Guide: How to pay for your child's summer camp
FSA, tax credits, discounts and scholarships can cut the cost of summer programs
Summer is a busy time for parents. With full-time jobs, kids who need child care, and the desire to enrich their lives with fun, educational activities, many parents turn to summer camps for an easy and safe way to meet the needs of their family.
Handling the cost of summer camp in the family budget is a challenge for many families. In this guide, we’ll help you understand how much summer camp may cost and offer ideas on how to help pay for this essential summer activity.
How much money does summer camp cost?
Depending on where you live, a one-week day camp may cost between $100 and $500. Specialty and private camps are more expensive and can cost $500 to $1,000 per week. For a sleep-away camp, adventure camp or skill-building camp, you might pay $2,000 or more each week.
The American Camp Association says it costs parents an average of almost $800 per child for one week of residential camp. Day camp averages around $350 per week. For families with multiple children, these summer camp costs may be prohibitive.
Do the research
It’s important to research camp costs well in advance of the summer season. That way you can set aside money from each paycheck for camp to help keep your budget stable through the summer months
To score extra savings, be sure to charge the camp fees on cash back credit cards. Pay your credit card bill in full with the money you’ve set aside to avoid interest charges and cash in on the rewards program.
How parents can choose the right summer camp for their child and their budget
No matter your child’s interests, there’s a camp to match. Computer programming, theater performance, language immersion, sports-centered skill building, and even traveling camps with different daily themes and destinations exist in almost every city.
Getting the most out of summer camp starts with careful planning. Don’t start with the budget. Instead, first whittle your choices down by including the most important things on both the parent’s and the child’s wish list. Next, cut the camps you can’t afford.
When you choose a camp, make sure you get the most out of your investment by focusing on camps that offer an out-of-the-ordinary setting and options for wide varieties of activities. Camp should be more than an outdoor day care or an extension of school.
How to budget for camp costs
If the summer camp experience you’re looking at runs annually, it’s best to budget year-round for those expenses rather than trying to tackle them all at once each spring. For example, if you have two kids attending summer day camp at a cost of $350 per week, a 10-week session would set you back $7,000.
Divide that amount by 12 months, and you need to set aside a much more manageable amount of $583 each month.
How to use your Flexible Spending Account to pay for camp
If you elected to save some money in a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) through your employer, you may be surprised to know that you can use that fund for certain types of summer camp.
FSA accounts let employees use pre-tax dollars to pay for child care expenses for kids under the age of 13. If enrolling a child in summer day camp allows the parent to work, then the camp tuition qualifies as an eligible expense.
The maximum amount of money you can set aside in an FSA account each year is $5,000. You must file your taxes as single, head of household, or married filing a joint return. For those who choose the married filing separately option, the maximum is $2,500.
This option is only for day camp, not for overnight camp. If one parent stays home to care for the children, you can’t use an FSA account. You’ll need to have the name, address and tax ID number of the camp if you want to submit it for FSA reimbursement.
If you don’t have access to an FSA, there are other ways you could get a tax break on the cost of sending your kids to summer camp.
How to use the Child and Dependent Care Credit to reduce your camp costs
Like the FSA, the Child and Dependent Care Credit gives parents a tax break when they need to pay for child care so they can work. Eligible children must be under 13, live with you for more than six months each year, and depend on you for more than half of their support.
This credit will help you at tax time by reducing the amount of money you pay in federal taxes dollar-for-dollar. You don’t need to memorize the rules, though. Any tax preparation software will walk you through the deduction step-by-step.
You can expect to get a tax credit for as much as 35 percent of $3,000 in day camp and child care costs for one child. If you have two children who qualify for the deduction, your maximum doubles. So, the tax credit is worth $1,050 for one child and $2,100 for two children.
See related: 7 things you never budget for (but need to)
Resources for parents who need help paying for camp
Not everyone is able to put together thousands of dollars each summer to give their kids the ultimate camp experience. Parents who need help paying for camp can find resources in several places.
When it comes to getting a discount on summer camp fees, the most important thing is to ask the director about your options.
If you plan ahead, you may qualify for early bird discounts. Sibling discounts save families an average of 6 percent and multiple week discounts are worth about a 12 percent tuition discount.
Ask about unadvertised discounts that are income-based. Memberships in local clubs and organizations may earn you a discount, as well.
