Personal Finance

Open enrollment is a great time to think about summer camp

Key Points
  • The average weekly cost of a day camp is $314, and for overnight camp, $768.
  • Day camps can qualify as eligible expenses for dependent care FSAs and a tax credit.
  • Signing up in the fall for camp next summer could yield an early-bird discount.
Money camp for kids

It's not too early to think about next summer, especially if you expect to send your child to camp.

Nearly 4 in 10 parents (39 percent) say July through September is the most expensive time of the year for child-related expenses, according to a recent Capital One survey that polled 1,000 parents of kids ages 5 to 18. (That's more than cited any other time of year, even the winter holidays. Only 23 percent of parents said October through December is priciest.)

Camp and other summer child-care costs can be a big line item for working parents looking to bridge the break between school years. Prices vary widely, according to the American Camp Association; average weekly costs of ACA-accredited programs run $314 for day camp and $768 for overnight camp.

Create a savings account and set that money aside now, so the expense doesn't hit you all at once next year.
Cari Weston
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants

Fall is actually an ideal time to be planning for that bill, said Cari Weston, director of tax practice and ethics for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. You have several opportunities to save:

Open enrollment

If your company offers a dependent care flexible spending account (also known as an FSA), you can put aside pretax dollars from each paycheck for child and dependent care expenses, up to a maximum $5,000 for 2018. Generally, you'll have to decide during open enrollment how much to set aside for the year, Weston said, and it can be a missed opportunity.

"If you have a 10-year-old, you're not necessarily thinking about camp right now," she said.

There's fine print on what constitutes an eligible expense, of course. Among other requirements, the child in question must be under age 13, and both parents must be working (or be students or disabled), said Nicky Brown, vice president of compliance services at benefits administrator WageWorks. Only certain types of care are eligible; on the camp front, only day camps qualify, not overnight ones.

When you're estimating how much to set aside in your FSA for summer care, factor in deposits and other advance payments you'll make this year for next year's camp, said Brown. You can get reimbursed for those payments when your child attends camp.

"One of the rules is that expenses have to have been incurred to be reimbursable," she said. "It's not about when you make the payment."

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Camp deals

Fall is also a great time to reach out to camps, said Chris Thurber, founder of

"The fall is the best time for two reasons: Camps have open spots, and they often offer early-bird registration discounts," he said.

Inquiring early makes it easier to find a camp that's both a great fit (financially and otherwise) and has open spots, and to ask about discounts, payment plans and scholarships if the price is a stretch. (Ask about camp refund policies, too, should unforeseen events prevent your child from attending.)

Savings plan

If you don't have access to a dependent care FSA or expect to have costs exceeding the limit, there are still some opportunities to save.

Check to see if you might qualify for the Child and Dependent Care Credit, Weston said. Depending on other elements of your tax situation, that break could be worth up to $1,050 of your expenses (including day camps) for one child under 13, or $2,100 for two or more children under 13. (Expenses you paid for with pretax FSA funds don't count toward the tally of eligible expenses.)

Use the long timeline until next summer to your advantage. Start saving a little with each paycheck so that you don't need to take on debt when it comes time to pay camp or care bills not covered under an FSA.

"Create a savings account and set that money aside now," Weston said, "so the expense doesn't hit you all at once next year."