Don't Get Burned by Summer Camp Costs

Learn how you can save money on summer camp this year.

April 14, 2009 — -- The school year is rapidly approaching its end and next on the horizon for many students is summer camp. But during this time of economic turbulence, more parents are seeking ways to slash the price of summer camp.

In fact, enrollment at private camps is down 15 percent so far, according to the online site Bunk1, which tracks registrations.

Why Camp Is Important

For many families, it's a tradition. There's the practical reason: it provides child care for your family when your kids are out of school.

And there's the less tangible reason that is just as important: It helps your kids gain independence. Ninety-six percent of campers say it helps them make new friends and 70 percent of parents say it helps their child be more independent.

Camp also gives parents some much-needed time to themselves at home. If kids can't go to camp because of the economy, and you take that away, it can become a burden on a family.

Saving on Sleep-Away Camps

There a few things you can do to save a lot on summer camp:

Consider a payment plan. This way you won't have to pay a large amount of money all in one lump sum. Spreading out the payments can make sleep-away camp more manageable for many families.

Use your flex spending plan at work. Most people know you can use it for day care, but that also includes day camp. And in many cases, it will pay for a portion of your sleep-away camp -- the eight hours that your kids are there during the day. So, talk to your employer about that and see if it's an option.

Try negotiating a lower price. There's nearly $39 million available in camp scholarships, according to the American Camp Association, and 90 percent of camps offer some form of financial aid.

So, talk to your camp director, especially if you have a long history with the camp. You can also just try to negotiate, period. With the drop in enrollment, many camps would prefer to have a child paying rather than an empty bunk.

Saving on Day Camps

On average, you can save $500 a week by switching to day camp, and it can still be a rewarding experience for your children and a place for them to go while you're at work.

In a lot of cases, too, you can save some real money at day camp by packing a lunch for your child. Many day camps include a hefty fee for meals, so by providing your own food for your child, you can cut those costs.

And you can always pick shorter sessions, whether it's for day camp or for sleep-away camp. Many camps offer a menu of programs that can run as short as a week all the way up to most of the summer.

What to Do If You Can't Afford Camp

You should talk to your neighbors and co-workers and relatives -- people who are in a similar boat -- and consider creating a cooperative day camp. It will take time, work and a lot of organization, but if you get it set up and running smoothly, it's something you can do again and again each summer.

It's usually easiest to do with a small group of kids, and you have a different parent supervise and create activities on each day. You can hire one or two young teens to help out with the activities, with the parent in charge, of course. So, the costs are really just your time.

And there's one last option. You should always talk to your church or synagogue, the local YMCA and your police department. They often know about or offer free summer camp options for children in the local community.

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