By doing this one thing, we’re going to save $2,000 this year

How going without paid kid's activities will save thousands of dollars per year

When I was a girl, I wanted to be a dancer. I also wanted to learn how to play the piano. 

Being the sixth of seven kids, I think my parents were burned out of the kid’s activities so I got the shaft–no piano lessons, no dance lessons (except for one year of clogging lessons). Which in retrospect, was really, really great for me.

Instead of music & dance lessons, girl scouts & basketball, I spent afternoons, evenings, & weekends being “creative.” I made one creation after the other, no doubt adding to my mother’s irritation that my messes spread all over the house, including the kitchen.

But you know what?

I experimented, I explored the backyard (we had a lovely, large backyard with a pool, trampoline, swings, a garden, lots of shade & grass) & neighborhood. I read a lot, I played a lot.

Sure, I’ve always been a bit sad that I never learned how to play the piano as a kid (beyond just the basics), but my childhood was relatively carefree, with lots of time to explore & create. Which, as an adult, those creative skills have definitely helped me in all areas of my life.

A few weeks ago I asked you on facebook what you thought I should do about our kid’s activities this year.

As many of you know, we’re in the process of paying off a huge amount of debt that was racked up during Joseph’s law school years. We’ve been making progress, & we’re nearly two years into our debt-free mission. We’re not doing a particular program (& yes, I know who Dave Ramsey is, & no we’re not doing his program), but we are paying off our debts using the debt snowball method & extensive budgeting, among other things.

So, this was the question posed on facebook: 

I need to decide if I’m going to enroll my 6 year old, Amalia, in ballet/tap again this year. She did it last year & loved it. It’s one day a week for an hour & a half. It’s $70 a month plus maybe $20 in gas & some extra for dance apparel + about $250 for the end of the year recital (which we probably wouldn’t do since we most likely will no longer be in San Antonio at that time).

We are on the last year or so of our get-out-of-debt plan. I have been able to earn some extra money on the side that would pay for these lessons, as well as pay for my boys to do an intramural sport this fall.

My dilemma–use that extra money to pay off debt, or put her in dance?

There’s no question she wants to do it & I want her to do it, but we had previously decided we were going to cut all kids activities for this year while we finish paying off debt. Now that we have this extra money, I’m torn. I would love for Amalia to do dance & my boys to each do a sport.

What do you think we should do? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The responses were largely in favor of me enrolling Amalia in dance, & with good reason. I feel much the same as many of you–the experience of artistic expression, of learning a skill, the joy of movement through dance–all of these I believe are important & I know that the arts cost money, & that it’s not cheap, either. My dilemma wasn’t about the merits of kids participating in ballet or tap, but rather, should I enroll my child in dance this year, in light of our debts?

I read & appreciated all of your comments, but it was Alysa’s that really hit home for me.

She writes:

Get out of debt. Just because you made the money unexpectedly or in a different way doesn’t mean you’re not in debt. And I can speak to the fact that I don’t remember my 6 year old dance classes (though I do remember my 8 year old diving team). Dance classes may give her memories (maybe), but putting everything you’ve got into getting out of debt will give her stronger parents and greater financial security. You can do it Janae. Last year! You guys have been working on this for so long! Don’t let the closeness of the finish line fool you. Run all the way. I can tell you it feels awesome to be on the other side.

The more I thought about what she said, especially the bit about “stronger parents & greater financial security,” I knew what I needed to do.

Last year Amalia did dance for 10 months. The cost of tuition & the recital, plus all the gas to get to practices (I tend to gloss over that particular expense–which adds up to a lot!), was about $1200. That’s a lot of money! And though we put it into our budget, & were still able to continue to progress our debt snowball, the fact remains, we spent $1200 that in hind sight, ought to have gone towards our debts.

After I read this post–“Avoiding Ivy-League Preschool Syndrome” by Mr. Money Mustache (I discovered him while listening to this podcast–which I highly recommend!), I couldn’t believe that there had been a dilemma at all.


He wrote another post that has provoked me to further reassess what we’re doing. This, coupled with my discovery of YNAB (which is AWESOME btw–I’ll share more about the program/approach when I do the next debt snowball update because it’s been awhile since the last update).

