“My daughter is going to be heart-broken to miss summer camp this year,” says Charlene Westbrook, a Nashville mom with three kids. Westbrook’s kids have all attended local camps in the summer months, but when her husband was laid off two months ago, Westbrook had to start re-thinking what her kids would do once summer arrived.
“I always start planning in February,” says Westbrook. “Because the last months of school after Christmas break go by quickly. Once you get to spring break, it’s a whirlwind,” she adds. While the Westbrooks haven’t given up on sending their oldest away to the camp she’s attended since she was little, they are currently looking at sending her for a one-week session rather than three weeks.
“Even that might not work,” says Westbrook. “We’re taking it one bill at a time.â€
More and more parents will be seeking assistance to make camp a reality for their kids this year. That reality includes cutting back on family vacations, requesting scholarships and exploring options with financial aid.
According to the American Camp Association (ACA), the more than 12,000 sleep-away and day camps in the country means that there are a wide number of camps to suit every budget, but every budget today is a lot worse off than in years past. In some cases, non-profit camps such as the Boys & Girls Club might waive fees for families who can’t afford to pay. Churches, synagogues and social service groups also offer low-cost or free options.
Limiting your options to day camps, rather than a round-the-clock sleep-away, is a fast way to slash spending. With various fees, day camps can cost around $275 a week, while sleep-away can cost about $780, according to the ACA.
Another way to cut costs is to pick shorter sessions. Many camps offer a menu of programs that run between two and 10 weeks. “Kids generally get the same social benefits from camp, regardless of the duration of the program,” says Peter Surgenor, president of the ACA. “Camp is about forming social bonds and learning how to fit into a new situation away from home,” he says. “You don’t need months or an elite program to achieve that.”
Once you settle on a camp, negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Start by talking to the camp director. Every year, camps give away more than $39 million in scholarships, and 90 percent offer some form of financial aid, according to the ACA. Don’t be shy about asking camp directors what type of aid is available. If camps won’t (or can’t) lower their prices, then see if you can arrange for a payment plan rather than paying everything up front – which many camps require. You can also see if the camp will let you barter your “volunteer time” for cheaper fees. For day camps, another money saver is to not participate in the camp’s meal program – instead packing a sack lunch can whittle down costs.
Check with your employer. Your company may offer flexible spending accounts for dependent care, which typically lets workers set aside up to $5,000 to cover costs such as child care (including day camp, but not sleep-away camps.) In 2008, 84 percent of large companies offered the benefit, according to the business consulting firm Mercer.
So start thinking about summer. It might seem far off, but camps often offer deep discounts to families who sign up in advance. Early enrollment for the following year can begin just a week or two into a session.
While parents are being more discriminatory and deliberate in their decisions regarding money, it’s smart to ask, “Is this a good investment?” According to Peg Smith, CEO of the ACA, “It is always a good investment when you can send your children somewhere and they can learn independence and getting along with others.â€
6 Budget Strategies
If you have a tight budget but know you want to send your child away to camp:
- Be aware of early enrollment discounts. Plan ahead.
- Ask the camp about discounts for multiple children from one family.
- Inquire about shorter sessions to accommodate a tight budget.
- Make summer a part of your educational plan. Choose a shorter specialty program that will enhance the student’s profile for college or help develop a new interest or skill.
- Contact camps run by your county government or agencies like the Jewish Federation, the JCC, the Salvation Army, Campfire Boys and Girls, or the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. These camps offer a summer experience at a reduced cost because a sponsoring agency subsidizes the camp.
- Look into financial aid, which is available at most camps. If you apply early, it is possible to get a 20 – 50 percent discount based on need.