Your kid just signed up to play the trombone (hold your ears!). That Yo-Yo Ma concert inspired you to take up the cello at age 53. The desire to make music can chime in at any time, and it’s a passion still fulfilled by brick-and-mortar instrument stores. That’s because, along with cars and horses, strings, woodwinds, et al. should be tried before they’re bought. Most music stores let you do just that, offering suggestions on models from student level to so-you-joined-the-symphony? Such melody marketers usually also offer sheet music, accessories (drumsticks, viola bows, etc.) and, often, on-site lessons. Click here for customer reviews of local music stores.

But unlike many retailers that specialize in selling things, music stores generally offer some services other stores don’t: instrument rentals and lease-to-buy plans. This is all inspired by—and tailored to—students (usually schoolkids) who passionately take up violin, flugelhorn, et al. and then discover they’d rather play basketball/video games. The theory: Why shell out for an expensive piece of equipment until you know you’re joining the symphony or going on tour with Katy Perry?

But is renting a sax, trumpet, or drum set a good deal? We called local instrument stores that offered month-to-month or short-term (usually three- to six-month) rental programs to ask about their prices and terms.

On a high note, unless you find a Stradivarius for cheap on Craigslist, it’s a better short-term deal to rent than to buy. For example, for a flute (brands and models vary by store) retailers quoted us monthly rental fees of $14–$40. Prices for flutes ranged from $100 for a plastic “student” flute to upwards of $500 or $1,000 for fancier styles. For a trombone, retailers quoted us $16–$26 a month; buying one can run from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. And string instruments—violins, cellos—as well as some woodwinds often need to be traded in or replaced as kids grow, which also makes leasing make good financial sense.   

Some schools also offer rental programs, too, often at even cheaper rates than stores. Music teachers and band directors may also know of rental deals or used instrument sources.

Before signing on to the mandolin-by-the-month club, ask to get rental terms and prices in writing. Some stores will rent instruments for a single month, but it’s more common to have a short-term contract, say three or nine months (usually tailored to the school year or terms). And most but not all shops offer lease-to-own programs, and insurance or maintenance programs. Ask, too, about used instruments, which are cheaper to rent and often not very different from new.

And a finale: If you decide to pony up to buy a Fender or Gibson, used is also usually a better deal than new, and many music stores also deal in secondhand models. And give serious thought to buying your kid an instrument until you’re really, really sure that he or she is serious about music.