Summer camp is right around the corner. For those new to local camp culture, the idea of spending upwards of $500 a week per child is a tough pill to swallow. But even in the country’s most expensive city, there are ways to spend less while getting the kids out of your hair providing your children with the opportunity to learn challenging activities and make friends.
Here are some tips for planning a summer of frugal fun.
Export the children to willing relatives in more economical environs.
Once they hit first grade or so, many kids relish time away with the grandparents or cousins. It’s a bonus when those relatives happen to live in less expensive zip codes. Last July, both our sons went to a full-week, half-day Lego camp outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Total cost for both: $360.
A few years earlier, our older son, Andy, flew by himself to North Carolina to participate in both a horseback riding camp ($300 for the week) and two weeks of half-day Lego camp ($180 per week). Even with the cost of camps and airfare—including the $50 unattended minor surcharge and $20 of junk food to sustain Andy on the 90-minute flight—we ultimately spent less than had he camped locally. When he wasn’t at camp, he kept himself busy with yard work, bicycle riding, unfettered TV access, and general grandsonning. If you’re not fortunate enough to have both sets of grandparents living in close proximity to each other and willing to share child-minding duties, you’ll likely be able to hire a babysitter anywhere else for about half the price of a New York caregiver.
Depending on where the kids go, they’ll be exposed to regional camps—like NASCAR racing down south, rappelling out west, and boating along the water—and likely for less than you’d pay here, assuming you could even find the activities locally.
Export the kids abroad.
For older children learning another language, consider sending them farther afield. Cultural organizations like the China Institute offer in-country immersion programs for a month or longer, with airfare, housing, meals, and schooling included.
Look for camp discounts on flash-sale sites like Groupon, Living Social, and Plum District.
In addition to standards like Oasis summer camp in Central Park and elsewhere in the vicinity, you’re likely to find unusual week-long offerings like fencing, martial arts, and sailing. From now right up through summer, you can find good deals and coupons on programs, though one can expect offerings to ramp up as the weather gets warmer.
Pay attention to school auction booklets.
Most public and private schools (as well as other charities) host annual auctions that fund projects they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some items up for grabs are posted on biddingforgood.com, but others are kept for live- or silent-bidding the night of the event. If you’re not invited to an auction with offers you’d like to buy, ask a friend in attendance to bid for you.
Patch together a summer of camp, one week at a time.
You’ll feel like an Army general juggling logistics, but if you can spare the time to coordinate 10 weeks of various activities, you’ll likely see significant savings. Plus, your advanced planning will provide your child with a much greater variety of activities. Say your 10-year-old can’t decide whether she wants to be a historian, scientist, squash pro, veterinarian, or diplomat. You probably won’t find one camp that covers it all. Rather than forcing her to pick one avocation for the entire summer, consider enrolling her in a few different camps. For example, the Mount Vernon Hotel for colonial exposure, the American Museum of Natural History for hands-on time with hominoids, and intensive Mandarin at the China Institute. Some camps will be Manhattan-priced, but others will make you wonder if prices got stuck in a time warp and never caught up.
Ask for flexibility.
A few summers ago, we weren’t sure how much of our summer would be in New York. I didn’t want to pay for a non-refundable camp that we might not be able to attend in full. So I explained our situation to the director, who agreed to refund us if we went away. If you send several children to one camp, ask about a family plan. Even if you send only one child, ask for a discount. Even big businesses like summer camps realize families are watching their pennies.
If you’re going to be in the city and Camp Mom is all booked up, register early for camps. Depending how much lead time you have, some camps will offer discounts of 30% or greater. But do make sure you will attend since your payment isn’t likely to be refunded should you change your mind.
Let your tax dollars work for you.
Even with budget cuts, the city offers some pretty cool free summer fare. Check out http://www.nyc.gov/portal/site/nycgov/menuitem.f7c38d8b0a5931f6a62fa24601c789a0/ for a list of camps in all five boroughs—some free or inexpensive and city-run, some full-priced and run by private groups, and others run the gamut in between.
Regardless of where you send your child to camp, try to set aside money in the fall in an employer-sponsored dependent savings account. You’ll be reimbursed with pre-tax dollars, so your camp expenses actually could come at a 20% discount, depending on your tax bracket. There are a few stipulations with the DSA: both parents must work or be in school to justify out-of-home care; campers must be younger than 13 for their parents to take the deduction; and any DSA money not used is forfeited.
Lastly, try to put your camp bill on a credit card that rewards spending, like an airline Visa card, American Express Hilton Honors card, or cash-back credit card. If you’re going to spend the money anyway, you may as well get something back for it.
Hillary Chura writes our Le$$er Parenting column where she helps New Yorkers parent for less. She lives in Manhattan with her sons and husband.