5 Ways to Keep Summer Camp Affordable

As we discussed yesterday, summer camp is great for kids, but bad for budgets.  Fortunately, there are ways to save money on your camp expenses.  See if any of these ideas will work for you:

Search for free or really cheap camps

There are an amazing number of free and inexpensive camps, but they can be hard to find, hard to get into, and they might not be anywhere near your home.  Creativity, ingenuity, and lots of time on the internet will help you find these dollar-saving offers.  Military families should be sure to get on mailing lists and Facebook friend the many different military-focused organizations that offer low-cost summer activities.

  • The National Military Family Association (NMFA) hosts Operation Purple camps across the country.  These camps are traditional, week-long overnight camps.  My kids were able to attend one year and they still talk about it.  First priority is given to families who are within the deployment cycle, with available spots then made available to other military children.
  • Operation Military Kids offers day and overnight  camps at a variety of locations around the country.  The information states “deployment” but I have never tried to apply for any of these camps.
  • The Tiger Woods Learning Center sponsors a Summer  Academy whose primary purpose is to offer military kids a traditional summer camp experience while also learning about Science, Technology and Math, plus some golf and fun, too.

Different events are created each summer, like the summer film program for autistic military kids in the San Diego area.  Keep your ears open and make yourself available to hear about these neat programs.

Plan For Camp All Year ‘Round

Don’t wait until the week before camp to start organizing the necessary gear.  Keep a bin set aside for camp stuff, and add to as you see the things that you need.  Yard sales and thrift stores can provide much necessary camp gear.  New items are much cheaper at the end-of-summer sales.  Stained or nearly outgrown clothes are perfect for camp, as are really beat up sneakers and frayed sweatshirts.

If you need special equipment for a particular camp, ask around before you buy.  A friend or neighbor might have a mess kit in their garage, or shin guards in their basement.  Avoid buying new unless absolutely necessary.

I also keep a separate bin of stained white clothing for tie-dye events, whether at a camp or another event.  (Even though they usually tell you to bring a t-shirt to dye, I’ve never had anyone care what item we bring.  We have tie-dye skirts, sweatshirts, all sorts of stuff.

Keep Transportation Costs Down

I think transportation is one of the most often forgotten costs of summer camp.  Even when my kids went to the totally free Operation Purple camp, I still had to drive four hours each way to take them to camp.  Between drop-off and pick-up, I drove about 400 miles, which was about $80 in gas.  This summer, I’ve spent significantly more due to a longer distance traveled.  Also, I usually end up spending the night nearby the night before pick-up because the camp ending times are usually well before noon.  I can’t count on making it to a 10 a.m. closing ceremony if there are four hours between me and camp that morning.  This means hotel fees, too.

There are several ways around these expenses.  First, think carefully about where you are sending your kids to camp.  Consider all forms of transportation.  It might be cheaper to send your child on an airplane, pay the unaccompanied minor fee and the camp transportation fee, than to drive to camp yourself.  Look for camps near family or friends with whom you could visit or at least just crash on their sofa for one night.

You can also ask the camp staff to forward your contact details to other camp families from your area.  Hopefully, you’ll be able to work out some sort of carpooling.  This can save money and time!

Look Into Financial Aid and Discounts, Even From Unusual Sources

Nearly all camps offer some sort of financial aid, and you might qualify even if you think that you don’t.  Some camps might even have multiple layers of financial aid, so be sure to ask about all your options.  For example, our area Girl Scout camps have grants at both the local and council levels, and girls can qualify for both for the same camp.  Be sure to inquire with the camp about any available aid, and then apply for all of it.

Also, some community and religious organization might be willing to help fund camp, especially in exceptional cases.  If you are ambitious and resourceful, check with community organizations and your place of worship to see if they offer financial assistance for children’s activities.

Note:  not exactly financial aid, but remember that day camps are deductible as child care expenses if you work or go to school.  Overnight camps don’t qualify, though.  (Ridiculous, but true.)  Keep those receipts to get the deduction at tax time.  Also, some camps might meet the qualifications for your Dependent Care Spending Account.  Check with your plan administrator for details.

Work or Volunteer at Camp

Camps need employees, and many camps also use volunteers.  Discounted or free camping is usually part of the benefits package.  You don’t have to be a camp counselor, heck, you don’t even have to work around kids.  Camps employ kitchen staff, lifeguards, counselors, nurses, directors, business managers, maintenance staff, drivers, all sorts of things.  Some even have year-round positions that are done from home during the winter and at camp in the summer!  I have a friend whose Dad coached at a summer camp each year, and she spent her summers at camp with him.  How excellent is that?

By using some or all of these suggestions, you can help keep summer camp more affordable.  And that is great summer fun for everyone!

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.