May 18, 2009 -- Some of Gennifer Birnbach's fondest memories come from her childhood in summer camp. So this summer, despite being out of work for more than a year, she and her husband are paying $8,000 to send their two children off to camp.
"This economy is awful," the Westchester, N.Y., resident said. "My husband and I are both out of work right now. Our kids know that things are tight. They see it, they feel it, but I don't want to have them feel it as much as we are feeling it."
As the recession forces families to make difficult choices, parents across the country seem generally reluctant to cut spending on their kids and many summer camps, which are a rite of passage for some, appear to be holding their own, especially at the higher end.
Birnbach spent eight years at Summer Trails Day Camp in Westchester, starting in 1974 when she was 4. After two summers at sleep-away camp, she returned to work there as a counselor. Her daughter Remi Hoffmann -- who turns 6 next month -- started at Summer Trails last summer. Her son Owen, who is about to turn 4, will start this summer.
"Ever since I was too old to be a camper and needed a real job, I've spent every summer sad that I'm not at camp," Birnbach said. "In my 20s and early 30s, I just couldn't wait to get married, have kids and relive camp all over again."
Birnbach was laid off from her jobs in publicity, ad sales and marketing in December 2007. She has tried to do freelance work ever since. Her husband, Philippe Hoffmann, is a freelance graphic designer, but work has slowed with the economy.
With a little help from their families, however, they have scraped together enough money to pay for camp.
"It did such wonders for her," Birnbach said of Remi. "She was painfully shy. I wanted her to have the experience of having fun and learning what it's like to branch out."
Sold Out Summer Camps
At the Timber Lake Camp, an eight-week residential facility in New York's Catskill Mountains, all 460 spots for this summer are filled. The cost: $9,850 for each camper.
Jay Jacobs, who has spent 30 years in the camping business and owns five camps, says he has seen growth in first-time campers.
Cash-Strapped Parents Make Children a Priority
At his Tyler Hill Camp in Pennsylvania, all the spots are full. Again, the price for eight weeks: $9,850.
"When you're setting the priorities as to what to cut back on, your children's social education is not going to be one of them," Jacobs said. "You'll cut the new car or the private plane for your trip to someplace. You might cut a lot of other luxuries. You won't buy that new diamond necklace this year, but when it comes to what the children will do, you're going to take care of them."
Several other high-end camps around the country are also at capacity, including: Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania ($9,150 for seven and a half weeks); Camp Greylock in Massachusetts ($9,850 for seven and a half weeks); Lake of the Woods Camp for Girls in Michigan ($4,600 for four weeks, or $7,700 for eight weeks); and Indian Head in Pennsylvania ($9,450 for seven and a half weeks).
Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association in Martinsville, Ind., said that the economy is coming up in discussions continuously, but that a majority of camps are showing the same or higher enrollment. That doesn't mean that some aren't suffering or waiting for later-than-normal enrollment. But at this point, she said, the trend is not much different from last summer. Final enrollment numbers don't come in until the fall.
"The last dollar a parent cuts is the dollar they spend on children," Smith said.
Camp prices typically range from $100 a week to $1,200 a week. Smith said some camps allow parents to break up payments and a few offer discounts for siblings. She said camps are also looking at ways to cut costs, including reducing their fuel bills and expanding vegetable gardens.
For many families, it's a difficult balance between paying the bills and trying to provide the best for their children.
Laura Grashow, a child and family psychologist who helps mostly affluent families in Aventura, Fla., near Miami, said, "I've seen lots of parents having lots of bills but living a really nice lifestyle; and I've seen those lifestyles go downhill very rapidly."
Children and the Recession
How each family handles it and how the children respond vary widely, she said.
"There are kids who are entitled and spoiled who don't really appreciate their parents' loss and don't see how it should affect them, and I'm even talking about teenagers," she said. "And, then, on the other end of the spectrum, there are kids who do really have an understanding that they themselves have to cut back as a result of what's happening."
She said she sees a lot of "wonderful parents who would do everything for their kids." They cut back on vacations, music, the movies and clothing, but still try to do things for their children.
"It's really painful to say no," she said.
But Grashow said parents need to make sure they are spending whatever money they have free on the right things. It's not OK to buy something just to "keep up with the Joneses," she said.
For a lot of kids, the cuts can be hard, especially because most have never known any other way of life.
"In these times," Grashow said, "I have found that it's most helpful for parents to sit down with kids and be pretty candid without frightening them."
The Birnbachs didn't stop there, instead sending their children to camp as if this will be like any other summer.
"Camp provides a platform for kids to really be themselves and actually find out who they are," Gennifer Birnbach said. "They are exposed to so many activities and through that ... they don't have to sit down and be quiet the whole time. ... They can just be real kids."