Summer camp is a rite of passage. A place where traditions begin and memories are made. A unique venue with a structured opportunity for kids to grow and learn new skills. As enriching as it may seem, embarking on the process each year can be intense: How do I choose a camp? Should it have a philosophy? How do I know my child will have fun? But often the question at the top of the list is, “How do I budget for summer camp?”
Whether you’re scrambling for camp arrangements for this year or getting a jump-start on next summer, you’re in need of a working budget for summer camp. “As a parent who sent several kids to summer camp for many years, I know how expensive it can be,” says Leslie H. Tayne, author and founder of debt solutions law firm Tayne Law Group.
Read on for expert budgeting tips for summer camp and how to save money on summer camp so you can make the best decisions concerning your wallet and your child’s wish list:
1. Get a handle on camp tuition
According to the American Camp Association, sleep-away camp tuition can range from $630 to more than $2,000 per camper per week. Day camp tuition isn’t too far behind, ranging from $199 to more than $800 per week.
One of the best ways to budget for summer camp and prepare for tuition costs is to understand your needs for the summer as well as your child’s interests. This will help you determine ‘how much’ and ‘what type’ of camp you want: Is day-camp coverage important all summer because of work? Does your child want to experience sleep-away camp for a portion of the time? Is a camp with a specific focus (say a sport or hobby) on the list?
Depending on your circumstances and child’s expectations, it’s not unusual to be looking at a combination of campsâand tuition costsâin one season. If you have multiple kids at different ages, with different interests, creating a budget for summer camp and understanding how much you’ll need to dish out in tuition becomes especially important.
Once your camp plan is in place, assess how much you’ll need to pay in tuition for the summer months with school out of session. The sooner you’ve arrived at this figure, the easier it will be to work the expense into your household budget, says Heather Schisler, money-saving expert and founder of deal site Passion for Savings. “It’s much easier to set aside $30 a month than it is to come up with $300 to $400 at one time,” Schisler says.
Sleep-away camp tuition can range from $630 to more than $2,000 per camper per week. Day camp tuition ranges from $199 to more than $800 per week.
2. Plan for expenses beyond tuition
One of the biggest budgeting tips for summer camp is planning for the many costs outside of tuition. Tayne points out that sleep-away camp usually comes with a longer supply list than day campâsuch as specific clothing or gear and toiletries to cover the length of stay. If your child is heading to a sleep-away camp far from home, your budget for summer camp may also need to factor in the cost of transportation or the cost to ship luggage. Day camps can also have fees for extended hours or transportation if your child rides a camp bus each day.
Once you’ve selected a campâday camp or sleep-awayâcheck its website for camper packing lists and guidelines. Most camps offer checklists that you can print out, which can be good for tracking supplies and costs as you go. After you enroll, your camp may provide access to an online portal that can help you manage tuition and track additional expenses, like canteen money, which is cash your child can use for snacks and additional supplies while away.
3. Create a year-round savings strategy
By calculating the necessary expenses ahead of time for the camps you and your campers have chosen, you’ll be able to determine an overall budget for summer camp. A budgeting tip for summer camp is to save money monthly throughout the year. To determine a monthly savings goal, divide your total summer camp costs by the amount of months you have until camp starts. If camp is quickly approaching and you’re feeling the budget crunch, you may want to start saving for next year’s costs once it’s back-to-school time so you can spread out your costs over a longer period of time.
Once you start saving, you’ll need a place to put it, right? When it comes to budgeting tips for summer camp, consider placing your cash in a dedicated account, which will keep it separate from your regular expenses and help you avoid tapping it for other reasons. “Then you can have your bank set up an auto draft [for the summer camp money] so it automatically goes into your account each month and you will have the money you need when summer rolls around,” Schisler says. If you use a Discover Online Savings Account for this purpose, you’ll also earn interest that can be put toward camp expenses.