Don’t forget about the possibility of a valuable referral bonus. If your kids want to bring a friend along and their parents are on board, you could score a sizeable referral discount.
This is another way to get a discounted or free summer camp experience that often isn’t advertised. The majority of camp organizations offer some type of scholarship opportunity in an effort to make their experience more accessible to low-income families.
Camp scholarships also may be referred to as “camperships” so when researching, search for both. The qualifications, set by each individual camp, vary.
Most camp scholarships are income-based. You may need to submit your most recent tax returns as proof of income. To get the most out of a camp scholarship opportunity, start your search early. Funds are limited, and scholarship spots fill up fast.
Don’t forget to check outside sources for camp scholarships, as well. Your church, local Lions Club and other social organizations may have a general camp fund they draw from to sponsor local kids who want to attend summer camp.
Fundraising to cover camp costs
Kids can get involved in paying their own way to camp through a variety of fundraising activities.
The YMCA offers a standard fundraising format each year well in advance of the camp season.
If your child has their heart set on a particular camp, ask the staff about any fundraising activities that may help defray the costs. If there isn’t a program through the camp your child wants to attend, encourage your child to get involved with paying their own tuition.
For older kids, performing tasks like baby-sitting, yard work and pet care for neighbors, friends, and relatives can help pay the costs of attending summer camp. Let people know that a fundraising campaign is underway in case they want to help you reach your goal.
Free and cheap summer camp ideas
Search for low-cost or free summer camps in your area and contact those organizations directly. They may not be well advertised, but it’s worth the extra effort to find local opportunities.
Talk to the camp directors about additional discounts and price breaks for siblings or multiple weeks. Often, discounts are available but unadvertised.
For example, New York City residents have access to the Fresh Air Fund. It gives kids the chance to go to summer camp for free if their family qualifies. They may also be able to spend a week in Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine with a host family living in a remote area.
The Salvation Army offers 45 overnight camps and many day camps all over the country. Their mission is to support families and people with special needs. This giant organization may be your key to a fun-filled summer camp experience.
Girl Scout and Boy Scout camps
Many parents don’t realize that their kids can take part in camps hosted by the Girl Scouts of the USA or the Boy Scouts of America, even if they aren’t involved with scouts during the rest of the year. These camps are affordable, and you may be able to get a discount and scholarships to help defray the costs. For example, Girl Scout day camp in Massachusetts is just $215 per week.
This non-profit organization has been offering recreation and entertainment services to families for more than a century. There are 233 YMCA camps across the United States. The YMCA’s mission is to get kids outdoors where they can develop interpersonal skills, explore interests, build self-esteem and be creative. The YMCA offers family camps, residential camps and day camps.
Be sure to ask about participating in camp fundraisers to help reduce costs. The YMCA offers families a sliding scale fee structure based on household size and income, making it one of the most affordable ways to send your kids to summer camp.
City parks and recreation department
For a low-cost summer day camp option, contact your town’s parks and recreation department. Your kids will get a fun combination of outdoor and indoor activities. Swimming, games, crafts, and even field trips to local attractions are just some of the ways that your local parks and recreation department keeps kids entertained during the summer months.
You may receive a discount off the already low camp tuition rates for being a resident of the area. Sibling discounts, multiple week discounts, and sliding income-based fee scales are all common with this type of summer camp.
If your child is looking for a truly mentally stimulating camp experience, check out the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Camp Invention. This camp is available in many communities through the local school system.
While this camp focuses on programming for the kindergarten through the sixth-grade crowd, kids of other ages can take advantage of Camp Invention’s preschool through 12th grade STEM programs.
The curriculum, inspired by inductees of the National Inventors Hall of Fame is presented by local educators. The curriculum changes each year, so there’s never a dull moment.
You can trim the costs of summer camp
No matter how you decide to pay for summer camp, remember that it’s possible to cut costs with scholarships and earn some of your money back with cash back credit cards.
With a high-rate cash back card, you could earn 5 percent of the total costs of camp, which translates into big savings for expensive camps. Also, be sure you have a receipt from the camp so you can make the most of tax deductions.
Summer is a magical time for kids. Help them make the most of it by creating lasting memories at camp.
See related: Family’s summer fun doesn’t have to be pricey
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