Parents, the green season is upon us. Summer. And the “green” doesn’t just stand for the leafy trees kids climb and the lawns through which they chase fireflies. It stands for cold hard cash. Kids cost money all year long, of course, but summer brings with it a slew of extra expenses: summer childcare programs…summer camps…extravagant family vacations.
According to financial counselor and bestselling author Eric Tyson, if parents aren’t careful, they can easily find themselves living a summer lifestyle they really can’t afford.
“Many people assume, ‘Oh, it’s summertime—of course we have to take a fabulous family vacation,” says Tyson, author of Personal Finance For Dummies®.
Tyson says overspending on summer activities and “stuff” doesn’t do kids any favors. In fact, your conspicuous consumption may be teaching them poor money management habits, which sets them up for problems in their own financial lives down the road.
“Make this the summer that you rein in your spending and start teaching kids by example how to make smart financial decisions,” urges Tyson. “You may be surprised to find that, far from feeling that you’re sacrificing, this is the most fun, fulfilling summer you’ve ever had.”
No matter where your wanderlust leads you and your family, you can cut costs. Here are a few tips:
Plan, plan, plan. Do plenty of research before you ever leave home so you’ll know the best and most budget-friendly activities and destinations in advance. “It’s when we fail to plan ahead that we fall prey to overpriced tourist traps,” notes Tyson.
Don’t go overboard on the hotel. There’s really no reason to spend big bucks on a room you’ll do little more than sleep in.
BYOF: Bring your own food. If you’re taking the family to a theme park, bring along a backpack of snacks. (If you don’t, be prepared for some serious sticker shock!) And choose a hotel room with a kitchen (or vacation home) so you can prepare a few meals in.
Don’t buy a bunch of T-shirts and trinkets. It’s usually better to spend the money on photos than “keepsakes” (i.e., clutter you don’t need).
If your child brings along a friend, make sure he pays his own way. “Don’t assume that because Billy is inviting his friend Josh, you have to pay for Josh’s meals, amusement park tickets, and so forth,” says Tyson. “If you aren’t comfortable having a frank discussion with Josh’s parents ahead of time about who pays for what, don’t invite him.”
Strapped for cash? Dream up creative vacation alternatives. For instance, you can “vacation at home” by spending a week exploring fun, kid-friendly destinations—zoos, museums, gemstone mines—within easy driving distance of your home. Or spend a few nights camping in a local wilderness spot. (Assuming you already have the tents, sleeping bags, and other gear, that is; otherwise you’ll spend a fortune on your “roughing it” adventure!) Or visit relatives you rarely see who have an unfamiliar lifestyle—if you’re a “city mouse” family, spend a few days on the farm with Great Aunt Bertha.
“The point is, you can find endless fun and educational activities that don’t require a major outlay of money,” says Tyson. “Use your imagination.”
Skip the expensive summer camp. It’s easy to see why summer camps are popular: kids get to spend weeks on end swimming and playing sports. Unfortunately, these adventures can cost thousands of dollars, and especially if you have more than one child, can be costly. If summer camp is a “must” for your kids, seek out the more affordable ones run by non-profit organizations or churches, says Tyson. But don’t assume your kids have to go to summer camp at all.
“If you think about it, this is the time of year families should be together,” he says. “The kids are out of school; they don’t have homework to take up their time; the weather is nice—wouldn’t it be better to spend that time doing fun things as a family?”
Don’t rule out “summer jobs” for your kids. If you’re worried that, in the absence of summer camp, your kids will spend their summer lounging in front of the TV and computer and playing video games, put them to work. No, seriously, says Tyson. In addition to their regular chores, give your kids summer projects to complete, such as painting their rooms (under your supervision, of course) or designing, planting, and maintaining a flower garden in the yard. Or volunteer them to walk an elderly neighbor’s dog or (if they’re old enough) cut her lawn.
“Working is good for kids,” notes Tyson. “You can pay them a modest allowance for their labor, which helps them learn financial responsibility.”
Encourage your kids to give this summer, not receive. Spending lots of money on kids, whether in the form of vacations, summer camps, or brand new bikes, can breed materialism and a sense of entitlement. You can counteract these forces by insisting that your children spend some time giving back this summer. This will also help foster compassion for others in your children.
“There are many nonprofit organizations for which kids and entire families can volunteer,” says Tyson. “Of course, it doesn’t have to be that structured. You can make a decision to, say, visit nursing home residents once a week. Adopting a ‘cause’ as a family helps kids gain a healthier perspective to see that others are less fortunate, and frankly, it serves as a good reminder for parents as well.”