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Enrichment: How to Avoid the Budget Black Hole

Childhood Enrichment on a Budget

Introducing kids to a wide variety of intellectual, athletic and artistic pursuits helps them identify and build their strengths, skills and confidence. And there are more ways than ever to pursue that goal. Problem is, all those wonderful activities can become a money pit. That's why it's essential to have a strategy to manage enrichment spending.

But that's not always easy for a number of reasons. Aside from the abundance of choices, enrichment tends to break the budget for psychological reasons. First, it conflicts with the way we naturally think about money. People compartmentalize their spending -- something economists call "mental accounting." It keeps us from withdrawing $200 from the college fund to buy groceries.

Unlike saving for college, enrichment is a process, not a hard target. It can easily become an amorphous pool of spending that just spreads and spreads without boundaries or reasonable goals.

So here are seven ideas to help you make choices that actually enrich your child's life -- instead of just burning a hole through your wallet:

Don't pay to play
If you have toddlers, avoid expensive classes in favor of informal play groups. Check out local religious or civic organizations for no- or low-cost co-ops. It costs nothing to sing, finger paint or attend story hour at the library. My local YMCA offered a one-hour, drop-in playtime in a huge gym full of soft climbing equipment, balls and toys for $5.

Park it with preschoolers
If you have preschoolers, introduce a variety of informal activities and look for the ones that most engage their gifts and enthusiasm. This can be as simple as going to the park to play basketball, soccer, baseball or tennis; cooking together; playing games; singing and dancing; drawing and painting; exploring nature; and reading about a variety of topics.

Love means limits Once you have an inkling of their natural interests and abilities, offer children a specific menu of choices. If your kid wants to do everything, nudge him into choosing a total of three to four activities at most -- a sport, an instrument, and one or two classes focused on the arts, sciences or a language. Set a budget and stick to it. Making pro-active choices will prevent the "keeping up with the Joneses" approach that causes financial strain.

Find affordable fun
As your child gets older, fully explore the low-cost aspects of their interests: Schools typically offer sports leagues -- don't get caught up in joining more than one team or doing several sports simultaneously. If you have a gifted child, look into scholarship opportunities (I know one talented young actor who had tuition waived at a theater program because they needed more boys.)

The sky's not the limit
Be realistic about what you can afford: I didn't introduce my children to horseback riding lessons because our budget doesn't accommodate the cost of budding equestrians.

Use it or lose it
If an activity requires them to practice, enforce the rules -- or drop the activity. Give them early warning about the consequences of not practicing and then follow through. If an older child chooses an activity and wants to drop out midstream after you've paid, give her the choice of continuing or paying for some of the classes -- so she recognizes the value.

Stay on the home team turf
Steer clear of traveling teams before middle school. They may explode in a fireworks display of dollar commitment, for gasoline, hotels, food, tournament fees and high-end equipment. More importantly, doctors specializing in pediatric sports medicine say there is an epidemic in injuries related to the overaggressive culture of youth sports, according to the New York Times.

As parents today, we're lucky to have a rich menu of enrichment activities to help kids fulfill their potential. By making coherent, strategic decisions about our options, we can enhance their lives -- and hopefully still have money left to retire.

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