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Should you rent or buy a musical instrument for your budding prodigy?

March 25, 2015

By Pam Leibfried

March is National Music in Schools Month!

My 11-year-old nephew is starting his second instrument in as many years. A couple of his cousins have started and stopped playing piano and guitar. And I don’t think that the children in my family are unusual – children just tend to be fickle. That is why so many parents choose to rent musical instruments for their school-aged children instead of buying them.

Borrow an instrument

Before you price out the cost of renting or purchasing, check to see if you can borrow an instrument. Some school music programs have instruments that beginners can borrow, though that is becoming increasingly rare as school arts budgets are reduced. Or maybe you have a family member or friend who used to play the instrument your child is interested in. If so, ask them if they would be willing to loan it to your child. If their trumpet or trombone has been sitting in a closet gathering dust, but they just can’t bring themselves to sell it, they may be happy to see it put to good use. I know if one of my nieces or nephews said they wanted to play the clarinet, I would be happy to loan mine to them.

When I started playing the clarinet in grade school, I first borrowed an instrument from my school. But once my parents knew that I loved it, they bought one for me. I went on to play from fifth grade through high school, and even performed clarinet accompaniments to a song or two at my college’s winter sacred chorales. To this day, 35+ years later, I occasionally pull out my clarinet and play a tune to lift my spirits and literally blow away a bad mood. For my parents, buying was the right choice, and they definitely got their money’s worth out of that decision. Or more accurately, I definitely got their money’s worth! 

Buy a new instrument

If your child already plays an instrument, practices regularly without nagging and really loves it, purchasing may be the best option for your family. Below are some of the cost factors to consider when buying:

  • The purchase price could be lower than rental fees over the years, so it could save you money in the long run to buy. If you’re purchasing via a credit card or payment plan, be sure to include the interest you’ll pay in your calculation of the total cost. Also, don’t forget to include the sales tax in your calculations. If a Chicagoan purchases a new $750+ clarinet, for example, the sales tax adds over $69 to the cost.  
  • Just like when you’re buying a car, the real price to buy an instrument is not the list price. In fact, music stores often sell instruments at steep discounts. For example, Westmusic.com offers a 30% discount for purchasers, and throws in a six-month service plan to boot.  
  • You’ll probably want to insure the instrument. Talk to your insurance agent about adding it to your homeowner’s policy if your policy doesn’t already cover instruments.  
  • If you are buying a new instrument from an online music retailer, make sure that it has a good return program in case there is a problem with the instrument. Summersong.net recommends a minimum of a 30-day return policy.  
  • Many music stores have buyback programs, which can be a hedge against your child deciding after a year or two that she wants to devote all her time to basketball and drop band class.  

Buy a used instrument 

Even when your child loves the instrument he or she plays, buying a new one might be too expensive for your budget. A possible solution? Buy a used instrument.

  • Music stores with buy-back programs generally have lots of used instruments for sale. Make sure that the seller is reputable – often, your child’s teachers can recommend stores in your area where other parents have purchased used instruments with good results. 
  • You’ll find other parents offloading their child’s abandoned instruments via Ebay, Craigslist or other online resellers. You need to be careful here to avoid scammers and to ensure that the instrument is not damaged. It is safer to buy only locally if purchasing an instrument, so that you can see it and/or your child can test it out. 
  • Your child’s teacher may be willing to go with you to inspect the instrument if they teach private lessons – generally, school band teachers have too many students to be able to do so. Just be sure to confirm whether or not your music teacher charges a fee for doing so. Even if you have to pay the teacher $50, if you save $300 on the instrument vs. buying a new one, you’ll come out ahead. And if that $50 fee saves you from spending hundreds on a faulty or damaged instrument, it’s money well spent.

Rent or lease an instrument

Maybe you’re not sure that your child is really committed to sticking with it. Or even though your child is committed, you’re just not sure that you can afford to buy an expensive instrument. Here are some of the factors you need to investigate and consider when it comes to instrument rentals:

  • What are the rental terms? Monthly? By semester? By school year? If the terms are for semester or school year, do they include the summer months? My high school band practiced for marching band season all summer long, so not having access to an instrument during the summer would have been a big problem for any of my bandmates. 
  • Does the store offer a rent-to-own option that allows you to build equity toward purchasing an instrument if you decide to buy one later on? 
  • Is insurance against theft, loss or damage included in the rental fee? If not, be sure to include that cost in your calculations.