Summer camp is an important rite of passage for children, a place where they might experience the outdoors, learn a sport or skill, gain autonomy and make new friends.
For parents, though, it presents a financial burden, with hefty fees as well as travel and extras that can be a drain on the family pocketbook.
There are strategies to keep costs down, from qualifying for early registration, sibling, referral and multiple-session bonuses to shopping around for different kinds of camps or/and taking advantage of subsidies, tax refunds and credits.
Children themselves are also becoming part of the equation, adding lessons in personal finance to the sailing, archery, crafts and photography they can learn at camp. Indeed, some are saving and contributing funds to help meet the costs, and are centrally involved in camp decision-making.
"Going to camp, and helping to pay for it, has earned me some independence," says Alessia Fent-Roter, 15, of Laval, Que., who for the past three years has attended the Sans Souci Riding Centre. The residential camp in the Montérégie region, south of Montreal, specializes in classical horseback riding.
Ms. Fent-Roter, a Grade 9 student who is "totally obsessed with horses," first found Sans Souci and has contributed $500 of the camp's $1,580 two-week fee. She raises the funds by saving her birthday money, doing chores and walking dogs in her neighbourhood.
"It definitely has been a life lesson," she says, adding that this summer, her funds as well as her parents' and grandparents' share will be spent instead so she can get braces. But she's "pretty determined" to return to the camp in the future.
Carolyn Sedgwick, the owner-director of Sans Souci, says that several of her campers pay toward their fees.
"They're really proud to tell you that," she says, adding that in such cases, camp is "an experience they're going to take seriously, because they've helped pay for it."
Paying for camp each summer, especially for families with several children, calls for some good financial planning, which can start even years before kids are camp age, says Jeanette Brox, a certified financial planner at Investors Group in Toronto who specializes in financial planning among extended families.
"It's never too early to plan, because these expenses are going to come up," says Ms. Brox, adding that kids as young as 10 in some cases sit at the table with their parents, learning about or making decisions on financial matters.
She recommends setting up a "camp fund," for example in a TFSA, which can especially include money coming from tax refunds and credits such as the Universal Child Care Benefit, the Child Tax Benefit and the Child Care Deduction. Meanwhile, kids can get involved in budgeting, they can do chores and small jobs for money and they can go without expensive extras, which add up over time.
"With a concerted effort between the parent, the child and the government, you can send your child to the camp of their dreams," Ms. Brox says, adding that there are also tax credits that can help soften the blow of fees for children's fitness and art programs.
(These non-refundable tax credits reduce the amount of taxes payable. The federal government offers credits that are worth 15 per cent of the cost of such programs, to a maximum of $500, or $75 per child. On top of that, certain provinces, including Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, provide credits of 10 per cent on a maximum of $519, or $51.90 per child.)
There are some camp deals out there. For instance, kids often enjoy having their young friends and relatives attend camp with them, and many camps give referral bonuses. Camp Ouareau, a girls' camp in the Laurentian Mountains near St-Donat, Que., this year is offering $200 per referral, in lieu of much of the advertising it has done in the past, says Jacqui Raill, the camp's director and owner.
Ouareau is among a number of camps that offer subsidies to campers through a bursary fund. Parents are required to pay what they can, with the camp and the fund picking up the rest. Additionally, Ouareau, which costs $1,875 for two weeks, offers a $35 reduction for early registration and 10 per cent off for a sibling or a second session.
Ms. Raill says that families "stretched to the max" can find camps that charge much less, although with higher camper-to-staff ratios and less programming.
"There's a camp out there for every family; it's about educating yourself and finding what you want," she says, adding that kids especially are learning about camps and their offerings through social networking. "It's an investment in their future."
For families on seriously tight budgets or looking for camps closer to home, there are a growing number of alternatives in day camps, which cost far less than the sleep-away variety.
Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., for example, has a diverse range of summer options for kids from seven to 17. The college's athletics program has badminton, soccer, baseball, volleyball, basketball and golf camps, while the School of Media, Art and Design holds camps in fine arts, music production and animation. The School of Continuing Education has the popular School of Rock, where kids form and perform in rock bands, as well as photography, moviemaking and sewing camps.
Laurel Kimball, the camp administrator for the School of Rock, says the prices are reasonable, at $239 per week plus $33 for a lunch program and $50 for extended days. With such a variety of day-camp choices, kids are "not stuck in one thing," she says, and the educational component is a plus.
"As long as the kid is having fun, it's totally worth it," Ms. Kimball adds. "It's a bonus if they're learning something."
Residential camps with specialties tend to be among the most expensive options, although Ms. Sedgwick says parents should "look at what you're getting, compared with doing it piecemeal." For example, kids at Sans Souci get two hours of riding lessons and two hours of horsemanship sessions each day, which can cost as much as $45 per hour on an ad hoc basis.
"And in a summer camp, it's an all-round experience kids are getting out of it," she says, adding that her camp also offers a bilingual experience and international campers, to help kids learn about new cultures.
Residential camps often belong to associations that set and maintain standards for safety, programming and facilities, so you have a sense of value up front. Camps in Quebec are even assigned stars by the tourism authority, with the highest ratings for those with carpeting and air-conditioning in their accommodations, for instance, and table service at supper.
"Parents should know what they're getting; it's all reflected in the price," Ms. Sedgwick says.
How to keep down camp costs
Summer camp costs can take a bite out of the family finances, but some strategies might help to soften the blow:
Look for deals
Camps often give discounts or bonuses if you refer other campers, register or pay in full early, have multiple kids at camp or send them for more than one session.
Make sure they'll enjoy it
Involve your kids in camp decision-making. Speak to the camp director and get referrals to families who can talk about their experiences. A visit to the camp will also give your child a good sense of it.
Share the expense
Grandparents or aunts and uncles can sometimes pay the camp fee or part of it. It can also double as a Christmas or birthday gift.
Look at the exact lengths of sessions, which can vary, as well as the camper-to-staff ratio and other qualities.
Know what you're getting
Make sure the camp is accredited or certified by a recognized association, which sets and maintains standards for safety, programming and facilities.
Limit the extras
Long lists of camper needs such as sleeping bags and ground-sheets can be found second-hand or can also be given as gifts.