As a kid, summer vacation feels way too short. But as a working parent? That 10- to 12-week gap between school years can seem like forever, as you work to cobble together quality, affordable care.
The struggle is real. A 2018 analysis from the Center for American Progress estimated that the average family spends $3,000 on summer programs for two kids—which works out to about 20 percent of their income for the summer. In another report from New America, 1 in 4 parents say affording summer care is “very hard,” with another 21 percent describing it as “somewhat hard.”
“Parents are just scrambling to find arrangements for the summer,” says Cristina Novoa, a senior policy analyst for the Center for American Progress. It’s not just the cost. In some areas, there aren’t many summer care or camp programs available.
Let’s pause to clarify a few things. We’re not only talking about fun, optional experiences like sleepaway camp or a summer robotics program. (Although, hey, no judgment there.) This is also—and maybe even more often—about finding someone to care for your school-age children while you work. As New America’s report put it, “For many, summer care and summer camp end up being purely about safe care, rather than about enriching and engaging experiences.”
So why are we talking about this now, in mid-February? Winter is when many camps are in the early stages of enrollment for summer programs, and at some of the cheapest rates they’ll have on offer. (More on that, below.) So if you need to come up with a summer plan, now is a great time.
“When quality care—which is our No. 1 issue—collides with affordable care, looking early and often means you’ll have a lot more options,” says Scott Arizala, a summer camp consultant.
Here are five strategies to help you cover summer care this year, without breaking the bank—plus one extra tip that can help you in future years:
Most working parents are pulling together a summer plan across various sources. Camp. Help from family members. Their own paid time off.
Look at all your resources to see how much time you can cover, and when you’ll need help, says Amanda Lenhart, deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America. This is when you could ask Grandma to take the kids for a week, for example, or start talking to other families about creating an informal “summer care co-op” to trade off weeks of watching everyone’s kids.
The first and last few weeks of summer tend to be the hardest to arrange outside care, because camps often aren’t in session. Where Lenhart lives outside Washington, D.C., she says, “it’s like a cage match trying to get a [camp] spot later in August.”
Local organizations that work with kids all the time tend to be great options for quality, affordable care, says Arizala. Look to see what programs are available at area outposts of groups such as the YMCA, JCC or Boys & Girls Clubs, as well as your town's parks and recreation department and nearby churches or synagogues. Fair warning:
These camps aren't a secret bargain, and can often fill up fast. Earlier this month, Arizala logged on to register his kids for the local YMCA's camp, on the first morning of signups. Some programs were already waitlisted, he says.
At many camps, the longer you wait, the more you'll pay. Look to see if there are any early-bird deals. Timelines on those offers vary. I saved 20 percent on the weekly cost of camp for my son, by signing him up in October for this summer's sessions. (That camp's current offer is still about 15 percent off, for signups made before mid-March.) And if you're delaying because you can't fork over the full cost? That leads us to…
Camps often allow you to pay the cost over time, says Arizala. It might be a formal payment plan, or an informal arrangement. Camps don't always advertise this as an option, so it's worth asking even if you don't see anything about it on their registration site.
So-called camperships (camp scholarships) and other financial assistance is widespread. Those funds could come from the camp itself (many are nonprofits), or from outside groups. Some camps even give wealthier families an option to pay more—say, 125 percent of the camp fees—to help cover costs for families in need, Arizala says.
Again, the financial aid may not be a formal program, so ask about help if the cost of camp is a struggle, he advises. At some of the camps he's worked with, families could qualify to have half or more of the camp fees covered. Your kid could even get a full scholarship. (The camp may ask you for some details about your income or any unusual circumstances—like a job loss or health problems—that are contributing to your financial need.)
Day camps are often an eligible expense for a tax break called the Child and Dependent Care Credit. Depending on other elements of your tax situation, that credit can be worth up to $1,050 for one child under age 13, or up to $2,100 for two or more qualifying children. Hang on to registration and payment receipts from programs this year, to potentially claim those expenses on your taxes next year.
Camps can also be eligible expenses for money set aside in a dependent care flexible spending account. Those FSAs let you save up to $5,000 per household in pre-tax dollars from your paycheck. If your workplace offers these accounts, you can sign up during the open enrollment period (usually, in the fall for the next year). There's some fine print around both strategies you'll need to dig into.
For example, both the type of care and your child must qualify—overnight camps, for example, aren't eligible, nor are expenses for a teen age 13 or older. You may not be able to use either break if one parent doesn't have a job (or even, is home temporarily on paid maternity leave). And you can't double dip, claiming the same expense for both FSA reimbursement and the credit.
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