How to Handle the Rising Cost of Summer Camp

Sure, summer means sun and fun, but it also means scheduling and financial stress. From summer camps to child care, here's what to expect to pay—and where you may be able to find financial aid.

One spring day, while Jacki Lenners was checking email from her job as a marketing manager for the Northern Arizona public transit system, she received a message from her daughter's school with a subject line that triggers stress for parents everywhere: "Summer."

Whether you're working remotely, have a full-time office job, or are helping your kids run a lemonade stand while shuffling them back and forth to the pool, summer with kids is fraught with exhausting logistical and financial obstacles for parents. Ensuring that your kids end up with a carefree (but intellectually stimulating!) summer is a job that begins in winter and doesn't end until school resumes—and a whole other scheduling grind begins.

Some parents choose summer child care, while others send their little ones to camp instead. Unfortunately, both options can drain your bank account, and it's competitive to secure a spot with the never-ending wait lists.

According to the American Camp Association (ACA), the demand for in-person camps increased 75% year-over-year from 2021 to 2022. Additionally, inflation pushed camp costs up more than 35% across the board, with experts noting that 2023 will be no different.

So what's a stressed-out parent to do? Keep reading to learn more about summer camps and child care, with tips for footing the bill.

Scheduling Summertime Child Care

Jacki Lenners, who has a 4-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old stepson, printed out calendars after receiving that email from her child's school, stared at June, July, and August on the calendar, and thought, What am I going to do? The previous year, her daughter attended camp at her regular school, an expensive but sensible solution.

But this time around, Lenners wanted her to have a "change of scenery." She found some appealing but pricey options, including one at the local arboretum, but most started an hour after Lenners's workday began and ended smack in the middle of the afternoon. Before- and after-care were available—but for additional fees.

The fact is, for many parents, summer is a problem that needs to be tackled with elaborate spreadsheets. Lenners likens the challenge to solving one big puzzle. Often, what parents need most—a break from the school-year scheduling grind—is a piece that just won't fit.

Complicating matters is the guilt parents experience from signing their kids up for a summer that often doesn't match the carefree, sun-speckled, sandy-toed version of their own childhood memories. That includes waking up whenever you want and running outside barefoot to explore whatever and wherever the day leads you.

"I can't give her that," Lenners says. After all, hiding behind the scenes—and making possible—those idyllic, free-form childhood summers past was a stay-at-home parent in more households than not. "And what I can give her that's as close as possible is one of my biggest sources of stress."

Lenners ended up getting a huge assist from her mother-in-law, who decided to spend part of the summer with the family to alleviate the scheduling stress. And her husband is a sales rep who works from home, so her stepson, who is having a low-key summer, is covered. But she still spent hundreds of dollars for three weeks of camp.

An image of dollar bills with a sunny cloud above it.
Getty Images.

Summer Camp Costs Are Rising

As Lenners can attest, summer is expensive, and working and stay-at-home parents alike need to factor that cost into their yearly budget, so they don't take the hit all at once.

Stay-at-home parents may be around to stock the fridge more often or even pay for camps when they don't need child care, simply so their kids can experience a week or two of structured socializing and fun. Meanwhile, working parents might keep their kids full-time at the same child care center they attend for after- and before-care during the school year—a move that can prevent scheduling conflicts but may double the monthly cost of care.

Unfortunately, the cost of summer camp has been rising, making it hard for parents to sign their kids up. We can blame the steep costs on two distinct factors: rising in-person camp demand and cost inflation (camp supplies and food are becoming more expensive, and operators need to offset those costs.)

Summer camps are facing financial challenges

In a 2022 interview with Yahoo! Finance, the ACA president and CEO, Todd Rosenberg, noted that more than 15,000 camps closed during the pandemic. Of the remaining camps that stayed open, two-thirds of them were unable to function at full capacity. Why doe this matter in 2023? Rosenberg said that camps are now trying to make up for lost time and revenue, but it has been challenging to fully staff camps nationwide in the face of inflation and a labor market crunch. And so prices will continue to rise.

