Affordable Day Camps Help Working Parents Enjoy the Summer, Too

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Courtesy of the Associated Press

c.2014 New York Times News Service

It’s July, prime time for swimming, hiking and slurping watermelon. But if both you and your spouse work and you have school-age children, you may have another perspective on summer: as the season when you must juggle your schedule and scrounge up affordable child care until school reopens.

In about 60 percent of two-parent households with children younger than 18, both parents work, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts. For them, the typical 10-week summer break is no picnic.

“Summer is really hard, because we often have these fantasies of summer the way it’s supposed to be: getting ice cream, watching the sun go down, being at home,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the nonprofit Families and Work Institute. “But it’s not that way.”

Not everyone has nearby relatives who can provide child care, or the budget for a full-time nanny.

So families often rely on summer day camps. The number of summer day camps has grown 40 percent over the last four years, according to the American Camp Association, which accredits both overnight and day camps.

“The market drives demand, and camps respond,” said Peg L. Smith, the association’s chief executive.

The average weekly cost of full-day camp is $304, Smith said, although that varies greatly and ranges from as low as $100 to more than $500, depending on location.

The good news is that the cost of day camps qualifies for the child and dependent care tax credit, as long as the camps allow you to work and your child is younger than 13. The maximum credit, which you can take on your federal tax return, is $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more.

Perhaps because of the cost, parents often expect more from summer day camps. “Parents still want their children to have fun,” Smith said. “But they also want them to be learning something.”

Many are interested in having their children unplug from electronic devices and experience the outdoors, much like the traditional camp experience. “It’s a rebalancing,” Smith said.

But others are looking to, say, improve their children’s reading comprehension or hone their soccer skills. Camps focus on a wide variety of interests, from computer coding and video game design to raising animals and gardening.

Keep in mind that popular camps fill up quite early. Often, communities hold camp fairs in late winter or early spring. So if you’ve waited until now to register your child, you may be out of luck. Still, Smith said, it doesn’t hurt to call to see if there is a last-minute opening; family plans can change between late winter and midsummer, and you might find a spot.

Now is also a good time to check out camps you might be interested in for next summer. You can find out if it is a good fit for your child, learn the registration deadlines and budget for the cost.

Here are some questions about summer day camps:

Q: How can I find summer day camps that won’t break my budget?

A: Roughly 40 percent of ACA-accredited day camps serve low-income families, Smith said, so many offer fees on a sliding scale or discounts, or provide installment payment options. The association offers a camp finder that allows you to search by criteria like cost and location, as well as theme or religious affiliation.

Municipal parks departments often offer low-cost summer day camps, so check with your local recreation coordinator. Nonprofits are another low-cost option. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America is offering its Summer Brain Gain program at about 1,000 clubs this year; its goal is to foster critical thinking skills and prevent loss of knowledge over the break.

Q: Are summer day camp expenses eligible for reimbursement under my employer’s dependent care flexible spending account?

A: Yes. Day camp expenses qualify if the camp allows you to work (or look for work). Flexible spending accounts let you set aside up to $5,000 a year in pretax income to pay for the care of a child or other dependent. (If you use your flexible spending account, however, you can claim the child and dependent care tax credit only for expenses over the amount in your workplace account.)

Q: Is the cost of overnight camp an eligible expense for my flexible spending account or for the child and dependent care tax credit?

A: No. Overnight camps do not qualify for either tax break, said Michael Eisenberg, an accountant in Los Angeles.