In MMM’s post, News Flash: Your Debt Is An Emergency, he likens being in debt to being covered in killer bees. You’ve got to do everything in your power to get those killer bees off you. And you will, they’re KILLER BEES!

Likewise, debt is just as deadly (though our culture would tell you otherwise). So anything beyond basic, basic necessities, must go until the debt is gone.

It has taken me two years & a lot of little lessons along the way to realize this.

I’m now at the point, where I’m more than happy to go without & be much, much more frugal than I ever have been.

It’s been a process, one in which I feel each month as I’ve gone over our spending, our budget, I’ve trimmed & optimized even more. I’m okay now, going without my favorite vegan protein powder, almond butter, & so many other delicious, but just not necessary food items. I’ve reigned in my Costco habit (still shop there, but with even greater restraint). I’ve cut all our subscriptions (except for Hulu, which is part of Joseph’s blow money).

I’m at the point that I can say, “YES, let’s DO this. Let’s really do this.” Let’s get rid of these freakin’ killer bees so we can move on with our lives for the love (namely, start saving!).


So will I be putting my kids in any activities this year?


And by not putting Amalia in dance, we’ll save at least $1200. By not having the them do sports, we’ll save about $800 (between fees, gas, uniforms/shoes). That’s a savings of $2000 this next year, & my kids won’t be the lesser for it.

Joseph & I had a lengthy discussion about our values, what we want our kids to value & learn while they’re young. Sports & dance, these things are nice & have some value, but more than anything we decided that these two things will be mandatory for all of our kids:

1) Boy Scouts, Achievement Days, & youth group–it does cost a bit for uniforms, but beyond that, BSA programs are heavily subsidized, if not fully paid for by our church, so there is little to no cost to us for most of the activities.

The girls have a somewhat comparable equivalent–when they turn eight they will begin going to weekly activities through our church, called Achievement Days. It’s not quite the same, but it does facilitate many of the same goals in terms of learning new skills & talents. Once they hit the teenage years, they begin doing weekly activities with the church youth group, which is also no cost.

2) Piano–We have a piano. Though I don’t know how to play very well (in fact, my playing is quite rudimentary), I know enough to teach my kids for this next year.

I tried to do this last year, but I just wasn’t committed, & quite frankly didn’t have enough time left over after their sports practices & dance lessons.

Per Joseph’s suggestion, I’ve decided to treat teaching them piano like a job, as if someone is paying me (because I am getting paid, by not having to pay someone else to do it). We’re two weeks into our practice & lessons, & I so far, have not missed a day & it’s going surprisingly well.

We have an incentive system in place which really helps, but more than anything, my commitment to teaching them myself so that we can save money is the thing that is making all the difference.

joseph sleeping

Between the piano lessons, homework, & chores after school, then dinner & our bedtime routine, there’s really very little time to much else anyway. They do usually have a few hours to read & play, & I want them to have a few hours each day to do these things, especially at this point in their lives.

In the next year or so, we hope to pay off the remainder of our debts.

We hope to pay off as much this year as we have in the past two years combined.

We are going to do this because our income has increased quite a bit since we started this process (through raises in Joseph’s salary as well as some supplementary income I bring in), & we are further tightening our belts, making a few more sacrifices.

Because, we are being attacked by KILLER BEES after all, & who wouldn’t do everything necessary to get those suckers off your back?

What do you think?
Have you ever heard of Mr. Money Mustache?
What do you think of his post about the Ivy-League Preschool Syndrome?
What kinds of activities do you do with your children that are free or inexpensive?


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  1. Rebekah
    on September 15, 2014 at 8:05 pm said:

    Ooh, tough choice but I think you made the best one. There will be plenty of time for dance and sports in the future, and getting out of debt now will help your family to afford those things for years to come. 🙂 Delayed gratification is a difficult but vital lesson to learn, and I think you’re giving your kids a great example in this. (Also…I want to add that I never had a dance class til high school, and now I’m a dance instructor!)

