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Summer Camp May Be a Luxury Parents Can No Longer Afford

The days are long gone when it was cute for your kids to barge in on a Zoom work call. After two-plus years of interruptions, many working parents are hell-bent on getting their kids out of the house this summer to socialize, learn new skills and generally rediscover the wider world.

Those who are returning to the office are feeling even more pressure to figure out a plan for the end of the school year. With childcare providers still in short supply, the need for summer camp is even more critical.

For most would-be campers in the U.S., the summer of 2020 was a bust. Just 20% of day and overnight camps were open, according to the American Camp Association. Last summer that improved to 67%, but even then many weren’t operating at full capacity. Though cases of a new Covid subvariant are on the rise, for now it seems like the attitude is to forge ahead and take precautions rather than pull the plug.

But before you get your kids — and yourself — too excited about a summertime adventure, take a look at the price tags. A lot has changed in the last three years.

The average cost of day camp has more than doubled to $178 a day from about $76 last year, according to the ACA. For sleepaway camp, the average cost has almost tripled to $449 a day. Keep in mind, these are averages and can vary widely based on things like location and amenities.

Camp directors say they have had to increase prices because the costs of operating camp have risen dramatically. They are struggling to find counselors and often have to pay them more to be competitive. At the same time, camps are facing higher food and gas prices as inflation rips through the economy. Many are still saddled with losses from being closed in 2020 and not operating at a full scale in 2021.

Others say they’re planning on offering activities, such as taking a trip off camp grounds, that they couldn’t provide last year because of stricter safety protocols — but that come at a higher price, too.

There are a few things parents can do to try to make these costs more manageable. Many camps will offer a discount if you pay in full when you enroll. It may be too late for this year, but consider any early-bird specials for next year, where if you register soon enough (sometimes right after the current season ends), you’ll get a substantially lower rate. There may also be deals if you register a second or third child, or sign up for a longer block of time. And if you have particular skills that may be in demand by the camp, check if there’s a way to offer those services in exchange for a reduced rate.

Many camps offer financial assistance of varying amounts for those who need it, or payment plans, but the sooner you ask about it, the better. On the other hand, parents with more resources may want to consider making a donation this year, given the greater need by more campers for financial help.

As is often the case, there’s a tax angle to consider. Money in a dependent-care flexible savings account, which is funded by pretax dollars (meaning that money isn’t included as part of your taxable income), can be used by two working parents for eligible childcare expenses, including day camp for children under the age of 13. Sleepaway camp isn’t considered an eligible expense. Note that the IRS contribution limits for dependent-care FSAs and rules around unused balances changed just for 2021 as part of pandemic-relief legislation.

There’s also the child and dependent-care tax credit, which you can use to reduce your taxes dollar-for-dollar. It has the same restrictions -- only for kids under 13 and sleepaway camp is excluded. The amount of the credit is equal to a percentage of a set amount of expenses you paid to childcare providers. The percentage depends on your adjusted gross income. Again, just for 2021, the total expenses you could use to calculate the credit more than doubled.

Remember, if you contribute money to a dependent-care FSA, you have to subtract the amount of those benefits from the dollar limit that applies to you for the child and dependent-care tax credit. In other words, no double-dipping.

Given continuing uncertainties around Covid-19, it’s also good to be aware of a camp’s refund and cancellation policies. Most camps will specify dates by which they’ll give you some or all of your money back if your child doesn’t make it. Others may offer credits for next summer. Even if you’re past those dates, it never hurts to ask.

Finally, parents of little kids should be aware that programs for those under 5 years old are among the most in-demand and likely to already have waitlists. Having been born shortly before or during the pandemic, many children that age haven’t had much socialization or learned skills like swimming, says Lauren Wexler, who oversees the camps at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and Rockland County outside New York City. Programs for the youngest ones are most affected by staffing shortages, since they require more supervision and a higher adult-to-child ratio.So even if you can afford the higher costs, summer camp may not be in the cards for your kids — or at least, the summer camp that you had hoped. The good news is that it’s not too early to start planning for summer 2023.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

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• Poor Single Mothers Need Money, Not Husbands: Kathryn Edwards

• What Do Companies Owe Working Mothers?: Clara Ferreira Marques

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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