Expert Q&A

Buying a first band instrument? To avoid the blues, shop used


A child’s first band instrument can change a life — or drain a wallet if you pay top dollar for what turns out to be an adolescent’s momentary whim

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Question for the expert

Dear New Frugal You,
I’ve read various articles that would help you to decide whether it’s best to rent or buy. But I’ve got a question that no one wants to answer. It’s about band instruments. My daughter will be eligible for band next school year. She’s expressed an interest in learning the flute. My husband and I have already purchased a trumpet and drum set for our older sons. Both played for one year and then quit. Fortunately I was able to sell both online, but not for nearly what we paid for them. Renting seems like the answer until you look at the monthly charges. Then I begin to wonder which really is the best choice. What’s the frugal answer? — Karen


Answer for the expert

Dear Karen,
Good question! And one that’s been challenging parents for generations. We’re happy to see our kids learn about music (it was violin and drums in our house), but music appreciation can be dangerous to our hearing and our savings account. So what’s the parent of a potential prodigy to do?

The first thing to do is to gather some facts about your child’s interest in the instrument and what the school has to offer. Only then should you look at the instrument itself.

Begin with your child. Why is your daughter interested in the flute? Was she inspired by a concert or a TV character playing the flute? Or is it something that her BFF (best friend forever) is learning?

Knowing her motivation will help you predict how long she’ll stay motivated. If she was emotionally moved by watching a virtuoso performance it could be a lifelong relationship. On the other hand, if it’s just because she wants to hang out with her friend, she’ll probably drop it as soon as her friend does.

You’ll also want to consider how determined your child is. Some kids begin and drop things easily and quickly. They flit about, wanting to learn a little about everything in life. Others are more likely to choose a few interests and immerse themselves deeply in everything about them.

Next, talk with the school’s band instructor. They can be a wealth of information. Begin by asking about your child’s choice of instrument. Not all instruments are allowed in every school band. And some instruments tend to attract many more students than there are available places in the band. It’s just possible that Susie will end up playing a different instrument.

The instructor may also be able to tell you how hard it is to learn the basics of the instrument. Will it be a long time before your child begins to hear some results from their efforts? Or will she begin to get some positive feedback in just a few weeks? The answer could make a difference in how long they continue to play.

Talk with the teacher about the choice and availability of instruments. Some cheap instruments are much harder to play than a more expensive one. You don’t want to doom Susie’s efforts before she starts in an effort to save money. That’s not frugality, that’s foolish.

Finally, ask if the instructor knows of any parents looking to sell or other sources for good, inexpensive used instruments.

At this point you should have a rough idea whether new, used or rental looks most attractive. Research new and rental prices. Begin looking for available used instruments. Don’t just limit yourself to the local online classified section. Many instruments are light enough to be shipped. So check out online stores such as eBay and other places where buyers and sellers meet on the Web. Don’t forget to ask if the school offers any help in matching up buyers and sellers. Even a “instrument wanted” note on the school bulletin board or website could turn up a bargain.

Typically, if you can find a good used instrument at a reasonable price, that will be your best option. If your daughter quits after a year, you can sell it for something close to what you paid for it. If she just loves band, you can always sell it when you upgrade to a better instrument for her.

So don’t be too quick to buy a new instrument. Let other parents pay that new-flute premium. After all, you’ll want to save a few dollars so you can head down to the local drugstore for some earplugs. Based on the past experience of many parents you’ll probably need them for awhile.

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