How I Cut the Summer Camp Bill in Half

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summer campEvery summer when I was growing up, my parents sent my siblings and me to a city-run day camp.

It cost about $30 a week and a school bus would pick us up and take us to a lake, marina or woodsy hiking grounds, depending on the day. It was fun, low-tech and affordable. It never occurred to me that I would have trouble re-creating that sort of camp experience for my own kids or finding creative ways to save on summer camp.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Day camp, I have learned to my dismay, is far from cheap in the suburban Northeast. Nor is it particularly amenable to working parents who find themselves scrambling every summer for child care when schools close for a 10-week stretch.

First there’s the schedule to consider: Camps often book by the week, which is fine, but most of the programs end at 1 p.m. or 3 p.m., if you’re lucky.

If you were clever enough to decide to have more than one kid and they happen not to be the same age or don’t share the same interests, you could easily find yourself shuttling children by car to various camps with conflicting hours in far-flung locales. Not exactly an ideal scenario for a parent who has a job to get to.

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How Much Day Camp Really Costs

The next problem is cost. Let’s be clear about this. For working families, day camp is a euphemism for day care. Paying $250 for five days of camp from 9 to 3 is the low end of the price scale in these parts. That translates to $2,250 a kid every summer, and that doesn’t include aftercare.

Multiply $2,250 by the decade you’ll be paying for camp and that bill swells to $22,500 per child. So much for that college savings fund!

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So this spring I started thinking about how to solve the summer camp conundrum without going broke. I started out by complaining, which is a far more effective research method than one might think. The first recipient of my blubbering was a friend whose parents were farmworkers. He stared back at me blankly. “I never went to camp,” he said.