10 Tricks to Save on Summer Camp

Do summer plans already have you reeling from sticker shock? There ARE ways to save on summer camp; I've already saved hundreds. How much will YOU save?

Do your summer plans already have you reeling from sticker shock? Mine do. However, there ARE ways to save on summer camp. I’ve already put several of these hacks to use, and saved hundreds of dollars. So I decided these tips were too good to keep to myself!

10 Tricks to Save on Summer Camp

With only weeks left to the school year, I’m already deep into summer-planning mode. Which, if you’re a budget-minded parent (as I am), means it’s time to weigh the options and see how far the dollars will stretch.

This is especially important if you work outside the home and don’t get summers off. Or if (like me) you spend most of your on-the-clock time AT home. It’s hard to log work hours from a home office when little people are afoot 24/7.

Besides, summer camp is a great time to learn new skills, make new friends, and socialize with other kids in a non-school setting. So try these tips to slash your summer camp fees and get more bang for your buck.

1. Be an early bird, and shop around

Some camps offer early-bird discounts. The week-long scouting day camp my girls will attend gives a discount for registering before May 1, and another discount for registering with a buddy. That’s up to $20 off per camper, for an already-modest registration fee.

Shopping around can also save you a bundle. For several summers now, the girls have taken a month of swim lessons at our community rec center. I was shocked to realize that the cost has gone up nearly 20% this year. And now that they’re way too big for a kiddie wading pool or even the free public splash pools near us, I’m again thinking about a summer pool membership to help us stay cool without running up our water bill.

Problem is, those are also (still) too expensive to justify the cost at the rec center. After a morning of online research, I found another pool in the next town. There, the cost of a month of lessons plus a summer family membership will come out to HALF of our discounted resident rate at the rec center. Plus they offer early-bird discounts, and their pool is actually closer to our house than where we’ve been going for lessons. Win-win.

2. Check your memberships

Do you already have a membership to a local art museum, kids’ museum, or science museum? Many of these offer summer camps for kids. What’s more, many also offer generous member discounts on registration fees, usually ranging from 10-20%.

Moreover, thanks to business partnerships, some museums offer special discounted programs targeted at particular audiences. Our local science museum has a year-long weekly after-school program to teach girls coding skills. The program ends with a one-week day camp, and the cost for the whole year (including the week of camp) is only $90, thanks to the corporate sponsors behind it. Kimmie can’t wait till next fall, when she’s old enough to sign up.

3. Check out Scouting

Is your child involved in Scouting? Not only are Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts/Girl Guides great programs for learning lots of skills, but their summer camp rates can be quite competitive.

If your child is already involved in Scouting, this should be a no-brainer. As one example, the regular rate for the girls’ week of all-day camp, where they’ll have five full days of fun, costs about as much as a half-day program at most other camps in our area. At some camps, siblings attending the same session can use family discounts.

Some camps may require that your child register as a scout before attending, but chances are good you’ll still save money. Moreover, having your child in a troop can offer other ways to save on summer camp. Many Boy Scout troops (and some girl troops as well) camp together over the summer, with the troop picking up some or all of the tab.

And in the U.S. at least, many Girl Scout councils also now offer the chance for girls to earn “Cookie Dough” for hitting certain targets during the annual cookie sale. Your daughter can use her Cookie Dough for a discount off camp fees (or new uniforms in the fall).

4. See if there’s a discount for volunteering

Kimmie had such a blast at Girl Scout day camp last year, she couldn’t wait to sign up again, so we built this cost into our summer budget. But then I learned that if I volunteered at camp for the week, not only can Essie attend at a steeply-discounted rate, but Kimmie gets to go free of charge.

Granted, this means our family week at camp won’t be a time for me to get a ton of work done. But on the other hand, I get to go to Girl Scout camp again, as a grownup, for free. And Essie gets to come along, too, for her first taste of Scouting before she officially joins a troop in the fall.

And the money we set aside for Kimmie’s week of day camp? She’ll use it instead for a half-week sampler of Girl Scout sleep-away camp, later in the summer.

5. Look at local houses of worship

My friend Mary sends her two boys to camp every week of the summer – sometimes for free, sometimes for only $5-$10 per child per week. Her secret? They attend as many VBS camps as possible.

If you’re not familiar with Vacation Bible School, VBS is the church version of summer day camp. Yes, the kids learn lessons from the Bible – but they also sing songs, do crafts, have fun snacks, etc. (My own favorite memories of VBS growing up include all the cool things we got to cook in the church kitchen.)

Depending on where you live, you may be able to stay within your denomination (if that’s what you prefer) and register for multiple VBS at different churches over several weeks. Or you can sample different denominations, like Mary’s family does. They don’t belong to a particular church, but they appreciate the love-thy-neighbor message and similar values at the heart of many VBS programs. Some smaller communities combine VBS with sports for a week-long full-day camp; other smaller communities offer VBS jointly sponsored by a number of different local churches.

