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MintFamily with Beth Kobliner: What Summer Camp Teaches Kids About Money

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I know, I know – learning about money at summer camp probably doesn’t top the list of activities most kids look forward to. Your kid is most likely thinking about how to make everything from friendship bracelets to lifelong pals at summer camp, but picking up money lessons? Really?

While it may not be the first thing they’re learning (or even something they’re conscious of), your kids are taking in financial realities with every flip-flopped step. Here are some examples:

You Need To Make Choices

Arts and crafts or swimming? Horseback riding or tennis? There are only so many hours in a day, so your child may have to choose one activity over another. This is a great lesson in using your resources wisely and making careful decisions.

At sleep away camp, your son may face financial decisions at the canteen. Most camps suggest keeping a finite amount of spending money in your kid’s account. Spend it and it’s gone. How will he budget so he doesn’t blow his snack fund in the first two weeks? He’ll also need to compare costs: five tickets will buy one ice cream pop or three pieces of candy. Which will he choose?

Budgeting, making choices, and comparison shopping are core lessons that will help your kids manage their money down the line, so let them live and learn now.

Financial Freedom Has Its Limits

If your daughter goes to day camp, you might slip her some cash each morning for snacks, or provide a cell phone for emergencies (if her camp allows it).

This could be your kid’s first taste of financial independence, so be sure to guide her through the process. Before doling out another $5 tomorrow, ask if she has any change from yesterday. If not, what did she buy, and was it a worthwhile and appropriate purchase?

And be sure that you’re on the same page about cell phone rules—before you get a bill full of fees from text messages to her friends!

I Can Earn Money One Day

Being exposed to so many new experiences may have an impact on your child’s future in ways big and small. Your son might discover a knack for photography or dream of becoming a vet after visiting the camp’s reptile shack.

This could be a career epiphany or more of a short-term goal. Perhaps your daughter loves camp so much that she wants to return as a counselor in her teens and early 20s. Camps employ more than 1.2 million people, so this could be a great option down the line, especially in this economy where summer jobs for teens are severely lacking.

Idealism Can Be Expensive

Kids are very impressionable, as all parents know, and summer camp may introduce all sorts of new proclamations, from “I want to be a vegetarian” to “Let’s replace all the light bulbs with LEDs,” which my 9-year-old son suggested after a riveting day in science camp! (Apparently, they’re even more energy-efficient than CFLs.)

My family compromised: we would skip the expensive LEDs ($20-$50 a pop!), but turn off lights when leaving a room to save nearly $1,500 in energy costs per year. We’re also going to try the refrigerator dollar bill test. Just close the fridge door on a dollar bill and try to pull it out. If your money slides right out, the seal isn’t airtight, which means the fridge is wasting energy and money. Don’t worry — a simple DIY project can fix this right up!

You Are One Lucky Camper

Day camps cost anywhere from $100 to $800 per week, according to the American Camp Association, and sleep away camps cost anywhere from $3,500 to $11,000 for a 7-9 week stay, according to the National Camp Association.

However, there are options for all kids to attend. Many camps offer scholarships or financial aid, and nonprofits like the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club of America, or your local park or rec center may offer lower-cost options.

And free camps do exist! In San Francisco, the nonprofit organization 826 Valencia offers a free 6-week writing camp for children from low-income families. In New York City, the nonprofit Goddard Riverside Community Center offers a free 7-week summer day camp. Search for local options and see what you find.

If your child realizes a friend isn’t going to camp because his family can’t afford it, or complains that he wish he were going to a different camp, explain that camp is a luxury. Not everyone gets to go, and he should be thankful for an opportunity to learn new skills, make new friends, and gain some independence—including financial freedom—from mom and dad.

What money lessons did your kid learn at camp this summer?

© 2012 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved

Beth Kobliner is a personal finance commentator and journalist, the author of the New York Times bestseller “Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties,” and a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.