Ouch! taking the sting out of that camp bill

For some families, summer camp is another name for day care during the months of June, July, and August. For at-home parents, it may be the antidote to too many hours spent with kids during an unstructured summer. No matter the purpose, summer camp can be darn expensive. But there are ways to save on camp tuition and there are even some tax benefits that can make camp more affordable.

The average day camp costs between $100 and $275 per week according to the American Camp Association. But as a parent researching opportunities for her 5-year-old, I’ve seen day camps that cost even more. Add overnights to the mix and a week at camp can push $1,000.

But 90 percent of camps offer some form of financial aid, says the ACA.

In this recession, my bet is that both camps and parents are going to get creative when it comes to paying for romping in the woods or learning to hit a baseball.

For example, a web designer may be able to strike a bargain with a camp wanting to lower expenses by swapping a week at camp for revamping its web site.

I’ve also noticed that some camps offer discounts for early registration, signing up more than one camper, or committing to several weeks at a stretch. If you’ve missed the early registration deadline, ask if the discount deadline is flexible. If the economy keeps campers away, you may even be able to get a deal for filling in open spots at the last minute. Be honest about your financial circumstances and you may be able to work something out. Check out CampParents.org for more tips on affording summer camp.

Or, try making a deal with your kid. Say you’ll send him to day camp in return for a lower allowance or taking on a house project such as painting or lawn care.

There are also tax breaks to help. If camp is taking the place of day care so that Mom or Dad can work, look for employment, or attend school full-time, you can use a dependent care flexible spending account, or FSA. It allows parents to be reimbursed for up to $5,000 using pre-tax money set aside from their paycheck. Qualified expenses include day camp and registration fees. However, overnight camps are not usually eligible because the IRS does not consider them to be a work-related expense. Similar rules apply for the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit of up to $6,000, depending on income and family size. Check out IRS Publication 503 for the details.

In Minnesota, if you qualify for the K–12 Education Subtraction and Credit you may get a break for 75 percent of academic summer camp tuition up to a maximum of $1,625 for a qualifying child in grades K–6 and $2,500 for a child in grades 7–12. This break is for academic camp, not sports camp. Check out the Minnesota Department of Revenue’s Individual Income Tax Fact Sheet #8 for the complete scoop.

Kara McGuire is the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s personal finance columnist and a mom living in St. Paul.

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