In 2022, the ACA said the average cost of summer camp in the United States was around $178.49 a day, and for sleep-away camp, it was $448.53. Those numbers could increase by as much as 35% this year.

But the reality is that prices vary widely, and the cost is often quite steeper than these averages. Factors influencing camp price include location, meal services, facilities, transportation, and now inflation, the job market, and financial impacts still felt from the pandemic.

Specialty summer camps—which focus on such things as soccer, STEM, art, or theater—are in a league of their own, with costs ranging in hundreds or even thousands, depending on the program you choose.

Of course, parents can look into free municipal camps, but these are already filling up as well. Some camps also offer financial aid for parents. Keep reading for more about these options.

Easing the Financial Pain of Summer Child Care

For parents like Amy Milgrub Marshall, a writer and editor at Penn State University, the best solution to summer child care was a babysitter. Marshall told Parents she shelled out $400 a week—plus gas money and $30 to $40 of "fun" money a week, so a sitter could hang out with her 8-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son come summer. One of those weeks, her daughter attended a $195-day camp at a nearby environmental center. (The camp is so popular that parents often block off an entire morning when registration opens and scramble to complete the forms before it sells out.)

Camps and care in urban areas can be even more expensive than elsewhere. One New York City parent, who requested anonymity, spent more than $6,500 one summer on her two kids: $2,400 to send her 7-year-old to three different day camps, and $4,200 to cover the cost of a babysitter and 2-day-a-week summer preschool tuition for her 3-year-old.

"We did not have this money saved up, so we put most of it on credit cards, which really pained me to do," she says. "So, at the end of the summer, I resolved to be better prepared for this year's expenses by setting up a new savings account just for summer camp. I set up ongoing automatic withdrawals from my checking account once a month, so the savings happen on its own. This summer, we're better prepared to absorb the expense."

Create a flex savings account (FSA) just for summer camp

Another way to ease the financial pain of summer is through employee flex spending accounts (FSAs), which allow you to save on out-of-pocket child-care expenses. With FSAs, funds are automatically deducted throughout the year on a pre-tax basis, and employees are reimbursed for qualified expenses.

For Milgrub Marshall, the FSA works. "This summer is going to be pretty expensive," she says. "But it's easier to stomach knowing we're getting a fat check back at the end."

Marshall is also lucky that her job offers flexibility. Because summer tends to be slower at work, she can take on some logistical responsibilities herself rather than paying a sitter for more hours. She can bring her kids to work occasionally and leave work early once a week to pick up her son from a camp that ends at 3:00. And she relies on friends to pitch in with rides home.

"It's cliché, but it takes a village," she says.

Financial Aid Options for Summer Camps

Getting through the summer can seem like one big game of trade-offs. When it comes to ensuring that our kids experience their own version of summer fun, it can seem there's no limit to what a parent will do.

In the case of Ursula Abbott Connolly, an actress in New York City, the sacrifice was a bit extreme. She works hard during the year to compensate for big-item parenting expenses, like her 7-year-old son's summer camp. For example, she once endured a week of uncomfortable television shoots where she played a zombie victim—just to save for camp costs. In one 4 a.m. shoot, she was attacked, tied up, and bitten in the leg—leaving her thigh spurting with fake blood. "I kept telling myself, He better love camp," she recalls. "He's going every single day."

The good news is there can often be financial aid available so that you don't have to endure the same torture Connolly did. According to Rosenberg, more than 90% of ACA-accredited camps across the country offer some financial assistance. He told that day camps qualify for Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, scholarships, and financial aid.

Financial assistance gets snapped up quickly, so the sooner a parent signs up their kids for camp and applies for the aid, the better the chances of getting financial help, like discounts and scholarships.

And one last note: The ACA also has its own helpful resource page for parents looking for help affording camp.

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