Whether it’s hockey, soccer, dance class or music lessons, a majority of Canadian parents say extracurricular activities will put a strain on family finances this year, according to a survey conducted by Ipsos for Global News.
The poll, which quizzed around 1,000 parents across the country, finds that 55 per cent of families feel stretched thin because of after-school programs. Almost a third (32 per cent) are now using debt to fund those costs, up a whopping five percentage points since Ipsos and Global News ran a similar survey last year.
Over the last school year, the average family spent about $1,160 on extracurricular activities for kids, up slightly from the $1,120 parents spent in 2016-2017, according to the poll.
Millennial parents (ages 18-34) seem to be the ones struggling the most, with nearly four in 10 saying that they have gone into debt to pay for their kids’ activities. That compares to around three in 10 (28 per cent) gen-Xers (35-54) and two in 10 (22 per cent) for baby boomers with children under the age of 18.
Regionally, Quebecers are the keenest on after-school programs, with 80 per cent of parents there — compared to 70 per cent nationally — saying it’s important to keep little ones as busy as possible. A whopping 88 per cent of parents in La Belle Province said they spent some money on extracurricular activities over the past year. That compares with 79 per cent in Ontario, 77 per cent in B.C., 73 per cent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and 69 per cent in Alberta and Atlantic Canada.
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Swimming remains the most popular and affordable option
Swimming continues to be the most popular and affordable after-school activity, with 46 per cent of parents reporting that they plan to send their children to the pool. Families expected to spend just $205 on classes, just above last year’s average anticipated spend of $193.
Hockey, of course, was once again at the other end of the spectrum, with moms and dads expecting to shell out around $750 on average for things like skates and ice time.
What’s new this year, though, is a marked increase in the share of parents planning to enroll children in non-sports related programs like music lessons, language classes and art labs — this, despite the fact that the Liberals did away with the child fitness and arts tax credit as of 2017.
And those brainier after-school programs often come with a steep price tag. After dance classes ($527 per year), music lesson and language classes were the third and fourth most expensive extracurriculars, with parents expecting to spend $500 and $474 a year, respectively.
Here’s the full ranking of what parents anticipated spending on various activities:
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From goalie masks to tutus: How to keep a lid on the spending
The most important things parents can do to avoid sticker shock come September is to make room for those expenses well in advance, said Isaiah Chan, director of counselling at the B.C.-based Credit Counselling Society, a non-profit debt counsellor.
“That’s something you really need to plan ahead for,” Chan told Global News.
And that involves a careful calculation of all the expenses associated with after-school activities, which often goes beyond registration and monthly fees. Do the kids need gear? Will there be tournaments? It will cost you.
“Sometimes you can earmark your tax refund for that,” Chan said, “but what else you foregoing?”
Enrolling your children in some of the most expensive extracurriculars — or in several activities — might mean having to opt for a cheaper family vacation, Chan added.
Still, there are ways to pay for events, hockey jerseys and tutus without going broke.
When it comes to buying gear, families can save by renting instead of buying or, even better, relying on hand-me-downs.
Relatives may be able to pass down uniforms and equipment, Chan said. Or you can inquire with the parents of older children in the same league about the availability of any hand-me-downs.
If that isn’t an option, consider tapping family for birthday and Christmas gifts that will beef up your kids’ gear.
“While it’s great to get a new Play Station, maybe it’s better to ask for new hockey sticks,” Chan said.
It can also pay off to research scholarship and community programs that can help subsidize the cost of after-school activities, Chan added. Teachers and coaches will often be aware of those funding opportunities.
Inquire about tax breaks
There was a time when parents were able to recoup all or part of the costs associated with after-school activities through the so-called fitness and arts tax credits. That time effectively ended in 2017, when the Liberal government completely phased out those credits. The trade-off was a beefed up Canada child benefit, which is income-tested, meaning that poorer families get a bigger cheque every month and wealthy ones get nothing.
Still, parents might want to hang on to those extracurricular program receipts, said Gennaro de Luca, certified financial planner and managing director of WealthPlan Canada.
“Some fitness and arts programs may still yield a tax break at tax time if they also provide a child care component,” de Luca told Global News via email.
That’s thanks to the child care expenses deduction.
“For example, the parent or guardian may choose after-school programs that include either an arts or fitness activity. As long as those meet the criteria to qualify as a child care expense deduction — i.e., the expense was paid in order to earn income, carry on business, go to school or carry on grant funded research — then the claim can be made,” de Luca wrote.
“My daughter takes a drama class after school while I’m at work and this is certainly deductible as a child care expense,” he added.
Still, most organized sports team activities won’t qualify. As an example of eligible child care expenses, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) lists payments made to “day camps and day sports schools where the primary goal of the camp is to care for children.” However, the CRA adds, “an institution offering a sports study program is not a sports school.”
Also, the deduction is only available for children under 16 years of age.
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Fight back parental guilt
Finally, parents should resist guilt-driven credit card spending, Chan said. It’s easy to feel guilty when school starts, he said. Guilty about not getting your kids the latest and fanciest equipment. Guilty about not packing their schedules full with all sorts of activities.
But after-school programs are an opportunity to teach children about money, planning and budgeting.
Are they asking for a new bicycle? Let them save up their monthly allowance toward it, Chan said. Use a calendar to check off dates as the savings near the target amount. And illustrate how much longer they’ll have to keep saving if they want a new bike instead of used one.
Sports and other extracurricular activities are important, Chan said, but so is knowing how to live debt-free.
Remember, “financially fit parents lead to financially fit children.”