Affording Summer Childcare: Know Your Options

Child Care, Family, Featured Article

For many working parents, arranging summer childcare for school-age children is no picnic, whether they’re relying on friends or family, hiring a full-time sitter or fashioning a collection of day camps and activities. Options exist, but location, convenience and cost impact whether they are actually feasible—and the time to start investigating these options is now. Childcare experts and real parents weigh the pros and cons of a few types of summer childcare and offer guidance for affording them.

Option 1: Get Creative With Camps

The benefits of sending your child to camp for a week or more during the summer are numerous, says Tom Holland, spokesperson for the American Camp Association. For starters, they’ll be learning in a fun, structured environment by trained, energetic counselors. They’ll also have the chance to make new friends, challenge themselves to try and learn new activities, get lots of physical and cognitive activity, and build self-confidence and character.

Camp can also curb the dreaded summertime learning slump that often occurs when kids leave the classroom for three months. “That activity keeps your child’s brain engaged in those months that they’re not in school,” Holland says. “It’s not just downtime on the couch.”

Options abound for summer camps, depending on your needs and your child’s interests, but cost and convenience are important factors. Families with tight budgets may find themselves priced out of even one week of camp. Additionally, better camps may fill as early as January, and the hours may not work well with your work schedule.

Rachel, a mom of two children, ages 5 and 7, in Washington, D.C., works full time and has faced this issue first-hand. For four years, she enrolled one or both of her kids in city-run camps, which were affordable and had convenient locations, but weren’t as great quality-wise. Now that she works for a more family-friendly employer, she had a bit more flexibility when choosing camps for this coming summer—but the situation still isn’t perfect. “This year, for the first time, my kids will do part of the summer at the Y and another at a summer school program,” she says. “Of course, these are much more expensive and don’t cover the whole day.”

Half-day camps may be a viable option for those with flexible summer work schedules. Laurie Cella, an English professor and mother of two in Pennsylvania, still needed to work mornings last summer, so she devised a schedule of multiple half-day camps for her kids, ages 5 and 9. Afternoons were spent with the children, usually at the local pool.

“I spent a good bit of time researching camps—references from friends, researching websites and word of mouth,” she says. “I think because I didn’t have sitters, the cost was fine, but having a sitter in the afternoon would have doubled the cost and made it too expensive. The benefits for me were many: I wanted to create lots of adventures for the kids and still be able to see them and have flexibility with our afternoons.”

Katie Bugbee, a parenting expert, mom of three and senior managing editor at Care.com, says the cost-quality-convenience conundrum is all too common for working parents when it comes to camps. “I think a drawback of camp is it often has not-helpful hours for the average working parent,” she says. “They may start at 9, but you really like to be in the office at 9. They may end at 3, so you’re cobbling together a drop-off and pick-up plan, or you’re paying extra for the extended hours. You need to factor this in when you’re budgeting.”

Both Holland and Bugbee recommend checking to see if your employer offers a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account (FSA). “This allows parents to be reimbursed [up to $5,000] on a pre-tax basis for childcare, including day camps, which is necessary to allow parents to work, look for work or attend school full time,” says Holland. Bugbee says many parents are hesitant to enroll in FSAs because they fear they might “lose” the money, but they can actually save up to $2,000 a year by doing so.

In addition, many camps offer payment plans, discounts, financial aid and scholarships, and Holland encourages parents to call the camps to see if they qualify. Local civic organizations, such as Rotary or Lions clubs, may also offer scholarships to send kids to summer camp. Bugbee even purchased a drastically discounted camp package from a fundraising auction at her child’s school.

Option 2: Hire a Summer Sitter

Hiring a full-time sitter or nanny for the summer may be a more convenient and affordable option for families. You can set your hours and hourly or weekly fee up front, and having someone come to your home each day is much easier than dealing with hectic pick-ups and drop-offs. Bugbee says this option may also be better for kids who aren’t ready for or interested in the camp setting, or for families who can afford only a week or two of camp during the summer as a “treat.”

While it’s not very hard to find camps in one’s community, finding a great nanny or babysitter for your children can be challenging. Bugbee says the best course of action is to write a job listing that outlines all of your needs and requirements, from wages and hours to personality and CPR/first aid training, to post on a site like Care.com, to e-mail to friends, family and neighbors, or to share with your social media connections. (Don’t forget to ask them to circulate your ad for you.) Qualified, interested candidates will come to you, which can save a lot of time and hassle. You can also call local school districts or education departments of local universities to see if they know of teachers or students looking for summer nanny work.

“If you are hiring a summer sitter, you need to take it as seriously as you would your full-time, year-round nanny,” Bugbee says. “You still want to pay legally. You still want to have a nanny contract in place. Determine up front if they’re going to be paid for certain holidays. If they’re sick, will they get paid? How does overtime work? Talk about paid time off and vacation up front. When you’re interviewing summer sitters, ask them what games they’ll do outside. So much of their work is going to be entertaining kids and creating games outdoors, so really challenge them with that.”

In addition, Bugbee says, ask for and check multiple references and run a background check. Care.com has a calculator to determine the going rate for sitters and nannies in your area, which can help you budget, and the Dependent Care FSA can also save your family some money.

Options 3, 4 and More

Many families end up choosing other options for summertime care, including sharing nannies or sitters with neighbors or friends, enrolling kids in school or daycare school-age summer programs, enlisting the help of nearby family members, or a combination of several things. Regardless, says Bugbee, summer childcare is often complicated enough to require an Excel spreadsheet to manage it. “It takes a lot of getting together and using your village,” she says.

How do you manage summer childcare for your little ones? Tell us about it in the comments!

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