Summer is around the corner, and across the country scores of parents are scrambling to save up for it.
The federal government’s $10-a-day child-care reform is lifting a huge financial burden off the shoulders of households with young children. But it does nothing for dual-income families with children between the ages of 6 and 12 – too old to benefit from Ottawa’s subsidies and too young to entertain themselves independently – who face a yearly two-month child-care gap when school is out.
Paying for camp without stretching family finances thin often requires year-round saving and careful planning months in advance.
To be sure, some parents choose to go all out on summer camps.
In Vaughan, Ont., Candace Steinberg sends her two daughters, 11 and 12, to a Jewish overnight camp in Northern Ontario where activities include water skiing, yoga and archery. The total cost for the summer is around $10,000 a child.
Ms. Steinberg, who works as a marketing manager and called herself “very fortunate” to be able to afford the expenses, has no doubts it’s worth it.
“I went to overnight camp basically my whole childhood and I feel like it’s an amazing experience,” she said. “It teaches them to grow up a little bit.”
But even without sleepovers in remote settings, the cost of a month’s worth of camps can easily reach the size of a rent or mortgage payment for many families.
Overnight camp typically costs between $1,000 and $1,800 a week, said Agnes Stawicki, managing editor at Our Kids Media, which runs camps.ca, a popular directory of camps and after-school programs. For day programs, rates are usually between $200 and $500 a week, though costs can go as low as $50 or as high as $800 a week, she added.
Parents may also need to book before- or after-care services, as many camps run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., noted Ms. Stawicki, which may not cover a working parent’s full workday. The ability to drop off children earlier or pick them up later generally comes at an extra cost.
For children with special needs, who may require additional supervision or a higher staff-to-kids ratio, the costs can be higher still.
Enlisting grandparents to help is one way to reduce the financial burden. If having them watch the children for part of the summer isn’t an option, they might still offer a financial contribution. In general, families can ask relatives and friends to donate a camp experience as a birthday or Christmas gift, Ms. Stawicki said.
Parents who use summer camps as child care may also be able to claim those costs as a tax-deductible expense.
There are also opportunities to score reduced summer camp rates. Early registration is often rewarded with price incentives, Ms. Stawicki said. Some camps have siblings discounts for parents that sign up more than one camper or reduced pricing for friend referrals. Others offer scholarships for lower-income children.
Still, the discounts are often small and bursaries may not become available until closer to the start of the summer, which may not help families who need certainty around their summertime child-care arrangements.
Some non-profits and faith-based organizations also offer summer camps at affordable rates, Ms. Stawicki said. And another popular option for budget-conscious families are city-run camps, which are often available even in smaller towns, she added.
But getting into the cheaper camps isn’t always easy.
In Toronto, Jennifer Harris’s strategy to get her children into the city’s coveted summer camp programs is to have her computer, phone and tablet all constantly refreshing the sign-up page from the second registration opens at 7 a.m.
“It’s like the Hunger Games trying to get in,” said Ms. Harris, who has a five-year-old and an eight-year-old.
The last time Ms. Harris managed to get her children in a city-run program was before the pandemic and she couldn’t register both children in the same camp, which meant having two pick-up and drop-off locations.
This year the children will be attending private camps for four or five weeks with activities including rock climbing, dance and music workshops, and a STEM camp. To limit costs, Ms. Harris, who works in forensic administration, takes two weeks off in the summer to be with her children. That’s no family vacation time, though, as her husband, who runs a home renovations business, is busy throughout the summer. Ms. Harris’s mother also chips in with summer child care, taking the children for one week.
But Ms. Harris still expects the final tally to come to around $4,000 for both children. It usually takes a couple of months for Ms. Harris and her husband to pay off the expense, which they cover in part by tapping their savings.
To save up for camp, Kathryn Mandelcorn, a cash flow strategist at Spring Planning, usually suggests that families use one of two methods. The first is to add up all summer camp costs and divide the total by the number of months left before the fees are due. Parents can then set aside the corresponding monthly amount in a separate savings account, Ms. Mandelcorn said.
This strategy helps to avoid families pillaging their other savings, she noted. But having only a few months to squirrel away what is often thousands of dollars can result in short-term financial pressure on family budgets, with parents unable to keep up with other savings goals, she noted.
But Ms. Mandelcorn’s preferred method is to treat summer camps, if possible, as just one of the many sizable and irregular expenses that are inevitably associated with raising children. Instead of setting up a savings account for summer camps, parents can keep a year-round account for all such kids-related costs: from extracurricular activities to birthday presents.
Once parents have a total annual estimate of these outlays, they can calculate how much they should contribute to the children’s savings account every month. This approach effectively turns infrequent expenses into something akin to a monthly bill, which makes it easier for families to channel money for other objectives at the same time, Ms. Mandelcorn said.
The exercise also helps parents look at their annual spending from a big-picture perspective and set financial priorities, she added.
“It’s essentially setting a budget for that type of spend: Like, how much can you allocate out of your income to put toward your children?”
Still, some working parents are coming up with their own out-of-the-box solutions to the summer child-care dilemma.
Tired of shelling out hundreds of dollars for a single week of camp, Vancouver-based technical project manager Deniz Soykurum Çetin last year decided she and her then-12-year-old daughter would spend six weeks of the summer at the grandparents’ seaside home in Turkey instead.
The airplane tickets cost around $3,500, but with no camp costs and lower living expenses in Turkey, Ms. Soykurum Çetin, who kept working remotely from there, said she saved money overall.
“Actually, it makes sense financially.”
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