âIt’s much easier to set aside $30 a month than it is to come up with $300 to $400 at one time.â
4. Find ways to fund your summer camp account
To boost cash in your summer camp savings account, consider asking relatives and family friends to gift your children cash for camp in lieu of birthday and holiday gifts, says Tracie Fobes of budget blog Penny Pinchin’ Mom. “If your child has his or her heart set on sleep-away camp, they may be willing to forgo a gift or two,” Fobes says.
Another budgeting tip for summer camp is to put your cashback rewards toward your budget for summer camp. For example, if you open a checking account with Discoverâcalled Cashback Debitâyou’ll earn 1% cash back on up to $3,000 in debit card purchases each month.1 You can enroll to have that cashback bonus automatically deposited into your Discover Online Savings Account so it remains designated for camp costs (and can grow with interest).
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Lastly, if you don’t have your tax refund earmarked for another financial goal, you could use the windfall to kick-start your summer camp savings fund. Depending on the refund amount and your total camp costs, it could reduce your monthly summer camp savings goal significantly.
5. Reduce camp-related costs
Despite having your budget for summer camp in full view and planning in advance, camp can still be expensive. Here are some ways to save money on summer camp by cutting down on camp costs:
Ask about scholarships and grants: “Some camps offer scholarships or discounts for children and families,” Fobes says. Research your camp to see if they have anything similar to help offsetâor even pay forâthe cost of tuition.
Use a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account (DCFSA): A Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account is a pre-tax benefit account that can be used to pay for eligible dependent care services. You can use this type of account to “cover dependent care [costs], and camp may qualify,” Fobes says.
Negotiate price: “Many people don’t think about negotiating the cost of summer camp, but it is possible,” Tayne says, and more and more camps are open to it.
See if there’s an “honor system”: Some camps have what’s known as an honor system, where the camp offers a range of costs, or tiered pricing, and parents can pay what they can comfortably afford. Every child enjoys the same camp experience, regardless of which price point, and billing is kept private.
Take advantage of discounts: Attention early birds and web surfers: “There are sometimes discounts offered when you sign up early or register online,” Fobes says.
Volunteer: If your summer schedule allows, “offer to work at the camp,” Fobes says. If you lend your servicesâperhaps for the camp blog or cleaning the camp house before the season startsâyour child may be able to attend camp for free or a reduced rate.
Don’t let summer camp costs become a family budget-buster. Plan ahead and look for money-saving opportunities and work your budget for summer camp into your annual financial plan.
To save money on summer camp, remember that you only need to focus on camp necessities. “Don’t spend a lot of extra money on new clothing, bedding, trunks or suitcases,” Schisler says. “Remember, summer camp is all about the experience, not the things.”
1 ATM transactions, the purchase of money orders or other cash equivalents, cash over portions of point-of-sale transactions, Peer-to-Peer (P2P) payments (such as Apple Pay Cash), and loan payments or account funding made with your debit card are not eligible for cash back rewards. In addition, purchases made using third-party payment accounts (services such as VenmoÂ® and PayPal, who also provide P2P payments) may not be eligible for cash back rewards. Apple, the Apple logo and Apple Pay are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.
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If you have an irregular income, you know how great the good times feelâand how difficult the lean times can be. While you can’t always control when you get paid or the size of each paycheck if you’re a freelancer, contractor or work in the gig economy, you can take control of your money by creating a budget that will help you manage these financial extremes.
Antowoine Winters, a financial planner and principal at Next Steps Financial Planning, LLC, says creating a budget with a variable income can require big-picture thinking. You may need to spend time testing out different methods when you first start budgeting, but, âif done correctly, it can really empower you to control your life,” Winters says.
How do you budget on an irregular income? Consider these four strategies to help you budget with a variable income and gain financial confidence:
1. Determine your average income and expenses
If you want to start budgeting on a fluctuating income, you need to know how much money you have coming in and how much you’re spending.
Of course, that’s the basis for any budget. But it can be particularly important if you’re trying to budget on an irregular income because you may have especially high- or low-income periods. You want to start tracking as soon as possible to build up accurate data on your average income and expenses.
