Summer Camp: Can You Afford it—and Should You?

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When you are a kid, summer camp means s’mores, horseback riding, swimming, terrible food and campfire songs.

As a parent, summer camp means money … and a lot of it.

Most summer camps last anywhere from one week to the entire summer, and average fees range somewhere between $200-$400 per week, according to the American Camp Association.

Of course, camp prices can also fall on the opposite sides of those numbers, anywhere from free or subsidized day or church camps to $10,000 specialty camps. (The American Camp Association has a camp finder section that allows you to search by price on their site.)

How Do You Budget for Family Fun

Do you send your kid to summer camp? How do you budget for it?
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For an expert opinion, we spoke to Frank J. Sileo, Ph.D, a psychologist and author of the book “Bug Bites and Campfires: A Story for Kids about Homesickness.” Dr. Sileo believes the costs associated with camp are a small price to pay compared with the valuable lessons they instill in children. “Camp has so many benefits for socialization and self-organization. Children can learn self-care, conflict management and get opportunities they may not have in their own towns,” he says. “And with so many options out there, you can find a camp that fits your family and your budget.”

If you’re considering shelling out the money to send your kid to a camp, you’ll need to determine two things:

1. Is my child ready?

Dr. Sileo warns against sending your kid to camp just because that’s what other parents are doing. “Camp can be very hard for a child if he is being forced to go, and it’s not for everyone,” he says. If it turns out your kid isn’t ready yet, try checking with local colleges for summer art and music opportunities, and local community centers for sports and dance programs. Many local museums also offer specialized classes and learning opportunities.

Summer Camp: Can You Afford It? Should You?If you’re on the fence about whether your child is ready, Dr. Sileo encourages parents to ask themselves two questions, whether they’re considering day camp or the full-on sleep-away version:

1. How mature is your child? Take note of how well your child handles conflict with other children and her ability to function in a group. If your child tends to be an introvert who crumbles in the face of conflict, perhaps camp is not the right fit. On the other hand, if she thrives on independence and enjoys meeting new people, camp could be a wonderful experience.

2. How well does your child handle separation? For example, if your kid cries and clings to you when he’s left alone for a couple of hours at school, he probably isn’t ready for day camp, and definitely isn’t ready for sleepaway camp. 

If you are unsure, Dr. Sileo advises parents to prepare their kids for camp by practicing with sleepovers at friends’ houses and weekend trips to visit family members.

2. Can we afford camp?

LearnVest encourages parents to divide their budget into three categories—priorities (like savings, debt, retirement), essentials (like housing, groceries, transportation) and choices (variable expenses like cable, cell phones, childcare … and camp). Your “choices” should never amount to more than 30% of your overall income, and budgeting for summer camp should come from that section of your budget. (You can read more about budget breakdowns here.)

If you didn’t save ahead of time to afford summer camp this year, look at what you spend each month and see if there is any wiggle room during the months you’d be paying for camp. One easy way to see where you could whittle the “choices” section of your budget is our My Money Center, where you can see your expenditures in folders so you know exactly how much you’re spending on what. That way you might see that cutting out a weekend trip and scaling back on video games would allow you to pay for a week of camp without feeling the pinch. Otherwise, you can look at your credit card receipts from the last few months to determine where you spend the most money.

If you don’t have the budget for camp this year, and you’d be putting the payment on a credit card, skip it. While summer camp is fun, it’s not worth going into debt over–but stay tuned for our fun and free summer activity suggestions for you and your kids!

How to Make Saving for Camp a Reality

To make camp a reality next summer, plan ahead: Figure out what program you’d like to send your child to, and how much it costs. Then set up a special savings account for camp expenditures and contribute money toward that goal starting now (you can create a folder called “Summer Camp” in the My Money Center if you want, too!). That way you’ll know exactly how much you need to save each week to be ready when it’s time to enroll.

For more expensive specialty camps like, for example, space camp, try reserving those for older children who show a real passion for the subject matter of the camp. Bring your kids into that financial discussion, though, and let them know how much the camp costs and how much you have budgeted. If they are of working age, encourage them to work toward earning a percentage of the costs, but never ask them to delve into their savings to pay for camp.

Dr. Sileo also adds a word of caution to financially strapped parents. “If you can’t afford camp, tell your children, but do it in a way that won’t induce anxiety. Simply tell them that you don’t have the budget for it this year, and find things around town for them to do.” For example, the YMCA offers affordable activity opportunities, and provides scholarships and financial assistance when necessary. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America is another way to go, as well.

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  • Reader

    Camp is great for kids! We do full-day all summer preschool on up. It’s about $130 a week; some places charge double that. Better than the kids home and bored or wanting to watch TV.