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How to find an affordable summer camp

With inflation and the rising cost of living, Americans’ finances are tighter than ever. How can parents find summer camps that don’t break the bank?

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Alex Erickson and Emmanuel Kwewon show their car as YMCA campers create inventions in Ogden.

Alex Erickson and Emmanuel Kwewon show their car as YMCA campers create inventions in Ogden on Aug. 4, 2015. With inflation and the rising cost of living, Americans’ finances are tighter than ever — how are working parents going to send their kids to summer camp?

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Summer will be here soon and working parents are engaging in that most American of springtime rituals: scrambling to figure out summer camp options and wondering how they’re going to pay for it. 

Day camp is expensive. Some working parents spend the year saving up for summer camp, squirreling away what they can in anticipation of the big bill ahead. Others plunk down their tax refunds to cover the cost. One mother told me that she uses her credit card to pay for camps for her three kids and two stepchildren; unable to pay the balance off, her debt mounts every year. And some families hit the grandparents up for a little help paying for camp.

While the price of day camp varies wildly by location and the type of camp, the average price of day camp was $178 a day in 2022, according to the American Camp Association — that was more than double the cost of previous years. Prices are expected to stay high this year, as well, in part because there is more demand than there are spaces. For every child registered for a summer program today, there’s another waiting for a seat, according to Jen Rinehart, senior vice president of strategy and programs at the Afterschool Alliance. 

While low-income families often qualify for assistance, this is not the case for the middle class. “Middle-income families are struggling with cost and availability of programs — and the likelihood that they may not qualify for subsidies or other financial support is an additional challenge,” said Rinehart, who pointed to the data that 62% of middle income families are concerned about summer camp being too expensive. 

This issue is especially salient in Utah, where there are more children per family than any other state. Parents in rural counties have an even harder time finding adequate summer child care because there are fewer options, said Amanda Hughes, chief executive officer at Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake.

All this being said, there are ways to make it work:

Look local

Turn to your municipality, recreation centers and schools. Many cities offer municipal summer camps; some county school systems offer summer programming that is significantly cheaper than the private day camps. Check, too, with community-based organizations like the Boys and Girls Club or the YMCA, both of which offer summer camps on a sliding scale. 

“Boys and Girls Clubs offer programs as low as $20 for the entire summer,” said Hughes, who added that because a $20 registration fee can be prohibitively expensive for a family with, say, five children, there are ways for children to earn their registration or membership fee at Greater Salt Lake Boys and Girls Clubs. 

In addition to checking out the local programs (on a national level, parents can go to the Boys and Girls Club of America website and enter their ZIP code to find their local Boys and Girls Club), Hughes suggested that parents look at the Utah Afterschool Programs website, which also lists summer programs. 

Find funding

Parents can also connect with churches and other faith-based organizations, some of which offer scholarships that can be used at those institutions’ summer camps or, sometimes, at outside summer camps. Hughes also recommended checking with local and state child welfare offices and, in Utah, the Department of Workforce Services. 

The YMCA also offers financial aid and scholarships to help with the cost of summer camp and while this assistance is based primarily on household income, “We take into consideration a ton of factors and so we look at your household income. We also look at your household size,” said Mandy Lail, marketing director for the YMCA of Northern Utah. “If someone doesn’t qualify, that does not automatically take them out of the running for financial assistance or scholarships. It just makes us work a little bit harder to make sure that we’re able to serve that family.”

Approximately 75% of families participating in YMCA programming are receiving some sort of financial assistance from the organization, according to Lail. 

“We don’t want anybody who wants to come to summer camp to not be able to come to summer camp so we really do try and meet everybody where they are,” said Lail, who added that the YMCA of Northern Utah took a look at their financial assistance during COVID-19 and adjusted some of the criteria to reflect the fact that people can be above the poverty line but still unable to afford summer child care. 

A matter of policy

While there are options to help families, at the end of the day, the lack of accessible and affordable summer child care options is a policy issue, Rinehart said.

“We tried the system of parents bearing all of the responsibility, and it’s clearly not working well for the vast majority of families. There is a role for public policy in the summer and after-school space,” said Rinehart, who adds that finding the financial help one needs for summer camp requires both social capital — using one’s network to know where to start the search — as well as time, something many working families lack. Expecting working parents to “pull on all the levers” is “just not reasonable for the vast majority of families,” she added. 

While summer camp is absolutely essential for many working parents, it’s also important for children who have the option of spending the break at home.

“Summer camps aren’t just about summer care. They help with summer learning loss prevention (and) character development; they’re learning teamwork,” said Lail, who added, “We’re not just throwing together a program where kids come and do arts and crafts and play a game every day.”