Making Summer Camp Affordable
To keep within budget, families plan carefully, consider different types of camps, and look for discounts.
This time of year many parents are methodically (or maybe frantically) trying to put together a summer camp schedule. It takes some time to find local camps that your kids will enjoy, and then there’s the added challenge of trying to figure out how to get them to fit in the household budget. But there are ways that families can be strategic in making camp affordable.
Costs of camps vary widely, so it is worthwhile to look around carefully before signing up. There are the obvious cost differences between half-day, full-day and overnight camps. But there are cost differences between age groups, regions and camp types as well.
To understand what parents can expect to pay for different types of camps, we analyzed the 2011 camp prices listed on Sign Up For Camp and saw some interesting trends. While the average cost of a full day camp was about $400 per week for an elementary school age child, the range in prices was very wide. Summer camp can be free, or as inexpensive as $110 per week (for a music camp in Philadelphia), but can also cost over $1000 per week (for a horseback riding camp in the San Francisco Bay Area).
Full Day Camps
There is no doubt that areas with a higher cost of living have a higher cost for camps. But, in every region, there is a wide range in prices by camp type. The price for a week of day camp in the Bay Area is about 10% higher than for a week of camp in Philadelphia/South Jersey (Delaware Valley) area. Staff costs more in more expensive areas. But the amount of this regional difference was affected by the type of camp as well. There was only a 3% difference in the price for Kindergarten age camp but a 24% higher cost in California for High School camps, possibly because they are more specialized.
Consider camp type and needs of campers at different ages
More specialized camps tend to be the most expensive. Horseback riding camps and high-tech camps topped the lists on both coasts. The former requires expensive care of the horse stock and the latter investment in the latest computer technology. The lowest cost camps tended to be subsidized by non-profit entities or cater to a specific membership, including religious groups and local Parks and Recreation departments. Those camps with costs in the middle range are pretty much what you would expect: traditional day camps that offer a lot of different activities as well as specialty camps that require less of an investment (music, sports, drama etc.) A practical implication of this reality is to plan carefully to get the most bang for buck. Make sure the specialty camps truly are special for your child. For most kids, one to two weeks of a super specialty camp will be sufficient. If budget is a concern, aim to round out the summer with more general program camps.
You might think that camps for younger kids would cost more due to a higher staff:camper ratio needed. However, we see that the average cost actually increases as the campers get older. The average cost for a high school camp is about $650, while for Pre-K and Kindergarten age it is closer to $350. (See Table 1).
The higher cost is most likely due to the specialized instruction, equipment and/or travel that high school camps offer. There are many high school camps that offer true “once-in-a –lifetime” experiences, whether training with top level sports coaches on college campuses, developing video games, traveling overseas, or hiking in the backcountry.
However, unlike the younger kids, high schoolers may be less likely attend to 10 weeks of summer camp. The kids might have free time be working a summer job and/or traveling. For many families, the cost of the “once-in-a-lifetime” camps are largely off-set by the opportunities to participate as counselors in training in other camps. These programs offer high school students a camp experience at a greatly reduced price (or free) and allow students the leadership experience of introducing younger kids to camp. High school kids exit the programs with leadership skills, work references and a sense of pride.
Real families planning camps
We spoke to a few elementary school age families to find out their strategies for handling camp costs. Although the individual camps differed, the general process was similar for many of these families: build the summer around the kids’ favorite local budget camps, sprinkle in a couple higher cost specialty camps, a couple weeks of down time (when possible) and a week or two of family vacation. For example, one two-working-parent family on the San Francisco Peninsula starts with the local Girl Scout camp—a low cost camp for 2-weeks at the end of July which is staffed entirely by volunteers and has waiting lists every year. After that they add in a few weeks with a local Parks and Rec camp with a high quality swim program. Then there’s a week of horseback riding camp for one child and Lego camp for another. This family’s goal was to keep the cost under $300 per week per child, with an average cost of $200 per week per child. Other families in the same area had similar cost parameters.
However many families, particularly in Silicon Valley and parts of the Northeast, have a much higher budget. $500 per week, per child is not uncommon when kids need a full-day from 7am to 6pm. Some camps might include meals and snacks in this price too. In contrast, families in lower cost-of-living areas, may find they can budget the entire summer for about $150 per week per child.
For families that don’t need full-time child care, the options are many since half-day camps are a possibility too. In Sign Up For Camp’s database the average cost of a half-day camp was about $200 per week.
There are many ways to take advantage of camp discounts to help lower the camp costs. Early bird discounts can help a lot. They tend to expire from mid-March to mid-May, so planning ahead is key. One family took advantage of a $90 per week discount at a science camp that their daughter loves, booked multiple weeks and planned the rest of their summer around that. Even after early bird discounts have expired many camps offer discounts for booking multiple sessions, or for referring a friend.
So if you are watching your budget, it pays to plan carefully and explore all your options. Look for different types of discounts, and decide which specialty camps would be most interesting for your children. Sign Up For Camp’s search, calendar and sharing tools can help you with this process! Reviews from other parents about camps are also on the site and can be very helpful in narrowing down your camp choices.
Sign Up For Camp’s blog can also help save you money. It has useful articles about affordable camps in the Delaware Valley and San Francisco Bay Area, what sorts of options are available for free camps, a list of upcoming early registration discounts, and more.
Sign Up For Camp also has a sweepstakes running now through April 30th. Sign up for our email newsletter (which lists camp news and discounts) for a chance to win a free week of camp.
 The camp costs for this article are from the Sign Up For Camp website (www.SignUpForCamp.com). All camp prices were normalized to a per week cost. The website includes camp prices for thousands of camp sessions, but only includes information that camps enter on the website.