These programs are often only half-day, and (in some areas) are evening-only, so shop for those options that will work best for your family’s schedule. And enrollment restrictions will vary from one religious community to the next. Most of our area’s churches open up their Vacation Bible Schools to any child, but our local synagogues and mosques restrict their summer camps to Jewish and Muslim kids, respectively.

6. Consider religious camps

If your kids are a little older and your family belongs to a local religious congregation, it’s worth looking into the nearest religious camp for your denomination.

Many churches, synagogues, and mosques have affiliations with one or more regional camps for their religious group. Options at our local church camp range from weekend family programs to two-week sleep-away camps for kids.

The camp fees may be slightly less than other camp options in your area, or they might be comparable. But many congregations have opportunities for prospective campers to raise funds within the congregation, or scholarship funds set aside to help send members’ kids to these programs. These offsets can really slash the cost of sending your child to a week or more of sleep-away camp.

7. Check out local nonprofit camp options

Your community’s recreational center exists to serve its local community. While ours isn’t the best option for swim lessons this year, they still have tons of sports and day camps for older kids.

And as a local taxpayer, you’ll probably get a discounted resident rate if you sign up your kids for your own rec center’s camps. Registering early could also snag you an early-bird discount. But if you don’t like the offerings of your own community’s rec center, see if nearby communities have something that will work better for your family.

Moreover, rec centers are only one option to look for in your community. Your local YMCA, YWCA, 4-H, FFA, or other nonprofit organization probably offers summer camp programs. With rates often well below what you’d pay elsewhere, these non-profits are a great way to save on summer camp.

And here again, see if your family memberships can offer additional deals you couldn’t get elsewhere. When I was in junior high, my father’s membership in a local service club gave me access to a one-month summer exchange program. For a fee that was about half what we spent back then for a week at Girl Scout camp, I spent two weeks with a host family in Canada, followed by two weeks of my family hosting their daughter. To this day, Raiah remains one of my oldest and dearest friends, and the lessons I’ve learned through three decades of cross-border friendship are priceless.

8. Look for Community Playground programs

Many of the community recreational centers in our area offer Community Playground options for school-age children. For the cost of one week at more structured day camps, your child can have access to adult-supervised playground activities for the entire summer.

Since sending your kids down the street to the local park by themselves is a thing of the past in many parts of the U.S., Community Playground is a great alternative. You provide the lunch and swim gear, plus additional fees for scheduled (optional) day trips. Even if you only take your kids for a few days a week, this is still a super-cost-effective option for working parents.

And this is another case where shopping early and casting a wide net can pay off. Many communities offer discounts for residents and early registrations. But if you live in the corner of your municipality (as we do), parks in the next town may prove to be a better fit for your family, even if you have to pay a little more as a nonresident.

9. Explore CIT/LIT options for older kids

If your kid isn’t yet old enough for a summer job and still loves summer camp, a summer as a Counselor-In-Training or Leader-In-Training may be right for them. Depending on the program, your child may attend a resident camp for the whole summer at a reduced rate (basically, the cost of food and lodging), or may get to attend camp for free as a youth volunteer.

I’ve seen wildly varying policies for programs along these lines. Doing your research and starting early will help you find the best fit for your child and budget. You’ll also want to consider what the take-away is for your kid. In some cases, they’ll spend a lot of money with little to show at the end. But other programs can be a stepping-stone for the future. Namely, they’ll gain credentials, experience, and/or access to future paying jobs at that camp or similar ones.

10. Organize a DIY camp or child-care coop

If all else fails, band together with other neighborhood parents to organize a parent-run day camp or childcare exchange. I first saw this idea in Parenting Magazine‘s August 2010 issue (“Camp Mamawanda” by Michelle Crouch, pp. 106-111), when Kimmie was an infant. Though I haven’t tried it yet, I was excited enough by the idea to save the article for future reference. DIYing it is the ultimate hack to save on summer camp.

This can work especially well for parents with flexible work hours. If you have five families participate, each family only has to plan one day of activities. For one day of managing a herd of kids, you get four days to yourself, for relaxing or your work-at-home gig. You’ll know where your kids are, and that they’re in good hands. Even better, the only expense is the cost of supplies for your own day on duty.

If you can’t find enough moms of similar-aged kids to pull this off, maybe a child-care exchange or rotating play date would work better. This is one of several ideas Christine Coppa offers for surviving summer without breaking the bank. Some weeks she hangs with the grownups while her son plays. But it’s understood that if a mama needs to drop her kid and run errands, that’s OK, too.

Who knows? If you band together with other local parents, you might even find the time to read that novel waiting on your bookshelf…

What about you? What’s your favorite way to save money on summer camp fees? Let us know in the comments!

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