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At age 4, Catherine Holecko's daughter visited an ice skating rink for the first time. She asked for lessons. Later that year, the little girl skated in an ice show -- and she was hooked.

Now 10, the figure skater practices three times a week and regularly competes. Ice time and coaching cost $200 to $300 a month. Holecko recently bought her new skates for $250, while a local competition set them back $300-- and that contest didn't require a hotel stay or other travel costs.

Holecko, who lives in Wisconsin and writes about family fitness for About.com, said she could be spending a lot more. Skates can cost hundreds more, and Holecko recently saw a competition costume with a $400 price tag. "The most we've spent for a costume is $70. I've paid $10" to buy used ones, she said.

Other extracurriculars, including karate and cello lessons, have fallen by the wayside -- which helps offset the sport's costs somewhat, although Holecko worries her daughter is too young to specialize. Holecko also knows the costs will only increase if her daughter continues her interest in the sport.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

"The plan is, we take it as it comes. . . . I can take on more freelance writing jobs," said Holecko. "She absolutely loves it. She never complains, and she's eager to keep going."

The spiraling cost of kids' sports is a hot topic as parents brace for the start of school amid the lingering buzz about what young athletes accomplished at the Olympics.

Susan Gregory Thomas, a memoirist and journalist, reckons her family spends more than $15,000 a year on her daughter's sport: The 11-year-old is a nationally ranked gymnast. Most of that is spent on twice-a-week classes; the one-on-one coaching top-level contenders need would cost a lot more.

Even if you're clear that your kid is no future Gabby Douglas or Michael Phelps, you can still end up shelling out a small fortune. Equipment, uniforms and league fees are just the start. Traveling teams, which can cost $1,000 to $3,000 a year, have morphed from a privilege for elite players to an option for kids with less spectacular abilities. (USSSA Baseball, which had a roster of 1,000 teams in 1997, now has 60,000.) Many parents pay for specialty camps and extra coaching to get that competitive edge. Even those who don't can be surprised by how seemingly incidental costs -- gas, snacks, trophies and coach gifts -- can add up.

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I asked parents, including a few experts, to offer advice on ways to contain the cost. Here's what they said:

Start cheap. Janet Bodnar, who is editor of Kiplinger's personal finance magazine, author of "Raising Money Smart Kids" and the mother of three competitive swimmers, cautions against devoting too much time or money to a sport until it's clear your child has the aptitude and interest for it. Check out the local Y and the community recreation center rather than signing up with private teams, gyms and pools. Picking the right sport helps, too: Soccer is relatively cheap; ice hockey, golf and horseback riding are not.

"We go through the local community center for gymnastics, (which has) very reasonable rates compared to private gyms," David Anocibar of Yucaipa, Calif., wrote on my Facebook fan page. "We also do karate through a nearby Portuguese-American club. The instructors are able to rent the hall for a couple hours a week and keep their overhead very low. As a result they are able to offer very low prices."