  2. Bonny
    on September 14, 2014 at 1:21 pm said:

    Jamae, you’re crazy 😉 love, Bonny. And I missed your monkey boy today.

    Ps, I might need a budgeting consult with you….! And don’t mind me while I stalk your and read about your life.

  3. Elise
    on September 10, 2014 at 2:58 pm said:

    Wow! My plan is to get out of debt before the kids arrive, but then we eventually want to buy a house and will be back in the same debt boat. What are your thoughts on debt that is an investment, such as owing money on a house or a car?

    I feel like it would be something that pays you back. Your car can get you places and owning a house means that your money isn’t going down the drain into rent payments each month. It definitely is not a possibility to bike to work or even just to the grocery store where I live and the bus system has a lot of gaps in service.

    For the record, we are not fighting our debt as aggressively as your family. We still put money into savings for the house fund each month, contribute to 401ks, and go out to eat and to movies more often than we probably should.

  4. Laura
    on September 9, 2014 at 7:46 pm said:

    Are you still doing your $125 per month date night? I believe truly “trimming and optimizing” would mean cutting that WAY down, if not out altogether. If I was in debt that would be one of the first things to go. Just my two cents. Best of luck with this newfound conviction to save as I’m sure it is extremely stressful, especially if it’s keeping you up at night!

    Also, I may have missed the update on this but are you all planning to move again within a year?

    • Janae Wise
      on September 9, 2014 at 8:12 pm said:

      Hi Laura!

      I think I would stop eating before cutting our date night :). I’ve talked about this before on the blog, but this is the ONE thing we won’t cut. We’ve been married 10 years, & our marriage is stronger than ever–in large part to our commitment to pay a babysitter & get out just the two of us. I know some people don’t understand this, but spending a little over a thousand dollars a year so we can get out a few times a month is much, much cheaper than therapy, or divorce. We’ve done babysitting trades before, but not very many people are up for watching their kids + our 5 kids. Joseph donated plasma for lots of years just so we could go on dates. And, maybe it’s just me, but if we just say, “we’re going to stay at home & have a date” I usually end up falling asleep on the couch. Small price to pay for a stronger, healthy relationship w/ Joseph.

      And I haven’t mentioned this yet on the blog, but we probably will be moving soon. Maybe even at the end of the year. We’ll find out in a few weeks–exciting!


      • Laura
        on September 15, 2014 at 8:34 pm said:

        Nights away are important for sure and you’re right, if you’re at home it won’t end up being anything different than the usual grind. You said you really wanted to trim so maybe cutting it down to $50, would that be doable? That would be $900 additional saved per year. I guess that is what you have to weigh…is it worth that or not? Another tidbit for thought, you are cutting out your daughter’s activity (dance)….how do your nights out compare in importance to her dance? Maybe you have already weighed these things, just putting in my two cents. 🙂

  5. dani
    on September 8, 2014 at 11:05 am said:

    We struggle to afford all the classes and lessons that we would like to take and learn as well right now. When my kids have said they want to be in a particular sport or music lesson I have said that they first need to show me that they are committed and passionate about learning it. If they show me they are motivated to start learning it on their own and willing to practice without a fight, then I will consider making the investment. Especially these days with so many videos and youtube tutorials, you can self teach a lot! The motivation to learn something just has to be there.
    I mean for you guys, it’s just one year. If they are really serious about dance and sports, think of all they could do just playing on their own. You could set apart some time once a week and have them just play those particular sports with them or on their own just for practice and fun. Have them watch videos that show them coaching and playing tips, get them in the habit of practicing before they even start formal lessons.
    I mean, really, most kids just grow up to be average, and those whose parents have them in lots of activities don’t usually end up being better off than those who don’t. It’s just those who are highly motivated and committed to lots of consistent practice that end up being more specialized in something.
    Delaying all those formal classes for one year (or forever) is certainly not going to hurt them!

  6. Lindsay
    on September 6, 2014 at 9:07 pm said:

    I don’t know if Claire read that discussion on Facebook, but like you said, most were FOR putting her in dance.

