Tom Smart, Deseret News
Preschool children play soccer at the Oquirrh Park soccer fields on April 29. Fewer kids are signing up for youth sports and other activities this spring.

When Janee Kalikakis' mortgage-lending employer went out of business, her family of five mostly lived off savings and cut out all extras — except the kids' extracurriculars.

"For me, my kids are the most important thing," said Kalikakis, whose 11-, 16- and 17-year-old daughters are involved in karate, competitive dance and soccer, respectively. "I was not OK with giving that up for them."

Many other parents might find themselves struggling to find a way to keep kids' activities afloat as budgets are siphoned by rising fuel and food costs, or a job loss.

Fewer kids are signing up for youth sports this spring, according to Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation. The recreation center in Kearns saw dance, cheer, gymnastics, wrestling, karate and roller hockey enrollments drop 45 percent. The day care, on the other hand, is jam-packed, with a year-long waiting list.

"With prices going up, I can guess people are needing to make choices with any discretionary money they have," said David Young, the center's program manager and facilities director.

Seventy-eight percent of Utah adults say the United States is in a recession, according to a Dan Jones & Associates poll commissioned by the Deseret News and KSL-TV. The April 21-24 survey had a margin of error of 5 percent.

Just under half of the 404 Utah adults surveyed say they've cut back on leisure and nonessential items in the past year. Forty-three percent say they're spending about the same, and 8 percent said they are spending more on such items.

Parents are cutting back on youth activities.

"It's not drastic, but our numbers are down from a year ago," Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation spokesman Martin Jensen said. "The money people spend on recreation is discretionary spending. When times get tough, maybe they pick one sport for their children to participate in, rather than three or four as we usually see."

At Kearns, T-Ball participation dipped 10 percent from last spring, or from 200 to 180 kids. Soccer, which costs $36 for the season, dropped 23 percent, from 700 kids last spring to 540 this spring. Dance, cheerleading, gymnastics, wrestling, karate and roller hockey enrollment slipped from 194 to 106 children — a 45 percent plunge.

Youth program rolls haven't changed at the Dimple Dell Recreation Center in Sandy. But memberships have. Sales dipped 10 percent from first-quarter 2007 to first-quarter 2008, director Larry McKinney said. While cryptosporidium in the pools has helped decrease the number of visitors, more might be at play in the sales dip.

"I do think that could definitely be attributed to the economy," McKinney said. "People can't afford to spend $300 or $400 (on a year pass) in one chunk."

Enrollments also are down at the University of Utah's preschool — common in an economic downturn, said U. associate professor Cheryl Wright, who is chairman of the family and consumer studies department.

The Winner School in Holladay, which offers dance training, karate, preschool and after-school programs, has lost some students whose parents work in real estate, mortgage banking and construction, owner and director of educational programs Connie Saccomanno said.

She said she hasn't seen the likes of it in her 18 years in business.

"We have a couple of families that we're working with very closely on payment plans, because they don't want to quit during the year," Saccomanno said, adding she's trying to find dancers small jobs they can do around the studio, as well as fundraising projects for costumes.

Still, "some just have had to quit," Saccomanno said. "Some of these families have been with us a long time."

Kalikakis has managed to keep her children in lessons. Some are fundraising, or netting scholarships for dance competitions, as entry fees can reach $175 for several routines. The youngest also had to drop the private, after-school program she loved. The oldest rebudgeted money earned from a part-time job.

"That's been the hardest thing for us," Kalikakis said, "not being able to just say, 'yes, yes, yes' to everything you want to do."

So how do you talk to your kids about drastically cutting expenses without scaring them — or making them feel it's their fault?

Utah State University lecturer Kaelin Olsen understands financial strain. A couple of years ago, her husband lost his job, and they had to explain to their 1-, 3- and 9-year old children what would happen.

"It's almost easier if children are younger like that — it's not like we have to replace what they had. Children who are a little bit older and who do understand money, those are the ones who suffer," said Olsen, who lectures in child development and parenting. "They have magical thinking — it must be my fault because I didn't make my bed. It takes a lot of educating and communicating with your child to help them understand it's not their fault."

Sometimes, kids make the talk worse than it is. Olsen's oldest child responded: I'll stop taking piano lessons so we'll have money for food.

That wasn't necessary for her family. So her parents needed to explain that to her.

Olsen said she used Monopoly money to count out income, and subtracted from the stack the family's actual bills. She wanted to show the child the job loss was not going to affect the family's ability to take care of itself. The family could have fun — bike rides and picnics are still in — just not so many extra, expensive things.

"It empowers them more than anything to let them know, our bills are going to be taken care of and we're going to be just fine," Olsen said.

Parents can start financial literacy in preschool to make such transitions a little easier. They can involve kids at the grocery store, saying, "This bag of corn costs $1, this one, 89 cents, which should we buy?"

"If they understand how the world works, then it's not mom being mean, it's basic economics," said Julie Felshaw, economics and financial-education specialist at the Utah State Office of Education.

Giving kids choices also helps, Wright said. A parent might say, "This is how much money we can spend for your birthday. What would you choose in this range?" Or, if a movie costs $20 for the family to go see, "Would you rather do that, or rent a DVD for $1, have a picnic or go to the park?"

Older children faced with losing long-standing piano lessons will require a heart-to-heart. Wright suggests asking a teen to help brainstorm ways to stay in gymnastics lessons. Could she do more fundraising? Pick up a paper route? As for parents: Could you call on grandparents to help out until things get better? Or get rid of cable TV?

The talk, and choices, are tough.

"I was just honest, and it's hard for them," Kalikakis said. "My youngest was really sad when she had to not do that after-school program because she has friends there."

But, she said, "Why pretend everything's great if it's not?"

"They know," she said. "The youngest doesn't really get it, but my take is, I haven't been working, and we all need to work together."

Kalikakis has a new job, and is rebuilding. Her kids are OK. And she's proud of her family for weathering the storm. To her, the bottom line is simple.

"I'm grateful for what I have. I still have a house, I still have a car. ... My kids are healthy and happy," she said. "It's just a huge transition to go through."

E-mail: [email protected]