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16 ways to save money on kids’ activities

I often hear people complain about the mistake of over-scheduling children. It can be obnoxious, but, let's face it, that's a "rich people problem." More worrisome are kids who are under-scheduled, participating in no extracurricular activities at all because their parents feel they can't afford them. Studies show art, athletics and other activities help children find their passion and purpose and even help them stay in school and go to college.

Common sense is the first step to saving money on activities. We don’t have to say yes to every request. After all, kids lose interest quickly, and it can be money wasted. We enrolled our daughter in piano lessons when she was 6 years old. Not only did she lose interest, the early lessons seem to have permanently killed her interest! Waiting until your kids are older is one strategy to consider. Limiting them to one activity per season is another. That leaves room for the imagination play experts say is so important. You can also start them in casual “rec” programs, often available inexpensively, and only pay for pricier classes if they develop a genuine interest.

Those are the “squishy” tips. Now here are 16 concrete ways to save money on kids’ activities.

Tech has taken the work out of couponing. Here’s how to save big with little effort.

Activity scholarships: No matter what your child wants to try, don't be afraid to ask whether there are scholarships available. For example, Stoddert Soccer in the District will let any child play in its rec league free and offers scholarships for its travel league via application. And Dynamite Gymnastics in Rockville has given students free tuition on a case-by-case basis.

Barter services: If your child wants to attend an exclusive music school, do you have a skill you could offer in return? From washing the school's windows to working on its website, bartering can and does work.

City/county programs: Local governments sometimes offer surprisingly rich programming, often through their parks and rec departments. For example, in addition to sports, the District's Department of Parks and Recreation has offered foreign languages, engineering and ballet to kids. Fees are as low as $55 per series, and reduced rates are available by application.

Coach the team: If you'd like to volunteer to coach your child's team, ask whether their fee can be waived as informal compensation for your time.

Community colleges: Some community colleges allow high school students to enroll in affordable courses that can double as activities. For example, Montgomery College offered computer programming, creative writing and animation this summer (courses are generally between $100 and $400).

Discount websites: Specialty sites such as Certifikid offer discounts on all sorts of kids' activities, like $125 for an online Java programming class from CodaKid instead of $249. Or $187 for 12 weeks of MarVaTots 'n Teens gymnastics classes, a $53 discount. General sites such as Groupon offer deals, too. There were 163 offers when I checked, including camps, classes, sports and shows.

Free trials: Not sure a particular hobby is going to stick with your child? Ask about free trials often offered in hopes of getting you hooked.

Government grants: Counties and cities sometimes offer grants for children to attend nongovernment activities. For example, Fairfax County organizes financial assistance for children of National Guard and Reserve parents to attend activities. And a staff member at Silver Stars in Silver Spring told me that Montgomery County sometimes pays for children from low-income families to take gymnastics there.

Groups that fundraise: Groups that actively engage children in raising money for the group are sometimes more affordable. For example, Girl Scouts sell cookies, Camp Fire participants sell candy, and the money they raise helps subsidize the group.

Internship programs: An older child may be able to get an unpaid internship. The unpaid ones are required, by law, to be educational. Sure, your son or daughter won't get paid, but you won't have to pay, either.

Nonprofit organizations: The YMCA offers financial aid and says it never turns away a family in need. There are at least 4,000 Boys and Girls Clubs across America, and some charge as little as $5 a year.

Online courses: This generation is glued to the screen and lightning fast on a keyboard, so why not meet them where they are by enrolling your kids in free online courses? Just search online for a topic you're interested in and "free online course" and you're likely to find something.

Package deals: Some organizations offer package deals outright; others will negotiate. Ask for a discount on classes if you are enrolling multiple kids, or booking a birthday party or enrolling in camp.

Pay yearly: If you know your child is committed to an activity, paying the entire fee annually can net you a nice discount. If they don't offer, ask.

Private instructors: Hiring a private teacher may sound like a counterintuitive way to save money, but if several parents band together and hire an instructor to teach a group class, it can be very economical.

Refer a friend: Many children's centers — especially newer ones looking to grow — rely on referrals and reward parents who make them. If they don't offer you a thank-you discount, politely request one, and tell them there are more referrals to come...

Elisabeth Leamy hosts the podcast "Easy Money" and is a 25-year consumer advocate for programs such as "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show." Connect with her at and @ElisabethLeamy.

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