Summer camp memories don't come cheap. With camp costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars a week, credit cards can seem like a good way to quickly rack up points or spread out the financial impact. But charging camp tuition can come with its own costs.
According to averages from the American Camp Association, day camp tuition in 2018, the most recent year available, ranged from $199 to $800 or more a week. Overnight camp was even pricier, from $630 to upward of $2,000 per week.
“Camp is important to enough people that if they don’t have the cold, hard cash, they want a way to pay for it,” says Laurel Barrie, owner of The Camp Connection Inc., an advisory service that helps match families with summer programs that meet their needs.
Before putting camp on your credit card, here’s what you need to consider.
CREDIT CARD SURCHARGES
In nearly all credit card transactions, the merchant that accepts your card for payment has to pay processing fees. Stores usually treat these fees as a cost of doing business, and they charge the same prices for all customers regardless of how they pay. But some camps pass the fees directly to credit card users through a surcharge.
Merchants that add a surcharge are required to disclose it, and there are limits to how much it can be. Visa and Mastercard, for example, cap the surcharge at 4%. But that percentage can still add substantially to the cost of camp. Say you use your card to send your child to a $1,000-a-week camp for seven weeks. If the camp has a 3% surcharge, that would add an extra $210 to your final bill.
Some states prohibit surcharges for credit card use, and many camps opt not to charge for card payments even when they could.
Dana Gabbay, who with her husband, Ronen, co-owns Camp Lokanda, an overnight camp in Glen Spey, New York, said they chose to keep their prices the same, regardless of payment method, when they took over from the previous owners.
“When we bought the camp 13 years ago, they only took check or cash. We just felt like it was a courtesy to our families to let them pay by credit card,” Gabbay said.
THE CAMP PAYMENT SCHEDULE
If surcharges are a concern, you can avoid them altogether by writing a check for the camp bill. But some people don’t have the funds on hand to afford a big lump-sum payment or a hefty deposit. If that’s your situation, see if the camp allows you to pay in installments. If not, a credit card might still be the most palatable solution, despite the extra cost.
Regardless of whether you face a surcharge, putting camp on your card and paying it off over time can incur a different cost: interest charges.
One workaround is a credit card with a promotional 0% APR offer. Available mostly to people with good to excellent credit, these cards don’t charge new cardholders interest on their purchases for a certain period of time after they open the account. The 0% period can last a year or more. If you can get the full balance paid off before the promotional period ends, you won’t pay any interest on your camp costs at all.
THE REALITIES OF REWARDS
It can be tempting to put any big expense on a card in exchange for a pile of points or other rewards.
Sharon Ferber, a mom of four boys in Delray Beach, Florida, pays for sleepaway camp in Michigan for two of her kids with a credit card.
“They don’t charge a fee, and I get 2% back on my credit card,” Ferber said.
A move like Ferber’s makes good financial sense only if your camp doesn’t add a surcharge, as that extra cost is likely to offset the value of any rewards from the purchase. Rewards cards typically give you back 1% to 2% on a purchase like camp tuition, so you’d have to weigh whether you’d earn more back than you’d pay in surcharges.
Also take into account your ability to pay off your balance. If you can’t pay it off in full at the end of the billing cycle, the interest charges can easily outweigh the value of any rewards earned on your card.
NerdWallet: How to Choose a 0% APR Credit Card
American Camp Association: Camp Trends