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Ways to cut the cost of kids' summer camp

It's the fireside tale that spooks parents every summer: A few weeks at camp can cost thousands of dollars.

To avoid that scary fate, Gabriel and Jennifer Griego and their friends plan to take turns watching the kids for part of this summer.

"In the past, we always sent them to camps the whole summer," said Gabriel Griego, a 43-year-old father of two in Berkeley, Calif. "This year we're looking to reduce that by about half."

As families across the country watch their portfolios melt away, the penny-pinching approach is being applied to every corner of life. Summer camp, which families often plan for months in advance to secure slots, is no exception.

"It's not that camp has become a yes-or-no question, but (parents are) changing the way they make decisions," said Peter Surgenor, president of the American Camp Association, based in Martinsville, Ind.

Most commonly, Surgenor said, parents are inquiring about shorter or less expensive programs. They're often surprised to learn how many options they have.

To start, there are more than 12,000 sleep-away and day camps in the country, according to the ACA, meaning there's one likely to suit any budget. In some cases, nonprofit camps such as the Boys & Girls Clubs might waive fees for families who can't afford to pay. Churches, synagogues and social service groups also offer low-cost or free options.

One way to begin your search is through CampParents.org, an ACA-run site that lets families search for camps by region, price and key words like "soccer" or "language studies." The site also lets users narrow options to camps that accommodate special needs such as autism, diabetes or attention deficit disorder.

Limiting your search to day camps, rather than a round-the-clock sleep-away, is a fast way to slash spending.

Another way to scale back spending is picking shorter sessions; many camps offer a menu of programs that run between two and 10 weeks.

Kids generally get the same social benefits from camp anyway, regardless of the duration of the program, Surgenor said.

"Camp is about forming social bonds and learning how to fit into a new situation away from home," he said. "You don't need months or an elite program to achieve that."

"The economic situation being what it is, parents are looking for comparable options that are a little less expensive," said Sean Nienow, director of the National Camp Association, a free referral service that is sponsored by the industry.

Once you settle on a camp, roll up your sleeves to wrestle down the price tag yet further. Don't be shy about asking camp directors what type of aid is available. Camps will often work with struggling families to make prices more affordable.

"Some parents are even asking if they can defray costs by volunteering," said Jeff Gamble, director of the Jefunira Camp in Mountain View, Calif., an outdoor day camp where a two-week stay typically costs about $800. Gamble said he's willing to negotiate lower prices for families struggling financially this year.

With an enrollment of just 270 each year, however, he said the camp already has enough staff.

If you can't get any financial relief from the camp, check with your employer. Your company may offer flexible spending accounts for dependent care, which typically lets workers set aside up to $5,000 to cover costs such as child care (including day camp, but not sleep-away camps.) Last year, 84 percent of large companies offered the benefit, according to the business consulting firm Mercer.

Savings strategies

LESS IS MORE: Day camps usually cost considerably less than overnight camps. Also check whether the camp offers shorter, cheaper sessions.

Seek SCHOLARSHIPS, OTHER AID: Ask about scholarships. Members of the American Camp Association gave away $39 million in scholarships last year. Ninety percent of camps also offer some form of financial aid.

NEGOTIATE: If you can't get any formal aid, it won't hurt to try to negotiate. For instance, ask if you can get a sibling discount if you're sending more than one child to the camp.

BROWN BAG IT: If the camp offers a meal program, save by packing your child's lunch.

look for TAX breaks: Check if your employer offers flexible spending accounts for dependent care. You can use this option if you're sending your kid to day camp.

THINK AHEAD: It's probably too late for early enrollment this summer, but secure discounted rates by signing up your kids for next year.

Ways to cut the cost of kids' summer camp 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:31am]

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