Labor Day weekend is barely in the rear-view mirror, but parents with young kids may find it's smart to start looking ahead to next summer. Experts say fall planning for camp can be one of the best ways to save.
Summer care and camp bills can be substantial, with various reports putting the average family's spending at roughly $1,000-$1,500 per child. Worse, about a third of parents end up carrying debt from those expenses, according to a Bankrate survey from earlier this year.
Here are four ways planning for next summer now can help you save.
Camps through local organizations — like the YMCA, your town's parks and recreation department, or nearby churches – tend to be bargains. But spots often fill up fast, in some cases within days or even hours of registration opening.
"It's good to know, if registration opens at 6 a.m., that you need to be up and ready," says Scott Arizala, a summer camp consultant based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Call the camps you're considering and ask whether their offerings are regularly full and waitlisted, he suggests. Mark your calendar now with registration dates and any key details, like what time sign-ups start and whether you can sign up online, via phone, or in person.
With any early camp commitment, take time to read through the camp's cancellation policy and ask questions. You should understand how much money is at risk if something happens between now and next summer that changes your camp plans — whether that's an injury, a change in family vacation timing, or a shift in your child's interests.
"It's certainly hard to think about that in September … what are we going to be doing the third week of July?" Arizala says. But the benefits can be significant.
Camps often offer early registration deals, friend referral discounts, and other price breaks during the fall in a bid to fill up spaces early, says Arizala.
I took advantage of an early-bird deal last fall, signing my son up in October for four weeks of day camp this summer. The 20% price break saved us enough to cover a few more summer activities, like art classes and sports mini-camps, through our local community center. This year, I already have my calendar marked to take advantage of the same deal.
Early registrants may have a better shot at scoring financial assistance, aka "camperships." More than 9 in 10 camps offer some form of aid, according to the American Camp Association.
Each camp has its own qualifications. But "almost always on top of that process, it's first come, first served," Arizala says. "The earlier you [ask], the more funds will be available to you, generally."
With months between now and the start of summer camp, you might also be able to set up a payment plan to break up the bill. Even if the camp doesn't advertise a formal payment plan, ask, Arizala advises. Many are willing to come to an informal arrangement.
With some planning, parents sending kids to summer day camps may be able to claim one or two valuable tax breaks in coming years:
- Dependent care flexible spending accounts are a workplace perk that let you save up to $5,000 per household in pre-tax dollars from your paycheck. Fall open enrollment is when most workers have the opportunity to decide how much they want to set aside for the next calendar year. The money is use-it-or-lose-it for that year, so it helps to estimate your camp and other care costs before you commit.
- The Child and Dependent Care Credit, depending on your tax situation, can reduce your tax bill by up to $1,050 for one qualifying child, or up to $2,100 for two or more children. You'll claim expenses incurred in one year on the following year's tax return.
There's plenty of fine print to read up on for both breaks. For example, your child and the camp must meet certain qualifications — overnight camps aren't eligible, and generally, neither are expenses for a child aged 13 or older.
Here's where the early planning comes in: You can take advantage of both breaks in a year. But tax rules don't allow you to double dip by claiming the same expense for both FSA reimbursement and the tax credit, says April Walker, senior manager for tax practice and ethics at the American Institute of CPAs.
So if summer camp is your main eligible expense, it's worth running the numbers with an accountant to see which break is more valuable for your financial situation, she says. Do that now, before you have to decide during open enrollment how much, if anything, to put aside in your FSA.
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