Holly Johnson is one Hamilton County mom who knows how to stretch a dime. She’s the co-founder with her husband, Greg, of the website and writes columns for IndyStar showing you how to spend less and live more.
Dwight Adams/IndyStar

With spring finally here, my kids spend evenings and sleepy weekend mornings riding their bikes, playing with sidewalk chalk and dreaming up games with friends. Nowhere to be. Nothing to do but beg for Popsicles and draw rainbows in the driveway. In my eyes, this is the essence of childhood.

But, my kids’ lives could be much different. A few years ago, my oldest was invited to join the gymnastics team at her gym in Noblesville. We were elated, of course, until we realized what that meant.

Instead of her usual weekly practice, she would spend two hours on gymnastics three nights per week. On weekend mornings when we usually relax, she would have more practice, meets and competitions.

This wouldn’t seem so crazy to me except, well, she was five years old.

The financial commitment was equally absurd. Instead of paying our usual $146 per month, our total gym costs would surge by over $500 per month — and that doesn’t include paying for transportation, gym clothes and the time investment.

And what would we get in return? An awesome gymnast? A kid who rarely had the time to play in the rain — to stop and smell the roses? The hope of a college scholarship one day?

No thanks.

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While the trade-off wasn’t worth it for us, it is for millions of American families. These days, many parents are happy to shell out thousands per season for their kids’ travel sports. And that doesn’t include the costs of transportation, hotel rooms and fast food, along with the mental toll that comes with giving up a family’s weekends for years.

Some families undoubtedly spend the money because they love the sport, or at least their kids do. Others are after college scholarships — a fact they’ll proudly admit if asked.

But, here’s what I wonder: If college is the goal, couldn’t they just save the thousands they’re spending instead? It would save everyone some hassle and stress, and it would be guaranteed. After all, scholarships are never a sure thing. According to the NCAA, only 2 percent of high school athletes are awarded athletic scholarships at the college level.

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If you just love the sport, I get it. But sticking with sports for a chance at a scholarship makes no sense — especially if you’re spending thousands along the way. It’s like buying a $5,000 lottery ticket for the opportunity to maybe, potentially, possibly win a coupon off the price of college admission. If you just saved that money instead, you would be a lot better off.

It’s hard to say whether my kids will commit their lives to sports in five or 10 years, but I do know one thing: I won’t trade their innocence or simple summers for a life of hurried practices, weekend meets and stress just yet.

And I refuse to leave my children’s college dreams to fate or luck. I started a 529 college plan for each kid when they were babies, saving just $25 per month at first. But then it grew to $50 per month, then $100 and beyond. With regular contributions, I now have five figures saved. And thanks to Indiana’s generous tax credit on your first $5,000 saved in a 529 plan each year, I get 20 percent back for each dollar I stash away.

My daughters have a lifetime of work and responsibility ahead of them. They’ll spend years with countless demands on their time and their health. They’ll get up early, work hard and endure too many boring meetings to count. One day, they’ll long for the time when all they had to do was ride bikes, the wind in their hair and the sun in their faces.

But right now, they’re kids … and they’re only young once. And when somebody asks, I’ll tell them plainly:

Our summer plans include a weekly gymnastics lesson, a family vacation and a bunch of nothing. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Have questions about living well while spending less? Find Holly Johnson atClubThrifty.comor on Pinterest, Twitter or Facebook: @ClubThrifty. Her column about frugal living will appear monthly in IndyStar.