Summer may be months away, but if you have children, you'll do your wallet a favor if you start planning for camp—that annual rite of passage where kids learn to paddle a canoe, work on their breaststroke, and make lifelong friends.
The American Camp Association (ACA) estimates summer camps generate around $15 billion in annual revenue, with sleepaway camps charging an average of $85 per day per camper and day camps costing on average $43 per day per camper.
If that sounds pricey, Peg Smith, CEO of ACA, offers these words of assurance: "There's a camp for every budget, and there's a camp for every child."
Consider these strategies to find a camp that's the best fit for your child—at a price that works for your budget:
1. Start early. Give yourself ample time to research camp options. "There are often discounts for early registration, so it's important to start thinking about it sooner rather than later," says Smith.
Getting a jump on planning also gives you more time to save up for camp costs."I've set up a goal savings account that's just for short-term goals, like camp," says Paul Golden, a father of two and spokesperson for the National Endowment for Financial Education. "Figure out how much you need to save and divide that by the number of months until you need that money. If you sign up for a later [camp session], that gives you more time to save. Some of those programs later in the summer are also cheaper."
2. Look for discounts or scholarships. Some camps offer financial assistance programs, but many are on a first-come, first-served basis, says Golden. "Don't automatically think that [your] income level is a disqualifier," he adds. And if you're sending multiple children to the same program, you may qualify for a multi-child discount.
Andrew Townsend, camps director at Kennolyn Camps in Soquel, Calif., says some day camps are turning to daily deal sites like Groupon to boost enrollment. Last year, Groupon sold vouchers for several week-long summer camps in Arizona starting at $59, while the San Diego Union-Tribune offered a week-long camp at Mission Bay Sportcenter for $95.
3. Consult your accountant. Even if you don't qualify for scholarships or other discounts, you may be able to pay for day camp for kids under 13 using pre-tax dollars in a dependent care flexible spending arrangement (FSA). The IRS caps dependent care FSAs at $5,000 per year, and your employer withholds money from each paycheck to fund the plan.
Also consider the Child and Dependent Care Credit, which allows taxpayers to deduct up to 35 percent of their childcare expenses, up to a maximum of $6,000. "My best advice is to check with a tax planning professional and keep track of expenses," says Golden.
4. Look in unexpected places. If sleepaway camp is too pricey (or maybe your child has an aversion to tents and latrines), consider daytime programs, such as those offered by a nearby college or community center.
Leah Ingram, a mother of two teenage girls in New Hope, Penn., and founder of the blog SuddenlyFrugal.com, says some of the best values she's seen for summer programs have been at local universities or community centers. If a summer program offers children college credit, "that could save them or you money on tuition down the line," Ingram says. Churches, local libraries, nonprofits like the YMCA, or scouting groups might also offer affordable summer activities.
[Read: Fun Ways to Teach Kids About Money.]
5. Keep in mind extra expenses. Remember to factor in costs that aren't covered by the camp price, which may include a sleeping bag, canteen, or camp T-shirt. "There's always some extras," says Golden. "Kids almost always will want some sort of money for discretionary spending while they're there, so you need to think about all those costs." Talking to parents who've sent their kids to the camp in the past can give you a ballpark figure for some of these costs and help you gauge whether it is the right program for your child. Smith says camp directors are often willing to share references from other parents to give parents peace of mind.