact amount, while 45% have a rough idea, and 15% have no clue.
  • Almost 25% are unhappy with their retirement savings. 47% are happy with the amount saved, and about 28% are neither happy nor unhappy.
  • Finally, 27% have never thought about how much money they’ll need in retirement.

Why are Americans tapping their retirement savings early?

The two main reasons respondents cited for withdrawing money from their retirement savings are as American as apple pie: home ownership and personal debt. According to the survey, 23% of those making an early withdrawal did so to help pay down non-medical debt, while 17% needed the money for a down payment on a home.

Although the housing market appears to be cooling off compared to just a few years ago, a down payment on a home still requires a significant chunk of change — experts recommend a down payment equaling 20% of the total mortgage to optimize your mortgage payments.

Personal debt, from credit cards to student loans, remains a fixture of everyday economic reality for millions of Americans. In other words, the stressors that cause workers to raid their retirement funds don’t look like they will decrease appreciably in the foreseeable future.

Which Americans are withdrawing money the most?

Breaking down the demographics, older savers are less likely to withdraw money from their retirement fund than younger savers. 54% of millennial savers say they’ve taken an early withdrawal from a retirement savings account, compared with 50% of Gen Xers and 43% of baby boomers. This stands to reason considering that many millennials have now entered the stage of life where they are getting mortgages, starting families and taking on bigger financial obligations while also being decades away from the traditional retirement age. Millennials are also more likely to say that raiding your retirement fund is justified under certain circumstances, as seen in the chart below:

Just one of many bad retirement savings habits

Tapping into retirement funds — whether an employer-sponsored 401(k) or a traditional IRA — before the appropriate age almost always comes with a financial penalty in the form of additional taxes and fees. What is more, you’re diminishing the principle that fuels the compound interest you need to meet your retirement savings goals.

Unfortunately the survey reveals early withdrawals are just one of the many bad habits Americans engage in when it comes to retirement savings. This list of less-than-ideal practices includes:

  • 35% of Americans are not currently saving for retirement. Of those who are, 37% started saving at age 30 or above, and 12% started saving when they were older than 40.
  • 60% of Americans do not know exactly how much they have saved for retirement. Just 40% know the exact amount, while 45% have a rough idea and 15% have no clue.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Americans don’t contribute enough to their employer-sponsored retirement account to get the maximum company match. Maximizing a company match is one of  your best ways to maximize your retirement savings. Among those with an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan, just 17% of respondents contribute 10% or more of their take-home pay. Almost 5% contribute nothing at all, and nearly 6% are unclear about how much they contribute.

  • Approximately 42% of respondents have made the mistake of withdrawing their entire balance from an employer-sponsored retirement plan when changing jobs without rolling it over – and nearly 15% have done so more than once. A little more than 47% of millennials admit to this faux pas.

The most damning finding of all is that 27% of those surveyed have never thought about how much they’ll need in retirement. And while “ignorance is bliss” may hold true when it comes to some things in life, this expression should not apply to your retirement plans.

Methodology

MagnifyMoney by LendingTree commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 1,029 Americans, with the sample base proportioned to represent the general population. The survey was fielded June 24-27, 2019.

Generations are defined as:

  • Millennials are ages 22-37
  • Generation Xers are ages 38-53
  • Baby boomers are ages 54-72

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

James Ellis
James Ellis |

James Ellis is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here