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School's (almost) out for summer! Preparing for childcare without breaking the bank

According to a recent survey, more than a third of American families will carry summer childcare debt past barbecue season. Here are the best tips and tricks to avoid that fate.
Author Jennifer Folsom's son, Anderson, in 2019 doing archery at Camp Friendship in Palmyra, VA.
Author Jennifer Folsom's son, Anderson, in 2019 doing archery at Camp Friendship in Palmyra, VA.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

The good news is summer is around the corner. The bad news is, if you’re not prepared, the logistics — and cost — of childcare can test your finances and your sanity.

On average, families can expect to pay nearly $1,000 per child for care over the summer. And in metropolitan areas, costs can skyrocket much, much higher than that. While the American Camp Association says that the average weekly cost for day camp is $304 and $690 for the overnight version, specialty camps can cost up to $2,000 a week. And according to a survey conducted by Bankrate.com, 59 percent of American parents will end up paying for summer childcare with a credit card, and more than a third will carry that debt past barbecue season.

“You don’t want to do that, if at all possible,” said HerMoney.com founder and Know Your Value personal finance contributor Jean Chatzky. “Daycare costs, including summer care, have risen extraordinarily, and unfortunately without sufficient emergency savings families turn to credit cards to close the budget gap.”

But take a deep breath. With careful financial planning (and a little creativity) you can keep your little ones happy and safe this summer so that you can continue to kill it at the office. And who knows, you might even squeeze in a little summer fun while you’re at it.

Plan and save

It sounds obvious, but you need to approximate the cost of summer care ahead of time. For example, if you estimate that summer care will cost $6,000 for your two children, and you have 12 weeks to come up with this cash, how can you save $500 per week? What savings decisions can you make, or side hustle can you count on, to make extra cash? “You have time now to affect your budget,” said Chatzky. “With careful budgeting and additional income, you can close this gap.”

Dependent care FSA?

If you are in the enrollment window, consider a Dependent Care Flexible Savings Account (FSA). The way FSAs work is by directing part of your paycheck (up to $5,000 annually for Dependent Care FSAs) to a special account just for childcare expenses. You do not pay income taxes on the money spent on qualifying expenses for children under 13 claimed on your tax return, saving you that amount. For example, if your income tax bracket is 25 percent, then you get an extra 25 cents on every dollar directed toward childcare!

Ask for a discount

There’s no shame in the discount request game! My older two are twins, and I always ask for a ‘two-for-one’ discount, no matter what. You negotiate at work, why not ask for a discount when it comes to a major expense like summer camp? The worst the care provider can say is “no.”

Get creative

When our kids were younger, we did a ‘kid swap’ for a week with our best friends (who live about an hour away). For the first week, I took vacation time or really minimized work and hosted two extra kids. While Camp Folsom had lots of fun DC daytime activities, the built-in playdates allowed me to be productive while working from home. For the companion week, my kids were with the other family, and I put in the big hours to make up for the first week.

Think creatively! For example, Kathy Karter, a nurse and mom of three children from Louisville, KY, goes to camp with her children each summer. In exchange for a few weeks of serving as the camp’s nurse, her kids attend camp at a steeply discounted rate that works for her family budget.

"It's great, we get to go to summer camp together and this fits our budget," said Karter.

Author Jennifer Folsom in 2017 with her then 15-year-old sons Will and Josh at Camp Varsity, a cross country running camp, in Madison, VA.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

Strategic Vacation Scheduling

If this is your first summer planning for non-daycare, let me let you in on a dirty little secret: For many people, there are no camps the last two weeks of summer. It’s a dead zone. Nada. The college kids that run these programs are back on campus, and if your children start school after Labor Day you are on your own past mid-August. Last year, more than half of all Americans didn’t use all of their paid vacation. There are many reasons why, but I am here to tell you to save some for the last two weeks of August when there are few daycare options available.

Plan a staycation. Rent a house in the mountains. Schedule a leisurely, non-holiday visit to the grandparents. You may be handcuffed to an inflexible job and facing an expensive summer care plan, but remember to work in some unstructured time for family R&R. Before you know it, the air will be crisp, the leaves will be crunching, and your calendar will be full.

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of client delivery at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm RIVA Solutions Inc. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood," The Ringmaster," is out now.