For example, once you have six months’ worth of income and expenses documented, you can divide the total by six to determine your average income and expenses by month.
Many financial apps and websites can help with the tracking, including ones that can connect to your online bank and credit card accounts and automatically pull in your transactions. You may even be able to pull in previous months’ or years’ worth of data, which you can use to calculate your averages.
If you’re budgeting on a fluctuating income and apps aren’t your thing, you can use a spreadsheet or even a pen and notebook to track your cash flow. However, without automated tracking, it can be difficult to consistently keep your information up to date.
2. Try a zero-sum budget
“There are several strategies you can use to budget with an irregular income, but one of the easiest ones is the zero-sum budget,” says Holly Johnson. As a full-time freelance writer, she’s been budgeting with a variable income for over seven years and is the coauthor of the book Zero Down Your Debt.
With a zero-sum budget, your income and expenses should even out so there’s nothing left over at the end of the month. The trick is to treat your savings goals as expenses. For example, your “expenses” may include saving for an emergency, vacation or homeownership.
“There are several strategies you can use to budget with an irregular income, but one of the easiest ones is the zero-sum budget.”
Johnson says if you’re budgeting on a fluctuating income, you can adopt the zero-sum budget by creating a “salary” for yourself. Consider your average monthly expenses (shameless plug for tip 1) and use that number as your baseline.
For example, if your monthly household bills, groceries, business expenses, savings goals and other necessities add up to $4,000, that’s your salary for the month. During months when you make over $4,000, put the extra money into a separate savings account. During months when you make less than $4,000, draw from that account to bring your salary up to $4,000.
“We call this fund the ‘boom and bust’ fund,” Johnson says. “By building up an adequate amount of savings, you will create a situation where you can pay yourself the salary you need each month.”
3. Separate your saving and spending money
Physically separating your savings from your everyday spending money may be especially important when you’re creating a budget on an irregular income. You may be tempted to pull funds from your savings goals during low-income months, and stashing your savings in a separate, high-yield savings account can force you to pause and think twice before dipping in.
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An easy way to put this tip into action when creating a budget with a variable income is to have all of your income deposited into one account, then disburse it into separate savings and spending accounts. “Transfer a set amount on the first of every month to a bill-paying account and a set amount to a spending account,” Winters, the financial planner, says.
“The bill pay account is used to pay for all of the regular expenses, like rent, insurance, car payments, student loans, etc.,” Winters says. These bills generally stay the same each month. The spending account can be used for your variable expenses, such as groceries and gas.
When considering your savings accounts, Winters also suggests funding a retirement account, such as an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).
If you’re budgeting on a fluctuating income as a contract worker or freelancer, you may also want to set money aside for taxes because the income and payroll taxes you’ll owe aren’t automatically taken out of your paychecks.
4. Build up your emergency fund
“The best way to weather low-income periods is to prepare with an adequate emergency fund,” freelancer Johnson says. An emergency fund is money you set aside for necessary expenses during an emergency, such as a medical issue or broken-down vehicle.
Generally, you’ll want to save up enough money to cover three to six months of your regular expenses. Once you build your fund, you can put extra savings toward other financial goals.
When you’re budgeting on a fluctuating income, having the emergency fund can help you feel more at ease knowing that you’ll be able to pay your necessary bills if the unexpected happens or when you’re stuck in a low-income period for longer than anticipated.
A budget can make living with a variable income easier
It can be challenging to budget on an irregular income, especially when you’re first starting. You might have to cut back on expenses for several months to start building up your savings and try multiple budgeting methods before finding the one that works best for you.
“Budgeting requires a mindset change regardless of which type of budget you try,” Johnson explains.
“The best way to weather low-income periods is to prepare with an adequate emergency fund.”
However, once in place, a budget on an irregular income can also help free you from worrying about the boom-and-bust cycle that many variable-income workers deal with throughout the year.
The goal is to get to the point where you can budget with a variable income and don’t have to worry about when you’ll get paid next because you set your budget based on your averages, planned ahead during the high times and have savings ready for your low times.
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