Paycheck Chronicles

Kid's Instruments: Rent or Buy?


Ah, autumn is in the games, falling leaves, and the furious frenzy at the music store as families obtain instruments for their students.  With four kids, we have gone through our share of music lessons, and each time it is a dilemma...should we rent the instrument or buy it?

Before trying to decide, consider these questions:

  1. What instrument is your child trying?  Is it fairly common, like the violin or flute, or more obscure, like the bass or french horn?
  2. Does this instrument come in sizes, or is there just one?  A child might grow out of a 1/4 size cello, but they are unlikely to grown out of a tuba.
  3. How many kids do you have?  What are the chances that a subsequent child might try the same instrument?
  4. Can you find a decent used instrument to buy?  Ask friends and neighbors and be sure to have the instrument cleared by the instructor.  There are lots of low quality instruments out there, and nothing will discourage a student faster than the lousy sound of a cheap buy.  Some instruments are more uniform and inherently safer to purchase used.


Inquire at your local music store about prices for both purchases and rentals.  I strongly recommend going during the off hours - you will not have your questions adequately answered if you show up between school and dinner during the first half of September.  Questions to ask at the store:

  1. What equipment is included?
  2. Does the price remains constant?
  3. What the trade-in or trade-up policy?
  4. Does the rental apply towards purchases?
  5. What is the total purchase price if you buy it outright and if you do the rent-to-own plan.
  6. Is insurance included?  If not, is it required?  How much does it cost?
  7. Are any freebies thrown in?  Our first rental violin came with rosin, a music stand, and a little cushion.  If you will need to purchase the stand anyway, this does factor into the price.  (They're only around $12, but if we're counting...)
As an example, my daughter's percussion class requires a bell kit.  The kit rents for $27.99 a month, but the store is offering a deal for the first three months - only 19.99 for all three months.   It is a year-long class, so she is going to need this bell kit for at least 9 months.  So, we're looking at 19.99 (for the first three months), plus $27.99 a month for six months (167.94) for a total of $187.93.  There is also a $5.99 a month insurance fee, which is technically optional but the store practically forced me into purchasing.  If you chose the insurance, that adds an additional 53.91 to the total.  A school year's worth of rental plus insurance on this instrument adds up to 241.84.

At the end of the nine months,  we would have to either a) return the instrument or b) continue paying the monthly rental until we completed the terms of the rent-to-own agreement.  With the rent-to-own option, you pay 16 months of payments before the instrument is yours, resulting in a total payment of $469.99, plus 95.84 in optional insurance.  Yikes!

Still at the music store, If we choose to purchase the kit upfront, the cost is $259.  Once it is paid for, it is mine, until it is lost or broken, or I choose to resell it.  It seems I could quickly sell it for around $100, because...

I can find the same item (same name brand and model number) on Craigslist for less than $100.  I can't confirm that there isn't a run on Craiglist bell sets, but we've also seen them in the newspaper and on eBay.  Again, beware:  I once tried to purchase a violin online.  It was cheap, but the teacher was aghast.  It seems that certain instruments have huge variations in quality.

The bottom line:  look around, do your math, and don't rush into anything.  Talk to your child's teacher, ask friends, and check the classifieds.  And consider buying:  the first time we had a child take an instrument, we rented and paid around $200 for the year.  I've since picked up a nearly identical one for $125.  (I try not to think about that too much.)  Last year, my child's instrument was rented out and we ended up buying, but I'm glad we did.  And it looks like I'm buying again this time.  It isn't the best choice for every family, or every situation, but it is working for us.

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