10 ways to tame summer camp costs

At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here’s an explanation for

To kids, summer camp is nothing more than canoe trips, swimming and making new friends, but to parents, it is no vacation for the wallet. Camp costs can add up quickly if parents aren’t careful when making choices of where to send their children during the hot summer months.

Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association, says summer camps are not looking to break your piggy bank.

“Most camps won’t put you in a situation where you get nickeled and dimed for everything that comes your way,” she says.

However, it’s important to know what camp will cost you — from tuition to special fees for trips and amenities.

Learn these 10 ways to prepare for the cost of camp and to potentially save a few bucks along the way.

Cutting costs
Here are 10 ways to keep summer camp costs under control in 2010.
  1. Know the refund policy
  2. Ask others to contribute
  3. Help the camp (and it’ll help you)
  4. Consider the payment option
  5. Create a ‘canteen fund’
  1. Check into financial aid
  2. Add a child
  3. Be an early bird
  4. Try to stay in the area
  5. Resist the urge to splurge

Check into financial aid

Of the 2,400 camps accredited by the ACA, 95 percent offer “camperships,” or scholarships ranging from discounts to free tuition, according to Smith. That’s an increase from about 75 percent a decade ago.

Baby boomers have contributed to the campership boom, with memories of positive camp experiences motivating them to contribute at levels that have filled foundation coffers.

As a parent, it’s important to ask about these scholarship opportunities.

“You want to be a good consumer,” Smith says. “I think it’s just fair for a parent to say, ‘What sort of financial assistance do you provide?’ It’s true that camperships are usually awarded based on need, but parents shouldn’t automatically assume that their income level doesn’t meet that.”

Add a child

If you send more than one child to camp, you’re likely to get a discount. Sibling discounts can knock anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent off the tuition cost, says Jeff Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association.

For example, at Coleman Country Day Camp in New York, families can save $50 to $100 for a second child and $100 to $200 for a third child, depending on the session length.

Be an early bird

Early enrollment increases the odds of landing your child’s first camp choice. It can also net you a deal on the overall camp cost.

Parents at Cheley Colorado Camps can avoid next year’s tuition increase by signing up for a summer 2009 session at the end of this year’s summer camp.

Early enrollment can also put you first in line to be considered for a scholarship, Smith says.

Try to stay in the area

A plane ride or train trip significantly boosts total camp costs. All things being equal, it’s better to choose a camp that is closer to home.

However, while geography is important, parents ultimately should choose the camp that is right for their child, Solomon says.

Resist the urge to splurge

Most camps recommend campers bring items they likely already have, such as flashlights, sleeping backs, rain gear, play clothes, swimming trunks and sports equipment.

So, don’t go out and make any special purchases unless you must.

“What you will find is that parents tend to overpurchase,” Smith says. “Get the camp list first and then think about the shopping. It’s not going out and buying all new clothes.”

Know the refund policy

Sometimes, camp plans don’t work out. Smith says parents usually forget to ask about a camp’s cancellation policy until they need to use it. Some ACA camps offer a total refund before a certain date; others will only do so in the case of an illness.

Make sure you know the refund policy before you select a camp.

Ask others to contribute

More camps are offering gift certificates than ever before. Such certificates are a good option for people looking to give a holiday or birthday gift that lasts into the coming year.

Help the camp (and it’ll help you)

Some camps offer discounts to parents who pay the entire tuition bill several months in advance of the camp session date, says George Coleman, chief executive officer of Coleman Country Day Camp in Merrick, N.Y.

“It gives the camp operating funds so they can do their capital project without having to utilize a line of credit with a bank and pay interest on it,” Coleman says. “Everyone benefits this way.”

Some camps also cut costs for the children of alumni.

Consider the payment option

Paying camp costs in installments could make the price more palatable.

“If they find a camp they really like, they should ask the camp director, ‘What are my options?'” says Cheley. “Most of them will work with you to make sure that child has the experience.”

Create a ‘canteen fund’

Prepare a “canteen fund” that will provide a child with money to purchase snacks, hygiene products, bug spray, batteries and other items.

Not only can this help you keep better track of camp costs, but it can teach your kids to budget their money, Smith says.