How to Plan for Summer Camp So You’re Not Broke By the Fall

An elementary school boy leads a group of kids through the woods with his walking stick.
FatCamera/Getty Images

If the thought of summer makes you imagine fun, carefree living, then you must not be a parent faced with finding — and paying for — supervised care for children who are out of school for two-and-a-half months.

According to the American Camp Association, the average weekly cost of day camp can range from just under $200 to over $800. Yes, per week. And if your kiddo is dying to go to sleep-away camp, you could be staring at thousand-dollar weekly rates. Yikes!

Kids, of course, are oblivious to the high costs. They just want to enjoy themselves, make new friends, play sports and create crafts. And while it may be pricy, the fact remains that unless you have the entire summer off work or you’ve roped the grandparents or a cheap babysitter into providing care, the kids are going to have to go somewhere.

Still, if you’re going the camp route this summer, that doesn’t mean your budget has to be obliterated. Here’s what you need to know when staring a season of summer camp in the face.

Analyze the Summer Week by Week

Time to get out your calendar. Flip to the months of June, July and August and see what’s already planned. If you have an upcoming family vacation or are hosting out-of-town relatives, cross off those weeks.

Many camps charge tuition by the week, anticipating that the same group of children may not be in attendance the entire time. Instead of stressing over what you’ll do with the kids for the whole summer, view the time off school in weekly chunks.

Once you nail down which weeks you’ll want them in camp, make sure to register as early as possible to avoid spots filling up. Look beyond traditional camps held in woodsy settings. Local museums, colleges, private schools, child care centers, arts organizations and nature groups host summer camp too.

You don’t have to commit to one camp for the entire summer either. If your child really wants to attend a pricy theater arts class, schedule a couple weeks there and the rest of the time at a cheaper option.

Consider the Hidden Costs

When budgeting for summer camp, recognize that the weekly rate isn’t all you have to pay for. Most camps will require you to pay a registration fee. Some may also charge additional fees for field trips, T-shirts or supplies.

You’ll need to plan and budget for transportation costs to and from camp — a new expense if your kid normally takes the bus to school. Choose a camp close to home or work to minimize transportation costs or arrange a carpool with other families attending the same camp.

You may also need to include the cost of lunch and snacks in your budget if the camp doesn’t provide food.

For many working parents, a summer camp’s schedule doesn’t line up with hours on the job. Many camps offer before- and after-program care. However, plan to pay an additional cost for that perk.

Explore Summer Camp Financial Assistance

Don’t feel like you have to succumb to those scary average-price-of-camp statistics. Less expensive options exist.

Though it may not be widely advertised, your camp of choice may offer scholarships, price discounts or other forms of financial assistance.

Over 93% of camps reported that they offer financial assistance, and 67% award at least $10,000 in scholarships each year, according to the American Camp Association

Speak with the camp director to see if you qualify for financial assistance or even a special payment plan. Don’t assume your income makes you ineligible. There’s no harm in asking.

Your summer camp may offer discounts for enrolling multiple children, referring another family, being a returning camper, signing up for a certain number of weeks or registering early.

Camps hosted by public or nonprofit entities may be more affordable options. Check your local school system, library or your city or county’s park and recreation department to see what summer programs they offer. The YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, the Police Athletic League and churches or other religious organizations also provide summer camps at rates that may be less expensive than privately-run programs.

Don’t discount the creativity of your own social circle when it comes to summer care options. You could DIY your own summer camp program, like this group of friends and neighbors in Rockland County, New York, did.

FROM THE BUDGETING FORUM

To create your own summer camp co-op, stagger time off work with the other parents in the group. Whoever’s off work would be in charge of watching the kids and leading them in fun activities — or the group can collectively pay for a child care professional to do the job.

Start Saving Now for Next Year

A good approach to tackling the cost of summer camp is to start saving early. It’s pretty late to begin saving for this year, but you have more than 12 months to save up for next year’s camp costs if you start now.

Pro Tip

If you’ve been contributing to a dependent care flexible spending account (FSA), you could use that money to cover summer camp costs for children under age 13.

Estimate the costs you’ll pay for your kids to participate in summer camp next year and divide the total by 12 to determine how much you need to save each month. Having to come up with $300 each week is much more manageable when you have a year to save up.

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Camp Grandma is going to be a life saver — well, really a money saver — for her this summer.