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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."

Try used. After first offering a tongue-in-cheek suggestion to reduce sports costs -- "Give birth to nerds" -- Antoinette Patterson Smith of Katy, Texas, recommended asking friends with older children if they have outgrown equipment they're willing to sell or trade.

"Posts on your (Facebook) page are especially helpful -- you never know what your kindergarten classmate from 30 years ago might have for you," she noted.

Some organizations coordinate such swaps, either formally or informally.

"One way we have kept our costs down is by sharing uniforms for the team, and track cleats," said Tony Reynolds of Columbus, Ohio, who started a crowd-funding website for athletics and whose two sons, 10 and 11, compete in the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics.

"When our child outgrows theirs, they donate them to the team, and when other children outgrow theirs, they do the same. We also donate uniforms. . . . Our first year, we benefited from that generosity of other parents, and this year we (reciprocated)," Reynolds said.

Other parents mentioned buying used equipment at places such as Play It Again Sports, using online classifieds such as Craigslist or on eBay.

Don't go overboard. Sometimes you can't buy used, but that doesn't mean you have to pop for top-of-the-line anything. "Look for coupons for sporting goods stores, and buy the cheapest things -- they're probably going to demolish or lose them anyway," advised my friend Marla Jo Fisher, who blogs for The Orange County Register as Deals Diva and who has two teenagers involved in sports. "A 9-year-old doesn't need a $160 bat he's going to leave at practice."

There are always ways to spend more on a sport, whether it's joining a traveling team (maybe your kid would be happy staying with the rec league) or paying for professional pictures rather than taking your own, said Holecko, who's also the mother of a 7-year-old baseball player.

"If I bought the professional shots offered at every skating event -- on top of the baseball team pictures and everything else for both kids -- I'd be spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars," Holecko said.

Financial planner Ted Jenkin, who has three kids ages 10, 12 and 14, says he sees parents wasting money "all the time," sometimes with the help of the coach.

"Local sports today seem to be more of a way for the local coaches to sell their side private business versus coaching," said Jenkin, founder of oXYGen Financial in Alpharetta, Ga. "We shouldn't feel pressured our kid won't get attention if we don't pay $75 or $100 an hour to get some extra help."

Speak up. The post-game snack is one example of a tradition that can quickly escalate into an arms race. One parent brings orange slices. The next brings orange juice and cookies. Not to be outdone, Parent No. 3 proffers decorated cupcakes and sodas. Finally, somebody shows up with White Castle burgers, Doritos and beer. (OK, the beer's just for the grown-ups.)

Not only can the snacks be nutritional nightmares, but they get darned expensive. So can team parties, gifts to the coach and even banners. If you want to keep a lid on costs, get involved.

"Be proactive in team planning, and make it clear from the beginning that you vote for frugality," Fisher wrote. "Many team organizers don't even think about these things, but other parents will breathe a sigh of relief when you do."

Don't delude yourself. I've had parents tell me, in all seriousness, that the money they were spending on kiddie sports was an investment that would pay off in college scholarships. Only a tiny fraction of high school athletes get any kind of scholarship. Only 1.6% of male undergraduates and 1.1% of female undergraduates received a sports scholarship during the 2007-08 school year, according to a study (.pdf file) by FinAid.org publisher Mark Kantrowitz. The average amount: $7,855. All told, athletic scholarships are worth about $1 billion a year; Americans pay more than $460 billion for post-secondary education.

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One Texas dad told me he spent about $2,500 a year, plus travel expenses, on his son's various sporting activities. Once the boy entered high school, he narrowed his sports down to two: football and track.

"I again still spent money on training, camps, equipment," the dad said. "The goal with most of the parents is to get college paid for."

That didn't work out. No recruiters dangled scholarships. The young man did get accepted to Oklahoma State and was promised a spot on the team, but decided he didn't want to play.

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Counting on scholarships isn't a college-savings strategy, any more than counting on the lottery to fund your retirement is. For more on why it's important to save, and how to get started, read "3 college myths that will cost you," "Should you pay for your kid's college?" and "The best and worst 529 plans."

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.