    I am all for holding back on activities until out of debt. NOT that I’ve always done that in my life. We were in debt about 7 years, and I kind of went back and forth in my decisions about activities. Sometimes we did them, then a few months or year without. I felt the same as you, wishing I had been in them when I was younger, but my parents couldn’t afford it. Not affording or not sacrificing for activities does not equal bad parenting.

    Also, it’s most likely your kids will not have a scholarship or future in these activities. If dance is her future, I’m sure one year at this age can quickly be caught up if she has a lot of talent and motivation. In our family with five children, I don’t think I’m willing to put in the money and time of “serious” arts & sports – dance companies, non-school league teams/ non-recreational- not that we have even had the opportunity.

    I have to say, even though we’ve been out of debt for 1.5 years, there are still so many things that come up that we were holding out on before, and we were still holding out on activities for a while. We are not done having kids either, so it is a lot to consider how stable or how much savings to have before spending money on “extras.”

    One more thing – I am with you on the parent – piano lessons thing – except we’ve been meaning to get around to this for FOUR years. My husband will be the teacher, but I need to get the ball rolling. Good luck!

  7. S
    on September 6, 2014 at 9:26 am said:

    As a musician, who is currently in a program for performance…. The skills of the arts start early. The individuals who are in the broadway plays, the theatre, the symphony orchestras. They all started to practice early on.

    I had no idea, as a kid, that I was being trained to be a musician. For me, it was just fun.

    So, I just encouage you to think about her love for dance. Successful careers in the arts takes a talented kid to begin with, and supportive parents.

    However, she may not miss it this year, and in that case, it is not a concern. It will simply have been a decision exercise for you.

    For me, I would not be successful with my Bassoon if my parents had not made sacrifices for me to take lessons, and go to music camp. And, they could not afford it then either. But they could see that the Bassoon gave me great happiness.

    Have a wonderful last year of getting out of debt, and then you can start new! 🙂

  8. Kelly
    on September 5, 2014 at 9:59 pm said:

    My kids took music lessons this summer off youtube, one on drums and the other trombone. It is amazing what you can learn from others that take the time to film and post and teach us for free. I’m sure there are probably lots of dance lessons on youtube your daughter can “take”.

  9. Amanda K. @ Living on Grace
    on September 5, 2014 at 9:33 pm said:

    aaah, my husband is MMM’s #1 fan. as a result, he bikes to work and i cut his hair. and that’s just the beginning.
    i couldn’t agree more about the killer bee thing. think of how great it’ll feel to flick that last one off.

  10. Alysa
    on September 5, 2014 at 9:13 pm said:

    Yay! You can do it! And I’m happy that my comment helped you to choose a path you and Joseph could agree on.

    Haven’t heard of MMM before. Thanks for the introduction! I agree you have got to light a fire under yourself (or look around and see killer bees, or whatever) in order to find motivation to make a counterculture move.

    We love to play games as a family – board games, computer games, road trip type games. 🙂

  11. Laurie
    on September 5, 2014 at 8:26 pm said:

    Ooooo, that was a tough call. At first, I was thinking, “Dance lessons! Dance lessons!” But getting out of and avoiding debt is far more important. I would have never thought of the killer bee analogy, but yes, debt is a killer of dreams and opportunities, constraining choices and options.

    I was just too shy as a child to even want to do many extracurricular activities, but because of that, I learned to entertain myself by reading and playing. And, really, I wouldn’t trade that for dance lessons. Learning to be okay just being and not necessarily “doing” something is a valuable skill, I think.

    I have heard of Mr. Money Mustache–a co-worker introduced him to me. What I’ve read by him is great. I read a post of his about people who drive cars instead of riding bicycles that I, as a bike commuter, found hilarious!

  12. lfwfv
    on September 5, 2014 at 8:11 pm said:

    Way to make a hard decision Janae. I personally think there is waaaaay more to be lost by over-committing kids to organized activities than there is to be gained. That said, one activity per week is not usually overkill, but factor in the cost, driving, the time, and a large-ish family, and I think you are so right to stick to your goals and just say no! It is hard to not go with the flow, as, at least here, it seems the norm to live beyond your means and to seek out “education and enrichment” at the earliest ages imaginable. I can’t wait to read the preschool post…..

