Summer camp is a wonderful opportunity for children to learn life lessons like leadership, independence, and self-confidence, as well as to try new activities like sailing, ropes courses, and waterskiing. It’s hard to put a price tag on your child’s learning and growth experiences, but parents should know that with a little planning and research there are a number of ways—some perhaps obvious, some less so—to help make summer camp more affordable. “With careful planning, parents can find a camp that works within their family’s means,” says Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey (ACA). “When you think about how much it costs to have a child home all summer—with child care and activities—you realize you can be paying a very small premium for a very rich experience.”
Look for a camp early: It isn’t too early to look for a camp for the summer of 2018, or even 2019. Plan to tour places this coming summer while the camp is in action. Some programs offer early bird specials, so you can register soon after the tour for savings. Getting a head start also gives families a longer time to plan financially.
Think of it as a gift: Camp can be given to children as part of birthday or holiday gifts, and parents can budget for these presents throughout the year. Likewise, members of the extended family, like grandparents, may also want to contribute to a gift like camp.
Search camps by cost: There is a camp for every budget. Families can search the ACA, NY and NJ’s camp website (searchforacamp.org) and search by cost, as well as by day or sleepaway, location, activities, single-sex or coed, and brother-sister camps (therightcamp.com also has a good camp search engine). Likewise, families can also contact the ACA, NY and NJ camper placement specialist for free one-on-one advice on finding the right camp at the right price for your family. Keep in mind that some YMCA camps in particular view it as part of their mission to accept a certain percentage of kids from families of modest means.
Get a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account: A Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account allows parents to be reimbursed on a pre-tax basis for child care or adult dependent care expenses that are necessary to allow parents to work, look for work, or attend school full-time while they are caring for qualified dependents. In certain circumstances, day camp expenses, including transportation by a care provider, may be considered dependent care services. Visit the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website (irs.gov) for more information.
Use Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit: The IRS allows an income tax credit of up to $6,000 of dependent care expenses if you have two or more dependents (up to $3,000 for one dependent). The amount of the credit is based on your adjusted gross income and applies only to your federal taxes. This applies to qualifying day camp expenses as well. Visit the FSA Feds website (fsafeds.com) for more information.
Talk to the camp director: Parents should talk to the camp director at the camp they are interested in sending their child to. Some camps offer sibling discounts and payment plans—and that’s just the official policy. If you have your heart set on a camp but can’t afford it, you can talk to the director to see if he or she would consider a sliding scale rate in your case.
Hold a fundraiser: I know this might seem like an overly self-serving solicitation, but if you do it in a way that shows spunk and creativity—and your child helps take the lead on it—you’d be surprised how friends and neighbors might be charmed by the idea of an effort to raise money for camp. Even something as old-fashioned as a lemonade stand with good signage explaining where the money is going might be an attention-getter and profit-maker. But use real lemons. People appreciate authenticity.
For more tips on budgeting for camp, read on.