Estimating the costs
LearnVest advises parents that any costs for summer camp should come out of the one-third of your annual budget dedicated to "choices"—in other words, from the portion of your budget dedicated to purchase decisions that could be considered optional. As such, budgeting and saving in advance for camp is always ideal, especially if your child has his or her eye on a pricey summer getaway.
But summer camp costs can also vary greatly from camp to camp, which means the camp you choose should be a product of careful research and comparison. The American Camp Association (ACA) states that nationwide, average camp expenses work out to between $200-$400 per week. From here, some camps can range upwards into the four or five digits, while others may charge just a nominal material/meals charge or even be offered gratis.
1. Apply for "camperships"
Instead of scholarships, summer camps offer "camperships"—full or partial scholarships to deserving campers. Income dictates the selection of campership recipients—but income minimums may differ widely from one camp to another so it pays to ask!
Also ask about these possible discounts:
- Multiple child discounts
- Multiple week discounts
- Early enrollment discounts
- Referral discounts
2. Inquire about group discounts
Just as many museums, shows and airlines will offer discounts for groups, so too will camps. Contact the camp and find out the minimum headcount to qualify for a group discount, then see if you can gather enough of your child's friends together to earn the discount for all campers.
3. Use your Flexible Spending Account (FSA) benefits
According to the federal government's FSA website, if your child is under the age of 13 and attends a summer day-camp, this can qualify as work-related childcare, and you can use your FSA balance to pay for it. Learn more HERE at the FSA website.
4. Use your Child & Dependent Care Tax Credit benefits
The IRS provides up to $3,000 per child (or $6,000 for two children) for qualifying daycare, including day camps. Learn more here at the IRS website.
5. Check out local nonprofit options
Local nonprofit organizations, or local branches of nationwide nonprofits, may offer free or vastly discounted summer-camp options with all the perks. The key here is to apply early—this is because, as would be expected, when the price is right, camp spaces go fast.
Here are some nonprofits to consider:
- YWCA: do a search on "camps" or your state.
- Girl Scouts of America
- Boy Scouts of America
- Boys and Girls Club of America
- Lions Club of America: these camp exchange programs include lodging and meals—plus, the local Lions Club covers the costs of travel.
- Local churches and faith-based organizations: Many offer day camp and weekend retreat options for very low cost or free.
- Local museums, especially children's museums: Here, you may also be able to get discounts or free camp days if you have an existing membership.
- Ask at local colleges and universities. Many higher-learning institutions have free or inexpensive summer outreach and learning programs for younger students.
6. Search the ACA website by camp and price
The American Camp Association (ACA) website has a nationwide list of camps organized by region and price. Using the search feature, you can narrow your search down to camps that fit within your budget.
7. Create your own low-budget, custom "camp"
Finally, if you can find a few fellow willing adults (consider neighbors, fellow parents whose kids are friends with your friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other suitable candidates), you can create your own custom summer camp experience.
Here’s what to do:
- Pick the campers (try to stick to a narrow age range so as not to overburden adult volunteers or frustrate other campers).
- Have each camper's parent contribute a small amount to the group "camp kitty" to cover basic meals and supplies.
- Assign an adult or parent volunteer for every 2-4 kids (use your best judgment here).
- Pick the camp dates.
- Choose a camp theme—some great themes include outdoor activities, crafts, games, gardening and more.
- Select the activities for each day, write out the itinerary and assemble all supplies in advance.
- Name your camp (or have the campers vote on a name!)
- It's camp time!