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Kelly Ho knows the importance of planning ahead — it's literally in her job description.
But this year, as summer camp registration opened up, the financial planner and mom of two was travelling for work.
By the time she returned to her Vancouver home, all the most affordable camps for her six and eight-year-olds were full.
"I ended up paying more for specialty camps because they were the only ones with spots left," said Ho, a certified financial planner professional with DLD Financial Group Ltd. "Even then, my kids were on a waitlist for one of the weeks until recently."
Summer is quickly approaching, an eight-week stretch that evokes squeals of delight from children and, often, stress for working parents in search of quality, affordable camps and activities.
The hunt for camps has been made harder by a post-pandemic rebound in demand as parents seek to fill their children's days with s'mores, swimming and archery after recent summers spent in social bubbles with too much screen time.
That demand has made the competition for affordable camps even more fierce than usual.
"There are local community centres with affordable camps, but it seems like only people who are at a computer the second registration opens and click the fastest will get a spot," Ho said.
Inflation hasn't helped. The rising cost of nearly everything has also made camps — even city rec programs — more expensive.
Registration costs have ballooned as much as 10 per cent for some camps compared with last summer.
"Food costs have definitely increased by more than 50 per cent since pre-pandemic," said Shannon Hall, a spokeswoman for Tim Hortons Foundation Camps, a multi-year leadership program for underserved youth aged 12 to 16.
"Our youth travel across North America to each of our seven camps, whether by bus or airline, and those costs have also increased. Utilities, insurance, food, travel ... all of those things have gone up substantially."
One of the biggest costs for the foundation's camps is staff, she said.
"Since the pandemic, we've needed more certified staff to support the growing social and emotional development needs of youth," Hall said. "But even just finding lifeguards right now is a challenge. That all adds to costs."
With demand and costs for camps going up, parents can be left scrambling for summer child care and activities for kids.
Here are some tips to keep kids busy this summer without breaking the bank:
GET AN EARLY START
When possible, getting an early start is key to saving money on summer camps and activities.
Many of the most affordable camps book up quickly, while pricier camps sometimes offer early bird discounts.
"You need to plan a season ahead," Ho said. "Put the registration date and time in your calendar and make sure you're at a computer."
It's also worth double-checking cancellation and refund policies in case your summer plans change, she added.
CONSIDER CAMPS OUTSIDE THE CITY
Camps outside of big cities tend to be cheaper, which could make a commute (if possible) worthwhile, said DollarWise CEO Jack Prenter.
"The private camps around downtown Toronto can be insanely expensive," he said. "But if you go an hour or so north, prices become more reasonable."
ASK ABOUT FINANCIAL AID
Many camps offer financial aid for children from households with lower incomes, making it worth asking what options exist.
"It's not often publicized, but camps usually have subsidies available," Prenter said.
Some camps allow parents to pay for registration in instalments, rather than all at once.
While registration for an overnight camp might open in January, for example, parents can stretch the payments out over the months until the camp starts.
"Many of these payment programs are essentially like an interest-free loan," Prenter said. "That's free money, and can help families stick to a monthly budget more easily."
CLAIM SUMMER CAMP COSTS ON TAXES
Many child care expenses like summer camps can be claimed during tax season.
It's important to keep receipts for registration costs as they could be eligible for a credit, Prenter said.
"There are tax rebates available to help defray some of the costs of camp," he said. "It may not be a lot, but it can still make a difference."
CHILDCARE SWAP, PARENT GROUPS AND LOCAL BABYSITTERS
A key to surviving summer with kids is community, Ho said.
"It's really nice, if possible, to know who your kids' friends' parents are," she said. "Maybe there's a stay-at-home parent you can offer to pay for a week of childcare if you're really in a bind."
Another option is to consider a childcare swap, Ho said.
"If you could take one week off, you could offer to watch a friend's kids in exchange for them taking a week off and watching your kids," she said. "Community and social networks are so important."
Social media websites also have community groups with resources such as local babysitters, Ho added.
FREE CAMPS, ACTIVITIES AND PARKS
In addition to local parks, pools and splash pads, many municipalities offer free or low-cost organized programs for local youth.
Some require registration while others are drop-in.
Libraries are also often a source of free programming like arts and crafts, puppet shows or book clubs.
It gives parents and caregivers a chance to get out of the house and escape the hot sun, Ho said.
"Eight weeks is a very long time," she said. "It's important to plan ahead so your kids can have a fun summer and you won't spend a fortune."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2023.