What Summer Really Costs Parents

Sure, summer brings sun and fun -- but scheduling and financial stress as well. From summer camps to child care, here's what real parents are shelling out this season.

young boy and girl in bathsuits on rafts

One day this past March, while Jacki Lenners was checking e-mail 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 in moms everywhere: summer.

Whether you're working a full-time office job, balancing a freelance business and child care from a home office, or helping your kids run a lemonade stand while shuffling them back and forth to the pool, summer is fraught with exhausting logistical and financial obstacles for moms and dads. 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.

Scheduling summer

On that March afternoon, Lenners, who has a 4-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old stepson, printed out calendars for June, July, and August, stared at them and thought, What am I going to do? Last year, her daughter attended camp at her regular school, an expensive but sensible solution. But this year, 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, of course -- for additional fees.

The fact is, for many moms, 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," says Lenners, "and what I can give her that's as close as possible is one of my biggest sources of stress."

Lenners is getting a huge assist from her mother-in-law, who has 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's still spending about $525 for three weeks of camp. And she'll still be packing lunches.

Paying for summer

As Lenners can attest, summer is expensive, and working moms and stay-at-home moms alike need to factor that cost into their yearly budget so they don't take the hit all at once. Stay-at-home moms may be stocking the fridge more often, and paying for camps even though they don't need the child care, simply so their kids can experience a week or two of structured socializing and fun, or activity-specific instruction. 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.

Agnes Berrena, a single working mom in State College, Pennsylvania, went from paying $300 a month for before- and after-care for her 8-year-old son during the school year to $800 a month for full-day summer camp at the same child-care center. "That's a big chunk of money," she says. "I budget in extra money each month to set aside for the added costs of summer."

For moms like Amy Milgrub Marshall, a writer and editor at Penn State University, the best solution is a babysitter. Marshall is shelling out $400 a week -- plus gas money and $30 to $40 of "fun" money a week -- so a sitter can hang out with her 8-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son all summer. One of those weeks, her daughter will attend a $195 day camp at a nearby environmental center. (The camp is so popular that parents often block off an entire morning on the day registration opens -- in January -- and scramble to fill out the forms before it sells out.) She's currently trying to talk her son into going to a camp the same week so she can avoid paying a sitter on top of her daughter's camp.

Camps and care in urban areas can be even more expensive. One New York City mom, who requested anonymity, spent more than $6,500 last summer on the two: $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 happens on its own. This summer, we're better prepared to absorb the expense."

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. Although it's too late to enroll now, parlay this year's pain into a smarter strategy for next summer. With FSAs, funds are automatically deducted throughout the year on a pre-tax basis, and employees are reimbursed for qualified expenses. (Two caveats: If you don't incur expenses for the full amount you've estimated for the calendar year, you'll end up forfeiting the balance. And expenses reimbursed for an FSA can't be claimed as part of the dependent care tax credit.) 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."

Milgrub Marshall is also lucky that her job offers flexibility. Because summer tends to be slower at work, she's able to take on some logistical responsibilities herself, rather than paying a sitter for more hours. She's able to bring her kids to work occasionally, and to 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.

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, 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. She once endured a week of television shoots playing a zombie victim. 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 -- even if he has a 104-degree fever."

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