Family Sports Gear: When to Spend, When to Skimp

From the WebMD Archives

By Charity Curley Mathews

Let’s face it: Kids don't tend to commit to a new activity for long, so it really doesn’t make sense to spend thousands on splashy gear the moment you hear your 8-year-old say, “Hey, how about hockey?” But there are times when investing major buckage in sports equipment is a smart move. It basically comes down to two factors: safety and your kids' long-term interest. Here's the rundown:

Helmets: Invest

From biking to baseball to hockey to football, keeping kids’ heads safe is Job One. And here’s why: Multiple concussions can lead to cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. Obviously, head injuries can also lead to death. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, of the thousands of people who’ve died in biking accidents since 1998, more than 90 percent weren't wearing helmets. Helmet-wearing is a habit your kids need to adopt now, and if it takes buying them an expensively designed lid to achieve that, do it. If the price tag for a good helmet is out of reach for you right now, the safest, smartest thing to do is to save up and wait until you can afford it, rather than cheaping out and risking your child's injury.

Safety Pads And Guards: Invest

As the name implies, the whole point of protective equipment such as elbow pads, mouth guards and shoulder pads is to add a layer of protection to growing bodies. That said, some kids will try to argue their way out of wearing it. If you need ammo to combat their anti-pad arguments, simply inform them that the NFL has a “no pads, no play” rule. The key to protective-equipment quality -- and safety? A good fit. If the gear is sliding around, it won't do its job when it's [literally] crunch time.

Horse-Riding Equipment: Invest

How dangerous is horseback riding? Just ask Narisa Wild, whose kindergartner, Amelie, now takes riding lessons. “Her helmet and boots were a definite splurge," says Wild. "I would never ever compromise on head safety for horse riding. It's just too risky. She could get thrown off, get kicked in the head, get rolled on -- all of which happened to me as a child!”

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Stroller: Invest

Lori Kirsten, a Seattle-based marathoner, mountain climber and mom of twins, splurged on the BOB Revolution Double Jogging Stroller before her boys were even born -- but she found one that was gently used. Even so, buying high-end has been a blessing for this avid runner, because she never has to worry about bumps or durability, and the whole contraption turns on a dime. It’s hard enough to get back on the road after you have babies; your stroller shouldn’t be another deterrent.

My husband and I dug deep and sprang for a Bugaboo after we had our first baby -- not for jogging, but for simply navigating the streets of Rome, where we lived at the time. Those big wheels and that sturdy construction were tested every day, and since we walked almost everywhere, we were willing to pay a premium (sort of). Yes, our Bugaboo was also secondhand -- but since top-of-the-line products hold up so well, we’ve not only been able to use that stroller with our first child, but also our second and now third. In the seven years we've had it, we've only had to replace one tire.

Golf Clubs: Skimp First, Invest Later

Is $500 too much to spend on golf clubs for a freshman in high school? Angela Bawtinheimer Shull from Spring Creek, Nevada, says she and her husband happily shelled out the cash for one reason: Her son had been golfing since the age of 7. “We splurged on them because he's really good at [golf] and we wanted him to continue with the sport,” she says. They skip the expensive golf shirts though, and when it comes to other leisure activities her teenage son and daughter enjoy, they just shop the sales. “We want them to be prepared and pretty equal to their teammates," she says. "If they're staying active, I'm willing to spend money on the kids. [It keeps] them out of trouble and healthy.”

Life Jackets And Water Wings: Skimp

Surprised? Here’s the thing: A life jacket is a life jacket. (Or, to be more accurate, it's a personal flotation device -- PFD for short.) Unless your kid is doing advanced water sports, you don’t need a fancy model. You do, however, need one that’s U.S. Coast Guard-approved and UL-listed. PFDs start at around $14, but you could easily pay more than $100 for one with special features. My kids have used the same five-dollar pair of water wings for the last three summers now -- and they're still going floating strong.

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Balls And Bats: Skimp

When kids -- especially preschoolers -- are testing out sports like soccer, there’s no sense in splurging on a top-of-the-line ball when you can get one for under 10 bucks. If the little guys stick with a given sport for more than a year, though, you can consider upgrading. Keep in mind that you’ve got many [expensive] years of kids' activities ahead (full of, “But [insert rich friend's name here] has [insert ridiculously priced item here]”), so use caution -- and coupons! -- while you still can.

Cleats And Shoes: Invest

Growing feet need solid support, and besides, brand-new sports shoes are often on sale -- especially at the beginning of a season. “I look for coupons," says Sally Rojas, executive director of the Children’s Academy in Cary, North Carolina. Rojas shops for her four sporty sons year-round. “Dick's Sporting Goods always has $10 off $50, and I make numerous transactions,” she says. She makes up for shoe splurges in other ways. “Bats last forever, so I usually hold on to them," she says. "And baseball gloves? The older the better. I skimp on pants and socks, too.”

Baby Gear: Skimp

Baby backpacks and tricycles only get used for a short amount of time, so it makes sense to buy all these things secondhand. But the trick is in finding high-quality, highly rated and gently used items that’ll truly last a second (or even third) time around. Shop Craigslist or search for swaps in your area. “I get everything I can secondhand," says Kirsten. "As long as things are in good shape, I'm happy to not pay retail. And I like making a little smaller footprint on the environment while I'm at it -- it's the least I can do [to make up for] all these dang diapers!”

Bikes And Wagons: Invest

Our oldest child just turned 4, so we bought her a brand new bike. It’s a good bike, and it cost more than I'd budgeted for (about $150). Here’s why my husband and I were willing to invest: She doesn’t have any other activities that cost money, and we want to encourage her to get outside and be active from here on out. Also, we opted for the next-bigger frame, so she'll have room to grow into it over the next few years. Ultimately, we’ll pass the bike down to her little sister, so it's a purchase that will continue to pay off in years to come.

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