Every 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.
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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.
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.
I asked him what his parents, who clearly worked all summer, did for child care. “I went to summer school,” he said. “It sucked.” A star student, my friend didn’t need summer school. But fun factor aside, it was free.
Sending the kids off to summer school, as enticing as the idea might sound, was not going to happen. So, I decided to complain to another friend. She suggested I call my local township. Her town, she said, provided day camp at a fraction of the cost of private camp and with longer hours.
Finding a Half-Price Option (With Field Trips!)
It turned out, my town offered a day camp that cost $600 for the month of July and was open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The camp provided sports, swimming and even a field trip to the zoo. That all sounded good. But it was only open for two weeks in August. Since we were going on vacation the last week of July, I asked the director if I could swap a week of July and use it for the first week of August instead. He said I could.
For working families, day camp is a euphemism for day care. Paying $250 for five days of camp is the low end of the price scale. That translates to $2,250 a kid every summer.
I still had three weeks left to fill for the summer and wanted to give my son a little variety. So I turned to Camp Grandmom, which is not only known for spoiling children with endless candy but is also free. I arranged that he spend the last week of August with his grandparents.
That left me with two weeks of camp to fill. I called my local YMCA, which was not as affordable as one might think, with programs that cost between $250 and $400 a week. But they offered a sliding fee scale, along with scholarships, and one of their programs picked the kids up by bus at our neighborhood school at 8 a.m. and dropped them back off at 5, which meant my husband could do one shift and I could do the other, for $250 a week. It also drove them to a wooded lake 45 minutes from our home, which meant our resident beetle lover could dig in the dirt all day.
In the end, camp for our 6-year-old will cost us $1,100 for the summer, which is still a huge sum, but less than half of the average. If you're in the market to save on day camp, along the way, I found some other ideas too:
Sliding Fees and Sibling Discounts
Find out if camps in your area offer sliding fees, scholarships, or sibling discounts. Some camps will shave as much as 15% off the price for a second kid, which can add up. And many camps offer scholarships, even if they don’t advertise it. So ask them about the option.
If you have flexible work hours, such as summer Fridays, consider using them to make a summer camp co-op happen. It can take a little planning on your part, but reach out to other parents in the area and alternate who runs the “camp” from their home. Care.com offers tools for setting one up.
The Good Old Town Camp
Call the Parks & Recreation department in your local town or city and see if they run a camp. They are often subsidized and cheaper than private programs. If your town doesn’t have a camp, check out neighboring areas. Towns sometimes allow kids from other municipalities to go to their camp as well, for a higher fee.
Swap the Weeks
If your camp books by the month, ask the director about reducing the fee by a week or transferring a week from one month to the next, so you don’t pay for a week when you’re not there. Also, plan vacation time wisely: If you spend a week away midsummer, make sure the vacation doesn’t straddle two weeks. That way, you pay for one less week of camp, rather than paying for days when they aren’t there at all.
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Pay Attention to the Hour
Some camps may appear more affordable than they actually are. A sports camp in my area cost $100 a week, but it ended at 1 p.m, which didn’t jive with my work schedule. Once I tallied up aftercare, the cost ballooned. Camps with slightly higher fees but longer hours may ultimately be cheaper than paying for an aftercare program at a camp with a shorter day.
Ronda Kaysen, a freelance writer, contributes regularly to The New York Times. Her articles and essays have also appeared in The Chicago Tribune, MSNBC.com, Architectural Record, Habitat Magazine, Parenting magazine, The Washington Post, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Thomson Reuters and the Huffington Post. She lives in New Jersey with her family.