Summer Vacation Doesn’t Have to Cost a Fortune

by Tracy · 10 comments

If you’ve got school age kids, you know what a challenge summer vacation can be, both on your wallet and your patience. Camps and other activities add up quickly and it can sometimes seem like a challenge to think of ways to cure boredom without spending money. Here are a few tips from this mom of five on how I keep summer vacation from eating up all my cash.

Day Camps

Start looking early for high quality, affordable camps. Many schools offer summer enrichment programs that include plenty of fun and games at a fair price, however these can fill up early. Your city or county’s parks and recreation system might also offer day camps, some even offer a sliding scale for fees.

Know that most camps require you to pay a non-refundable registration fee to reserve your child’s place in the program. These can be quite steep – I am paying $135 per child and it doesn’t apply towards the tuition! Some programs also require that the entire summer’s tuition is paid before camp begins. Be sure to clarify these costs with the camp before you sign up and ask about other little costs such as meals and snacks, field trip fees, special equipment and so on.


Kids that are at home all day can eat an astonishing amount of food. My rail thin 8 year old has been known to down 2 burgers and ask for a third! Here are a few tips I’ve found that help keep food costs manageable.

  • Do set reasonable limits. For burger boy, we declined to give him a third (well, truth be told there were no more burgers, but even if there had been, I think two is more than enough) but gave him the option of eating some carrots or apples. Micromanaging your child’s eating will backfire, but you don’t have to let them eat chips and donuts all day, either.
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables in season can be a very healthy and affordable snack, however children can be wasteful. Look for easy ways to avoid waste, for example, instead of giving whole apples that nobody will want  after they have browning bite marks, slice them up and give each child a few.
  • High protein snacks keep children satisfied longer. My children love anything carb-filled, however I’ve found it turns them into bottomless eating machines. A bit of protein keeps them satisfied for longer and reduces the whining for treats like cookies and chips. Cheese cubes, peanut butter and leftover roast chicken cubes are all big hits in this house. Some children also like hummus, tofu, hard boiled eggs and other stick-to-your-ribs protein filled snacks.
  • We drink water and a reasonable amount of milk only. Period. Sugary drinks, even 100% fruit juice are expensive, usually not healthy and unnecessary and thus reserved as special occasion treats only.
  • Popcorn is one of your best bets when the neighborhood herd swarms on your house. Instead of expensive microwave bags, try making a huge batch on the stove. The kids will love it!
  • Make it a point to plan ahead and pack a lunch for days out. It’s so easy to be tempted by fast food when you’ve been in the hot sun and have a car full of whiny kids. Use a cooler to keep food safe and drinks cold and give yourself a pat on the back for being so proactive.

Beating Boredom

It’s easy to wax nostalgic about the old days when kids played outside all day and didn’t need adult help to stay busy, but the reality is that many of our kids are living in much different neighborhood situations than we did and aren’t as free to roam. Even in suburban areas with light traffic and lots of space to play, many of the other kids are in daycare all summer and it’s not a simple matter to find somebody to play ball or dolls with. Stay at home parents can also become bored – again, it’s not like the old days when Lucy had Ethel to keep her company all day.

Start making a list now of summer activities that would be fun to do with your children. This is a perfect time to work your social networking skills and ask everyone in your circle and beyond what cool things they’ve found for kids to do. Many larger cities will have entire sites that not only list local attractions but have free forums where parents can connect and share tips.

It’s amazing how many free activities you’ll start hearing about if you make an effort to get plugged in. For example, I became a fan of a local art museum on Facebook and get the head’s up on free family days with arts and crafts and demonstrations for the kids. I strike up conversation with other moms and dads at the park or school pick up and find out about a cool, hidden away playground in another neighborhood or a special offer to get discounts at the pool.

Make note of all the things you have researched and heard about and let your child help you plan a day out every week or so during the summer. Let them be in charge of some of the preparation like putting filled water bottles in the fridge the night before so you’ll have cold drinks to take with you or packing the backpack with sunscreen and bug spray so you won’t have to buy any while you’re out. This will teach them how to plan ahead and how to be frugal!

How do you keep summer vacation from busting the budget? What low or no cost activities do you do to fill the days?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • assessment says:

    Rather then spending you can plan some business out by opening up a kids club with some fee at your home and letting your children to manage.

  • Amy Saves says:

    I recommend the Boys and Girls club. Membership is only $20 a year and kids can play, learn and do activities all day long.

  • Jenna says:

    Family camping trips are a great way to save money.

  • TheInfamousJ says:

    I work in a job where I get an (unpaid) summer vacation. I’ve noticed that with all that time off, I tend to spend more because I’m around the house more. Some of it is justified, such as finally having the time to meet with plumbers to get my garbage disposal fixed, but some is just because I can. To combat it:

    */ camping – free if you go back-country primative camping and know what you are doing
    */ volunteering – gets you out of the house and keeps you away from stores
    */ local swimming hole – everywhere there is a local swimming hole filled with fresh water (sooo good for my hair) and no price tag attached. I sit in my floaty chair with my bottom and legs in ice cold water and laze the day away under the super-hot sun, book in hand. At home, the airconditioning is off, but I’m cool as a cucumber, thanks to the water.
    */ become nocturnal – less to buy at night, cooler temperatures, too
    */ garden – free food, provided by nature
    */ travel to southeast asia or africa – $20/day can go very, very far. sublease your home until you return to it.

  • Justin @ MoneyIsTheRoot says:

    I love BBQing a lot… and honestly its the same cost as cooking a meal, but definitely more of a summer activity for me. I also enjoy playing racquetball and tennis a lot… which for me is just the cost of my gym.

  • MoneyNing says:

    @Hunter: There are simply more moms than dads who take care of their children full time, and even more so depending on where you are in the country. I doubt her group being primarily organized by moms has anything to do with any specific experiences.

  • Hunter says:

    @Suzanne: Why only Moms? Have you had any bad experiences with Dad’s?

  • KM says:

    Great tips. Hopefully I can remember some of these when my son grows up a bit. It seems that all the family advice is geared toward children (not babies), so nothing is applicable yet.

  • Bargaineering says:

    We absolutely love hiking and 99.9% of the time it’s free (or you pay for parking if it’s a largernational park).

  • Suzanne@GrowingRichKids says:

    One of the things moms do around here is create a Moms Summer Camp. A group of 4 – 5 families will take it in turns to have all the kids from the families over for the day. That way, you’re handling the childcare for one day and then have 3 – 4 days off while your children are with the other moms.

    It’s great for the kids as they are being social and having fun in different environments with different toys. Perfect for the moms as you get 3 – 4 days free childcare.

    We try not to make it overwhelming so we often just make it a 9 am – 2/3 pm or so routine rather than an 8.30 – 5.30 offering. Depends on the group of parents and how much they can handle and also the temperament of the kids.

    Also, for summer camps, it’s worth booking them in February to take advantage of their Early Bird Registration discounts. And a lot of them are very flexible about their cancellation policies, but always check before putting the money down.

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