Families with children often face a particular leisure-time budgeting dilemma: when it comes to various kid-friendly attractions, parks, museums, your local zoo, or even the YMCA, do you opt to pay per visit / day / swim lesson? Or do you make a major monetary investment and buy the family membership—in hopes that it will save you money in the long run?
In some cases, a membership or season pass can save you bundles of money. In others, it can actually cost you big time. Here's what parents should consider when deciding if springing for the season pass is a sound financial decision.
The "New" Factor
Many have experienced the familiar sting of buying an annual pass for their kids—only to have them bored two months into the year-long contract. For those of us parents who grew up as latchkey kids in the '80s and '90s and entertained ourselves by running feral around the neighborhood, this behavior can perhaps reek of entitlement. But it turns out, there is a perfectly good explanation for this phenomenon.
Dr. Camille Ace, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells Parents that "part of the excitement is the newness of the whole experience, which over time loses its luster. We get saturated with the same experience over and over which ultimately leads to disinterest. And the speed with which the excitement deflates also depends on our sense of urgency to justify the potentially regretful decision by increasing the frequency we force our kids to use the membership/pass because we feel compelled to get our money's worth."
What sounds appealing, initially, rapidly turns into indifference and defeats the purpose of purchasing the season pass. Your kids might be having the time of their lives the first time they experience an activity, but they may view it as less magical by the 50th time. Knowing they have access any time no longer makes it seem "special," so tread with caution when making a long-term commitment.
Your Break-Even Point
Morgan Webb, certified financial planner and managing partner of Estrada Webb & Associates, tells Parents that season passes, family gym memberships, or kids' attractions should all follow the same philosophy when it comes to purchasing. She suggests you examine the cost per visit to see how that compares to a membership—and ask yourself some questions: How frequently do you plan to visit? What is the baseline of times you would have to go to break even? Is your family willing to commit to going enough times to at least pay for the passes themselves?
Webb says calculating the break-even point can help you decide if a membership is truly going to pay off—and could also potentially spur you to visit more frequently if you do purchase one. She suggests speaking openly about the cost of a membership with your kids, so they can get on board with the commitment of going enough to get your money's worth.
An amusement park may advertise an annual pass that runs approximately $6.00-$20.00 per person, per month—versus buying a one-day ticket that costs roughly $30.00. If your family will go several times during the summer and holidays, it might be worth it, but do your due diligence and research to find out the actual grand total before deciding if it's truly a smart move. Webb says there are typically added "hidden" fees (tax, parking, sign-up and processing fees) that show up on your bill that you might not be fully aware of because they were buried in the fine print. And many locations require parents to purchase their own passes, even if they are only chaperoning.
However, there are membership options at certain places that don't require you to sign a financial contract and instead allow you to go month-to-month, which is a great way to test the waters before diving in. Some YMCAs offer this option—and even provide financial assistance to those who qualify.
Reality vs. Intentions
It's easy to make decisions based on unrealistic intentions instead of on our actual lives. For instance, the thought of enrolling the kids in a museum's science classes sounds enticing; but when it comes down to it the day-of, will you (and the kids) be as enthused about going as you previously imagined?
Dr. Ace suggests this is due to cognitive bias, which is a subconscious error in thinking that leads you to misinterpret information from the world around you and affects the rationality and accuracy of decisions and judgments. This might lead you to believe that you will use something far more than you actually will. Because, ultimately, you're not being honest with yourself.
Webb advises parents to be pragmatic about how much their budget allows for discretionary expenses and how this particular purchase will affect the rest of their finances. "If you want to spend X amount per month on family activities, and the season pass takes up your entire budget, it is important to consider that there will be a sacrifice to doing things outside of what your season pass/membership offers," Webb notes. "And remember: Because you purchased a pass at the beginning of the season, it is important to allocate that expense on a monthly basis, so you don't double up because you forgot about the money you already spent."
Dr. Ace asserts that proximity matters: The membership pass will be more worthwhile if it is for a venue that is relatively near your home. We as humans are much more likely to frequent somewhere near us than deal with the hassle of driving all the way across town.
Webb suggests that unknowns such as weather should also factor into your decision. Is the place outdoors or in a climate-controlled indoor environment? Can it be used all year-round or just in the warm or cold months? A membership at an outdoor theme park sounds nice, but when you factor in that it may be unusable during many of the winter months, it might no longer seem like such a steal.
Encouraging friends to also get passes can be helpful, because it breaks up the monotony of riding the same rides or seeing the same things over and over. Webb, who is mom herself, notes that her kids "and their buddies got season passes to a local waterpark this summer. Typically, the waterpark quickly runs its course, but this year they were still going all the time because their friends were, too... It had become the local hangout."
Many attractions incentivize membership by offering their members perks and services that are not readily available to the general public, such as hosting birthday parties or private events. Members may receive free parking or discounts on food or beverages. Additionally, some museums, aquariums, botanical gardens, and zoos offer reciprocity with other similar facilities across the country (or continent!) which can be particularly useful when traveling.
The YMCA offers a multitude of extra offerings to its members, including fitness and education programs, summer camps, sports, swimming, and educational programs.
Take your emotions out of it.
Watching the kids with smiles on their faces and laughter emanating is tempting enough for any parent to make the impulsive purchase for that annual pass, but Dr. Ace cautions against being enticed to make a snap decision just because your kids are having fun.
"The kids might even beg and throw in a pretty please to seal the deal," she warns. "But similar to that new shiny toy or adorable puppy, the novelty will wear off. So don't let your emotions sway you, because signing a financial contract is something that should require extensive thought and consideration."
Dr. Ace encourages parents to stop and think before getting distracted by all the glitz and glitter—and to be wary of advertising language. Often, companies put pressure on you to purchase the membership or passes on the spot by offering a discount on your admission and claiming it's a "limited time offer." While that might be tempting, it's best to go home and mull it over before committing to something you might later regret.
"People want to feel like they are getting a great deal," she explains. "We are all susceptible to the lingo and verbiage used for marketing tactics. But if we stop to think about the actual purchase, we may start to break down the different costs versus the benefits," she explains.
The Bottom Line
There's a lot to contemplate when considering a membership. Taking the time to do some math and being realistic about your family's needs and habits can pay off in dividends. Similarly, simply answering some questions about your visiting patterns—and not rushing into anything—will also help you make the best decision for your family's budget.