Your children want to go to camp. If you say yes, they start dreaming about the adventure ahead -- and you lie awake wondering how to pay for it. Fortunately, we've found eight often-overlooked ways to shave tens, hundreds, or even thousands of dollars off the costs of summer camp.
No single camp offers all of these savings opportunities, and some aren't well-publicized. To find them, ask early and often.
1. Check Out Nonprofit Camps First
For a great general-interest camping experience, these long-established camps are hard to beat. Camps sponsored by scouting organizations, YMCAs, YWCAs, and church groups can cost a third or less than private camps.
If your child is already involved with the sponsoring group, she may already know many of the campers and appreciate the camp's philosophy.
2. Tell a Friend
Some camps offer tuition discounts for referrals. Fairview Lake YMCA Camps in Newton, N.J, offer campers $50 in canteen credit if they refer another camper for a three-week session. Campers go to the canteen for bottled water, ice cream, batteries, stamps, and camp T-shirts. "It's great advertising for us and an incentive to recruit your friends," says Michele Scabet, camp administrative assistant.
Jim Kuss spends his summer vacations curing tummy aches and soothing yellow-jacket stings as a nurse at Gwynn Valley Camp in Brevard, N.C., in exchange for camp tuition for his two sons. "I don't have to shell out a bunch of money, my kids get to have a great camp experience, and the camp gets an experienced professional they need on staff," he says.
The barter idea can include less time-consuming exchanges, too. Identify your skills and resources, and check them against the camp's needs. You might be able to lower your child's camp tuition by designing a promotional camp video or brochure, or teaching cardiopulmonary resuscitation to the staff.
4. Sign Up Early
"I'm always amazed at campers who return year after year who don't take advantage of the early-bird savings," says Lynn Pedroza, director of the Cottontail Ranch in Malibu, Calif. Parents who sign up more than six months in advance can save hundreds off the cost of an eight-week session.
5. Go in Late Summer
Many families take vacations around this time, and camps have a harder time filling their bunks. At many camps, the later sessions are shorter and therefore less expensive.
6. Choose a Shorter -- or Longer -- Stay
You'll have to weigh how long your child wants to camp against the amount you want to spend. Obviously, the bill for one week at camp will be less than the bill for eight weeks. You also should factor in your own situation and the cost of whatever's going on at home. The cost per week generally is less for longer stays. At the Y.O. Adventure Camp in Mountain Home, Texas, for example, the cost is $650 for one week and $1,100 for two weeks.
7. Have a Fund-Raiser
Teenage members of St. Luke's Catholic Church in Indianapolis run a wholesale food market once a month to earn money toward the camp of their choice -- last year, a 10-day camp stay in the Colorado Rockies. "They work all year with this goal in mind," says Virlee Weaver, program volunteer and mother of three campers.
In many parts of the country, Brownies and Girl Scouts can earn camp-tuition credit through their cookie sales. Other fund-raising ideas include car washes, yard work, and Christmas tree sales.
8. Ask About Camp Scholarships
Many nonprofit camps charge on a sliding scale or offer partial to full tuition assistance. Hastings Lake YMCA Camp in Lake Villa, Ill., raises $50,000 each year for camp scholarships that cut 50% to 80% off the $630 two-week tuition.