January and February are prime months for securing a spot in preschool or summer camp, but competition is tough for high-quality, low-cost programs. Just finding the right programs can be challenging, and then there are the deadlines and complex application processes.
Yet if planning ahead is the best strategy for saving money, this is one instance in which being prepared can save hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
As an itinerant family on a budget, we have had to hustle to find affordable childcare, and most of the time, we were successful. Here are the strategies that worked for us.
To Find the Gems, Think Public
When looking for less expensive childcare programs, the safest bets are places that aren’t out to make a profit. Kids’ programs are often subsidized by our tax dollars or by non-profits whose mission is to help families, making a welcome exception to the rule “you get what you pay for.”
Our most treasured resource has been the county Parks and Recreation Department, so wherever we move, I look there first. In Arlington, Virginia, we loved the Parks & Rec co-operative playgroups, preschools, and summer camps, and we now participate in D.C.’s co-operative preschools, where parents take turns helping the facilitator and bringing in snacks.
The co-op format saves us $8,000 a year over private school tuitions, and the neighborhood locations means we can walk, keeping life slower and closer to nature.
Here are some other places to look for affordable kids’ programs:
- State and community parks
- City recreation departments
- Churches, temples, and other religious institutions
- Non-profit organizations like the Girl Scouts
- YMCAs or JCCs (Jewish community centers)
- Community centers
- Public schools
- Cultural institutions, like symphonies or museums
- Consulates and embassies
- Nature centers
Aside from calling up these organizations one by one, how does one go about finding these programs?
Don’t Be Shy — Start Talking
Networking is just as important to new moms as it is to job seekers. Ask everyone, but cast the net beyond your circle of friends. The easiest way is to hop on a parent or neighborhood listserv, but you could also join a mom’s group or just hang out on the playgrounds and strike up conversations with other parents.
Start your search with word of mouth, but end it with first-hand experience. Find people who have actually participated in the program, and if at all possible, go to open houses, tours, and orientations.
Drop Key Words
The “good” preschools and camps that everyone seems to be talking are often feeder schools that lead to certain private schools, and one hopes, Harvard. But since tuition can approach a year at a state college, you might need to drop words like “affordable,” “low-key,” or “don’t cost an arm and a leg,” to get your answers.
I admit there is something uncomfortable about combining the words “inexpensive” and “children” in the same sentence. It’s like walking through the store carrying a carton of generic diapers — I feel as if the parents who are buying Pampers don’t think I love my kids as much.
But the question is: do I need a Mercedes nursery school, or will a Honda do the job just as well? I’ve come to realize that, as long as my kids are safe and cared for in a nurturing environment, they don’t need fancy extras or brand names any more than I do.
Contact Community Hubs
If you’re moving and don’t know anyone in your future neighborhood, reach out to community services like schools, parent groups, libraries — even real estate agencies.
Before we moved to New York City, the PTA president of our future elementary school helped me find a summer camp that was patronized by school families, and the citizen’s association in Syracuse turned me on to a cheap day camp that was held at the same elementary school that my daughters would be attending.
Don’t Forget Tuition Discounts
The exception to the “public is cheap” rule are private organizations that offer tuition discounts, scholarships, or sliding scales for people with lower incomes. Enrico and I qualified for a tuition reduction when we were in our first years of his medical training, which was a great help when we found ourselves far from family and in need of help with the kids.
Also keep in mind that some programs will be significantly less costly if the organization is allowed to transmit its message. For example, vacation Bible camp is one of the cheapest summer programs you can find.
While not all nursery schools are associated with the temples and churches that house them, some are easier on the wallet because they are subsidized by the religious instititon and are used as a way to grow the congregation.
Timing and Organization are Everything
Once you’ve figured out which programs you want to go for, it’s time to organize and strategize.
Print out all the applications, bookmark the websites, and read over the instructions three or four times until you understand all the steps. Mark registration dates and details on your calendar, write sticky notes on the fridge the day before, and set your alarms.
Ask how hard it is to get in, and what you can do to increase your chances. Some registration work can be done ahead of time, like pre-registering contact information, signing up for an online account, and practicing (if possible) going through the steps.
For our D.C. co-op, the coordinator advised me to have wait-list emails ready to shoot off in case I didn’t get in when online registration opened at 12 noon. If you’re trying to get more than one child into a program, then it might make sense to have two adults online at the same time, since programs can fill up in seconds and computer systems can get overloaded.
Being Hungry Helps
We haven’t always been successful in getting the programs we wanted.
The swim lessons at our local public pool are a steal at $50 per season, but I was too scattered with running my business last year to figure out the arcane registration process. My husband miraculously made it to one of the 6 a.m. registrations, but the spots were all filled by the time it was his turn. I was also too disorganized to realize that there was an early lottery for swim lessons organized by the elementary school, and missed out again.
You have to be hungry to grab these opportunities. Now that our family is out of survival mode, we have gotten a little lax. But we pay dearly for our lack of vigilance. Because even though we might be able to afford the privately-run lessons that cost nine times as much as the public service lessons, that money could have been used for our retirement, the kids’ college, or furnishing our house.
Next time I’ll be better.
Like Earning Money, Saving Money is a Job
Being frugal takes work, and like any job, it has pros and cons.
My toddler’s caretakers may not have advanced degrees, the community center might be old and run-down, and I might be cleaning toys and wiping noses once a week.
But whether I am frugal to stay out of debt or to save money for the future, this simpler life buys me more time with my kids and keeps me grounded and focused on what’s important to me.
What are your tricks for finding low-cost children’s programs? I’d love to hear them in the comments.