Realistically Navigating Youth Travel Sports for Families

Published 09/28/2018

By Nicole Campbell

As a financial advisor and a parent of a 10-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy, I lead a double life. By day, I help my clients gain clarity and financial peace of mind. By night and weekend, I am a wagon-toting, cooler-packing, travel softball and baseball mom whose car is filled with rocks and dust from various ball fields from Indianapolis to Milwaukee. These days, parents of youth athletes are movers and shakers — juggling multiple school, work and travel sports schedules, driving all over and rarely sitting still.

My husband and I take the “divide and conquer” approach, so it’s wonderful when we are all in the same place at the same time. He oversees our son’s schedule, and I manage our daughter’s activities. Together, we manage two schools, two baseball teams (high school and travel), softball, private coaching sessions, orchestra, friend activities and our own various volunteer and work schedules. Rain or shine, I’m there for my kids’ activities, just like I’m there for my clients’ financial needs. The satisfaction that my kids get from doing what they love while learning first-hand lessons about perseverance, relationships, self-esteem, teamwork and overcoming difficulty is important to us, so we make calculated sacrifices, keep our costs in check and aim for balance. When everyone is on the move, it can be challenging to balance all of it.

Our personal experiences have been similar to that of many families with children who participate in competitive youth travel sports. I’m preaching to the choir for many parents who know that this is the way of life at this stage in a child’s athletic career. But one day it will calm down and we expect that we’ll probably miss it! So, we try to stay sane and savor this time by staying organized, planning and being smart about our choices. The opportunity cost of devoting too much of the family budget and/or time to extracurricular activities is high if choices are not grounded with reality. TD Ameritrade published an eye-opening study that examined the habits, costs and views of parents of children in elite sports.1

Here are some highlights:

* 63 percent of parents spend $100–$499 per month per child; 11 percent spend between $1,000–$1,999 per month per child.

* 34 percent of parents are either certain their child will have an Olympic or pro career or are highly hopeful/fairly sure they will while 2 percent of children actually reach that status.

* 67 percent of parents have hopes of their child obtaining an athletic scholarship yet only 24 percent of children actually receive one. And, of those who received an athletic scholarship, the average athletic scholarship only covered 54 percent of costs.

The study also examined the financial readiness of parents to find they may be too focused on athletics:

* 57 percent do not have a long-term financial plan. * 60 percent do not have an emergency fund.

* 74 percent do not have a relationship with a financial advisor who helps keep them on target.

* 85 percent of parents believe it’s important to have a good athletic coach while only 35 percent believe it would be beneficial to have a financial coach.

While most parents believe their children gain valuable skills, relationships and life lessons from participating in youth travel sports, the study found that many parents have unrealistic expectations not only for their child’s athletic trajectory but also regarding the potential of future monetary rewards. The study shows that most parents are sacrificing their own retirement goals, financial security and family experiences such as vacations to make their child’s athletic dream come true. So, parents have a tall order to fill: To find a sport their child enjoys with proper competition for his or her athletic ability, appropriate coaching for the child’s level and demeanor and one that fits the family budget and time constraints without compromising present and future resources. With careful and realistic consideration of family resources, values and desires, all of this is possible to accomplish.

Here are six creative ways for parents to reduce costs, save more and enjoy the experience of youth travel sports along the way:

* Approach coaches and organizations to see if they will discount team or training fees if your athlete helps out. Once an agreement is in place, your child should treat this organizational work like a job but instead of getting paid cash, they are paid via discount.

* Seek out corporate sponsorships (if allowed by the organization) to reduce the cost that you personally pay for your child’s travel sport fees. Many businesses offer $250–$500 sponsorships. If you gain just a few, your costs will be more palatable.

* Project and track all of your sports-related expenses for the year, making sure to include expenses for gas, hotels, airfare, meals, gear not included in team fees, auto maintenance, etc. Budgeting is the key to realistically understanding all costs to aid in making smart decisions.

* Enjoy this time with your child as a positive presence. There’s a high probability that most children will not go “pro” or become an Olympic athlete, so use sports as a tool to cultivate valuable life and physical skills while teaching them to celebrate successes and work through setbacks.

* From a college savings point of view, save as if your child will not receive an athletic scholarship. If they do receive one, it will be icing on the cake. High grades and test scores increases the odds of receiving some form of assistance from a college so it’s important to keep a balanced approach between education and sport.

* Find a financial advisor to help you successfully navigate your situation to ensure you are saving enough.

Devoting time and money to youth travel sports is a sacrifice where short-term and long-term trade-offs are made. It is easy for any parent to get lost in the calendar when the game schedule seems to make all the decisions. But it won’t be long before graduation day arrives. On that day, everyone will appreciate the time that was spent making good plans for what comes next and your child ventures out to discover what his or her future holds.


  1. “Parent Perspectives on the Cost of Competitive Youth Sports (TD Ameritrade Investor Survey).” TD Ameritrade, July 2016.