MONEY Parenting

The Unconscionable Cost of Summer Camp

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Good luck finding the mythic "affordable" summer camp.

Can we talk about camp for a second—as in, summer camp for kids and the egregious cost thereof?

It may have struck you—as it has struck me many times—that American families aren’t the best of savers, especially when you consider the anemic balances in our retirement accounts and 529 college savings accounts.

But despite what all the experts say, the culprit is not how lazy we are, or how much we overspend on holidays and impulse buys at Target.

It’s CAMP.

My NYC public school gets out at the end of June, and doesn’t resume until after Labor Day. So my husband and I are on the hook for 11 weeks of child care for our nine-year-old: that’s 55 business days, people. After this summer, our total camp outlay for three years will accrue to about $12,000. And we only have one kid!

But this isn’t just a whine-fest about camp costs. There is a stealth timing issue that can sabotage your efforts to save.

Consider this:

It’s almost the end of the year, and you have some extra cash to make a contribution to the ol’ 529 plan. If you did so, you’d feel great about a) knowing that your future freshman will have a little more cash toward her degree; and b) you’ve just lowered your taxable income.

At the same time—at the very moment when you are about to make a prudent, even virtuous decision—you get the dreaded Early Bird Registration notice from your camp:

“Reserve your youngster’s spot at Camp WigWam before November 15 and we’ll take 5% off your bill!”

Now you have to sit down and have the Camp Conversation with your spouse. And if that conversation goes the way it does at our house, you agree on nothing, but—somehow—you manage to have a spicy argument about why you don’t use the slow cooker more often.

Didn’t you buy the slow cooker to make nice wintry meals? Wasn’t it supposed to make life easier? Why is it sitting on the kitchen counter like that—gleaming and empty? Could we make a frickin’ stew, for pete’s sake?

Then you glare at each other, walk away and someone kicks the hamster cage.*

So then your decision-making capacity is impaired for months—and you have to slog through the holidays—until tax time arrives. Now you’re speaking to your spouse again, and you’re about to throw a chunk of cash into your IRA, for realz. (What happened to the 529? Nothing. Why have you refocused on funding your IRA now? Because it’s tax time.)

But just as you’re about to top off the IRA, enhancing your future security, and also reducing your taxable income—A win-win, baby! Come on! Almost there!—you get the gentle reminder phone call from the Camp People. (Yes, this happened to me.)

“Mrs. Dunleavey, we just wanted to make sure all is well, because we see that you haven’t signed up your son for the WigWams this year.”

At first I was so surprised, I almost lied and said something socially acceptable about how we were still “weighing our options.” But then I thought, Why am I trying to spare this guy’s feelings? Why am I protecting the camp from their overwhelming cost structure and its impact on hardworking parents like myself?

Instead, I said: “You know, your camp is really expensive and this year we’re looking for a more affordable camp situation, ok?”

Well, that inspired quite a silence from Mr. Gentle Reminder.

Unfortunately, I also kinda burned a bridge there, so now I actually have to find this mythic “affordable” camp I got in his grill about. And no, the cash didn’t make it into the IRA either. The moment passed, the taxes had to be filed, and now I realize it’s probably better if we use the money for what God and Nature intended:


* No hamsters were harmed in the writing of this essay.

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