Overnight camps don’t have to break the bank

With the economy in the gutter, unemployment at record heights and your 401k reading more a like horror novel, the kids’ summer camp might seem in jeopardy this year. But with proper planning and prudence, parents should be able to avoid any worst-case scenarios and find a way to preserve this childhood experience.

Jeff Solomon certainly thinks so. “Parents are going to find a way to make it happen. But they’re going to be more cost-conscious and look for more reasonably priced camps,” says Solomon.

Solomon is the executive director of the National Camp Association, one of several free services specializing in helping families find affordable camps that fit a child’s interests.

Another similar group is Tips on Trips and Camps, which specifically advises parents of kids 8-18 on selecting a summer overnight camp. Eve Eifler, a co-owner of the organization, stresses that the summer-camp experience fosters independence and confidence in children.

“It’s one of the few things you can do for your child that you can’t accomplish by doing it with them. The only way is to let them go,” says Eifler.

Families might not have to sacrifice as much as it seems. There are many ways to keep summer camp within the family budget, says Tips on Trips and Camps Chicago representative Faith Rosenstein. Some camps give discounts for early registrants or first-time campers; others are partially sponsored by umbrella organizations.

Rosenstein and Solomon both emphasize the value that their free services can provide to parents-not only in financial thriftiness, but also in appealing to a child’s specific wants and needs. “If you send them to the wrong camp, they’re not going to have fun,” Rosenstein says. “And you’ve wasted a lot of money.”

The program is working for Lynne Karmin, a Highland Park mother who used the Tips on Trips and Camps program for her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

For her son, she sought a local camp besides the one most popular among his peers and friends, as well as one that de-emphasized competitiveness. Karmin says the program has been a fantastic boon. “They specialize in camps and they know all the different camps,” she says. “It saves me a tremendous amount of time and gives me a wider spectrum of knowledge.”

Camps recommended by these organizations cost an average of about ,000 per week. Some go as low as 0 a week or as high as ,500 a week.

And although Solomon warns against choosing a camp based purely on a bargain price, he also says there’s a silver lining to the poor economy: many camps are desperate for participants, which could mean cheaper fees.

“The good news is there are a lot more openings now than there would be in a particularly good economy,” Solomon says. “It’s to the benefit of the consumer because the choices are still out there.”

Label everything

Mabel’s Labels Inc. can help keep your camper keep track of his stuff. Mabel’s Camp Pack, above, includes 15 sticky labels, eight shoe labels, 50 clothing labels and two bag tags. . www.mabelslabels.com

Arm your child with info

Hope Paige Designs, www.hopepaige.com/ products/child-safety-bracelets.html, has introduced cute Camper Alert bracelets, right. These personalized rubber bracelets provide instant access to emergency information, such as parents’ cell phone numbers. .95

Make camp cheaper this year

A few ways to cut down that summer camp price tag:

  • Early enrollment rates. Many camps have discounts for those who register before a certain date. The earlier you start looking, the better chance you’ll have.
  • Multiple-child discounts. Some camps will cut the price of sending a second or third kid to the same location. Consider a location that appeals to all your children.
  • Attend a less-popular session. Some weeks of the year are less expensive than others. Each camp is different so be sure to ask.
  • Attend for fewer weeks. An unfortunate sacrifice, but better to go for less time than not to go at all.
  • Attend a subsidized camp. Camps sponsored by groups like the YMCA or the Jewish Federation will frequently have lower pricing.
  • Offer services to the camp. Some camps will hire parents as part-time chefs or nurses in exchange for reduced child fees, although having a parent on-site might compromise the child’s independence.

Darren McRoy is a Chicago Parent intern and junior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

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