How Little League Shut Out Our Summer Budget

The little things creep up on you.

Photo: Gabe Rodriguez/Flickr

I’m a Gen X parent whose 5-year-old son joined the ranks of thousands of American kids this spring to take part in his very first year of organized baseball. And while he can’t yet catch anything in his glove, my kindergartner has already compelled us to rack up costs that, at the very least, have made a good dent in our budget for the rest of the summer.

The final price tag for his first year of Little League hardly makes up a significant piece of the roughly $233,610 pie that the government estimates it takes to raise a child these days. (Baseball likely falls under “miscellaneous child-rearing necessities,” which account for roughly 7 percent, trailing housing, food, childcare, transportation and healthcare.) And while my husband and I have loosely launched a plan for the big-ticket items that we’re expecting could and will hit us for our two kids — emergency medical expenses, school taxes (does this count? Because it makes up a good chunk of what we spend in a year) and college — we’ve hardly sat down to think about how the little things add up and impact our overall financial plan.

The little things creep up on you. Up until recently, it’s been easy to quash the impulses to buy sweet, extra non-necessities like softer pajamas, socks that match perfectly, and sleeker, non-plastic containers for my son’s lunchbox. But who wants to say no to paying for an initiative that’s going to help him socialize and hopefully lay down roots for a lifetime love of healthy pastimes?

Plus, there’s something about baseball and its gentle reminder of 1980s Americana. Maybe it was growing up then with two older brothers who played Little League. Weekends were spent at the field complex in our neighborhood, where my mother would arm me with Wacky Wafers and a couple of books and deposit me with a fellow baseball mom before retreating to the scorekeeper’s box. My dad, who wore his baseball hat resplendently tall and stiff, coached; he had awful tendencies to bring the baseball signs home for practice during dinner and to save his harshest criticism for his sons.

These memories — my brothers laughing in their shiny Little League jackets; the warm southern California sun blurring my vision as I tried to pick them out on the field, smudges of blue and black batting helmets — floated back to me in the early days of my son’s life, during those terrible first newborn nights when he was a squalling mess of heat and squirm, looking for comfort that I couldn’t come up with in my sleep-deprived state. I passed the minutes thinking of the milestones yet to come, wishing away the long hours by focusing on who and what he might become.

Him playing Little League was a repeated rift. I could see myself sitting on the risers in the shadows of the local volunteer firehouse, watching him throw beneath the signs advertising local businesses. Would he be lanky and smooth like his west coast uncles? Or ox-powerful and stocky like my brother-in-law in New York? And what if he didn’t want to play sports?

Fast-forward five years, and yes, he does. Baseball, so far, is a love. Cost wasn’t an issue, at first. I had it all planned out: Sign up as early as possible to avoid the $50 — then $100 — registration fee markup, sift through the piles of gear online at the many used-goods social media swaps that proliferate our locale, carpool with a few of his teammates’ parents to mitigate the cost of gas used twice a week for the mileage to and from two different fields.

Instead, the glossy banners of MLB heroes hanging from the rafters at Dick’s seduced me. So did the sheen of the soft, dove-gray piles of Adidas, Nike and Franklin baseball pants — such cute mini-versions of the ones we see on ESPN. And while I felt a stab of pride at being able to locate the $10 pants against the back wall (Buy one get one 50 percent off!), I spent ten minutes poring over the Nike ones that sold for $37.50. What advantage did these pants, with their superior wicking ability, a better-stitched waistband and thicker, glossy material, offer to a first- or second-grader? Would they automatically bake in benefits to my son’s on-base percentage or batting average? Make slides less painful, allow him to stretch further in his pitcher’s stance? He’s five years old, I said to myself and grabbed the cheap ones.

Then my husband texted: “He’ll need a belt.” A belt? I eventually found the rack with two rows of $8.95 belts hanging like rainbow fringe. Beyond that was a section of baseball socks ($8.99 a pair), tall, silky nylon things that looked like the therapeutic trouser socks my mom wore to work. And what about batting helmets, bats, practice balls and sleeveless t-shirts, which were curated by color to match other equipment? My son already had a glove, a cheap orange-and-black Franklin from Target we bought two summers ago for playing catch. I left the mall with a $200 receipt.

The worst, of course, was buying the cleats. No one we knew had used ones we could buy, but I found an Under Armour pair at that, at $20, were on sale. But it took us two weeks to get around to trying them on — and find out that they didn’t fit. It took two bouts of last-minute shipping before we settled on the $47.50 pair that had a little flap to which my son could affix his team’s logo. I pray he can wear them next year.

I don’t carpool to games or practices, which rack up about 16 miles a week. I like to watch my son, who so far has turned out to be tall and gangly, run the bases and hit the soft-lob pitches thrown by his coaches. He still can’t catch that well and he has trouble grounding — Tell him to stop the ball with his face, one of my brothers recently advised. Two Saturdays’ worth of games have been rained out, but he still insists on suiting up and going through his stretches on the front porch. His focus on the field belies his inclination to be incredibly distracted at school when it comes to doing the “hard things,” like writing. He seems to listen better than any of his young teammates; he scowls at the pitchers as he steps into the batter’s box, glancing back at his father to smile when he makes that aluminum-charged thwack connection.

The $400 or so that we’ve spent on Little League hasn’t broken us, but it has eliminated some of the fun extras we were hoping to participate in during our summer vacation. I’ve also put off replacing two of our 12-year old appliances that can wait a little longer — hopefully until after we’ve booked whatever sports fall brings us. In the meantime, I can take a cue from my mother’s penchant for bulk-buying and meal planning and learn to plan ahead a little more to save some corners on the easily-escalating costs of kids’ activities. I can also extend my social circle, which might help in locating used gear down the line.

But maybe I should just stop fielding my husband’s texts, the latest which read: “He needs a new baseball glove. Old one = falling apart.”

Maggie Overfelt is a New York-based writer focused on technology, small business and investing for various outlets including CNBC, and Crain’s New York Business. Follow her on Twitter: @maggieoverfelt

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