  13. Claire
    on September 5, 2014 at 7:35 pm said:


    But being in debt is not being attacked by killer bees. It’s being in debt. Being in debt has an “opportunity cost” regarding the additional interest you pay (plus a level of discomfort I guess, which for you seems rather extreme). So, yeah it costs more to stay in debt. Weigh that up against what your daughter will or won’t have by doing dance for a year etc etc (whatever the case/s may be). I think just, be rational/measured about it rather than the hype of killer bees and the rest? That’d be my advice.

    Best wishes.

    • Janae Wise
      on September 5, 2014 at 7:58 pm said:

      Of course MMM offers a rather extreme analogy, one to get the reader’s attention & to get them to think, but personally having been in debt for oh, the past 6 years or so (it all began with my husband’s law school education), I think the only way to get enough motivation, drive, & determination to get it gone is to treat it like a very, very undesirable thing (like being attacked by killer bees). No one knows the weight of substantial debt, the undesirable-ness of it, like someone who has been in it for a good while & has a lot of it (like we have).

      “I think just, be rational/measured about it.”
      I agree. Though on that note, I don’t think there’s anything irrational about opting out of paid kid’s activities until we’re out of debt. Because as long as we’re in debt, we’re continuing to put so many other really, REALLY important things on hold like building a savings, saving for retirement, & minimal college/launch funds for our kids. That is what keeps me up at night, which gives me anxiety, & ultimately is what is serving as the fuel for my get-out-of-debt fire.

      Thanks for your adding your two cents Claire.

      • Claire
        on September 5, 2014 at 8:07 pm said:

        Yes and I wasn’t suggesting to do or not do anything specific, nor that you were being “irrational” in the decision you came to. Just the way of “framing” it. I wasn’t disagreeing or agreeing with you, it just interested me. …Unless, that is that you just want to use your blog to have a community of mummies who agree and support you in everything (kinda seems so). Shrugs, might find another blog to follow. 🙂

        • Janae Wise
          on September 5, 2014 at 8:27 pm said:

          “Unless, that is that you just want to use your blog to have a community of mummies who agree and support you in everything (kinda seems so).”
          Nah, I think that would be pretty dull & I absolutely appreciate when people take time to leave comments & I especially love ones that make me think differently &/or provide a different insight from mine.

          I’m sorry that you feel that I was suggesting you ought to agree with me or that I was saying that you were disagreeing, but I am in the midst of cooking dinner & getting all my kids ready for bed by myself while my husband is working, so perhaps my comment wasn’t written in the most well thought out way. Regardless, I appreciate all viewpoints & thank you for sharing yours!

          • Claire
            on September 6, 2014 at 8:16 pm said:

            Sure and yeah you seem nice. But most of the comments made on your blog seem to be equivalent to “yay Janae, you’re doing so well”, which is a bit dull yeah and perhaps something you’ve cultivated. I am out of debt after seven-ish years, it’s not as big a deal as I thought it’d be. Yes, its better than being in debt. (And I also agree it’s good there’s a minimalist counter-culture.) Whether particular activities are-or-aren’t worthwhile, can be each weighed on their relative merits. But hey flick off the bees or singe the fire, shrugs. And your kids will be fine either way. (Though yeah I agree with the trombonist that if kids are going to excel at something rather than just enjoy something it’s generally good to begin young – although that depends on the activity, and is a mammoth topic for another time maybe.) Anyway overall I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, to read about someone who has a very different life to me (5 kids, mormon, american, etc!). So thanks and hope it goes well for you.

  14. Lisa C
    on September 5, 2014 at 11:13 am said:

    …and peace and family time will be gained too. We seem to have far more fun as a family when we are sctive together, outside of an organized environment.

    My boys have all gotten into going to the skatepark, so we all go together whenever we can. No stress!

    • Janae Wise
      on September 5, 2014 at 1:29 pm said:

      “My boys have all gotten into going to the skatepark, so we all go together whenever we can. No stress!”
      What a great way to get some energy out & spend time together!

      Unstructured family time is so important & doesn’t cost anything a lot of times 🙂

      Hope you’re doing well, Lisa!