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Summer Survival on a Budget

Christine Pafumi
Feb. 28, 2012

My Brown Baby blogger Denene Millner shares how she keeps her summer budget-friendly as part of the Care.com Interview Series

Like many Americans, the economy has significantly affected blogger Denene Millner's family - but they're vowing not to let a lack of luxury lessen their summer fun. In Atlanta, where camp prices vary from affordable to luxurious, the My Brown Baby blogger has had to learn to make the most of her budget to entertain three kids (one stepson, 19, and two daughters, 12 and 9). Through careful planning, a little creativity, and a lot of pluck, Millner tells us how to work around those expensive summer camp prices and keep her family far from the summertime blues.

What were your summers like? Did you go to camp?

I did not go to camp because my parents couldn't really afford it. There was Vacation Bible School, but that was about it. Mostly, my brother and I stayed close to home-[we] rode bikes or hung out with friends at their homes. On Fridays, I would get to spend the entire day with my dad, who worked nights during the rest of the week. We'd drive all around town, me, shotgun, while he paid his bills and deposited his check from work. Sometimes, we'd sit and enjoy an ice cream cone at the mall while we people watched; sometimes, he'd splurge on a fancy deli sandwich from a lunch spot we both loved. I lived for Fridays in the summer; some of my fondest memories happened on those days, always with my father.

How early do you start planning for summer?

I've always been pretty intense about summer planning. Where we live in Atlanta, quality, affordable summer camps are hard to come by, so you really need to be on top of your game to get a slot in some of the better programs. My search for camps starts in late January/early February, and I usually have the schedule all set by about April.

How does your family schedule change in the summer?

Both my husband and I work from home so the schedule is essentially the same, except our girls get to sleep in a little longer and we don't have to rush off to the bus or drive anyone to school. We do, however, make a point of spending quality time with them during the day by scheduling in family time-trips to the pool, the park, bike trails, book stores-so that they're not sitting around the house moping and wishing they weren't being ignored. We have to set boundaries, though: while the kids are on vacation, the parents are not and we make that absolutely clear. You have to give us time to work or we won't be able to schedule in that trip to the pool tomorrow or to the museum next week. They're pretty respectful of that, so it's not so hard to strike that balance.

What are some of the challenges you face when school's out for the summer?

I think the biggest challenge for us is finding quality programming for our daughters that we can actually afford and balancing our work time with our daughters' free time. Some of the weeklong programs around here cost upwards of $300 per week, and with two kids, that's $600 for five days of instruction/play for two kids. That's a LOT of money! This used to be an okay deal for us; we'd schedule three weeks worth of camps, then take the kids on vacation for a week. But the economy really has hit us hard, like it has for a lot of other families, and so it's not an option anymore to shell out $1800 for summer camp. We've had to work hard to find affordable camps, cut back on the number of camps they attend, and fill in their free time with quality parent time. That's not hard-it's just different. And a little maddening, because they should be able to go to quality summer programming without our having to be millionaires to afford it.

What are some of your summer go-to activities?

My girls LOVE the pool. Like, LOVE it. So you can find us at the local pool, for sure. We also go bike riding in our local park, which has a really nice bike trail. And summer wouldn't be summer without a visit to my Dad's house in Virginia, where we hang out with my Dad and my uncle and cousins. We do a lot of walking on trails near where my Dad lives, and he takes my girls on errands just like he did with me when I was a little girl. Sometimes we try to pick inexpensive retreats that expand their minds; you'll definitely find us at free plays and concerts (there's a great free jazz concert in Atlanta every summer)-whatever we can track down on the internet or in the local newspaper.

We do a lot of cooking; the girls used to take cooking lessons at a kids' chef's academy, but the fees are too much for us right now. So we've been cooking on our own and having a blast testing out recipes and letting the girls take control of the kitchen. And we love doing art projects together. We'll go online, find info on an artist or a how-to video on YouTube and just go crazy creating art for the house.

What are some great free (or semi-free) activities to do with kids during the summer?

You can't go wrong with a visit to the community park or swimming pool. The local library is a GREAT resource for entertainment and countless hours of great stories. Cooking is our go-to activity on rainy days-that and curling up with a good book or a movie. There's nothing like a fresh peach cobbler, a couple hours of quality reading of a good book and a favorite movie on a rainy day!

How do you find your child's camp and what's important to you?

I'm constantly on the lookout for camps that really elevate learning-that aren't just playgroups disguised as learning experiences. I want to know that they are actually learning something when they go to camp, but that they're having fun with it in the process. So I'm constantly on the lookout for good hands-on science camps where there is building and experiments, etc., and art camps where they're going to learn about great, diverse artists and learn a style of artistic expression they've never experienced before.

Do you have goals for your kids during the summer?

My only goal is that they have fun and expand their minds in creative ways. That's what summer is for. So the more fun the better!

Do you have any funny summer anecdotes you're willing to share with our readers? Mistakes you've made, camping trips gone wrong, kid firsts, etc?

We went camping once and while it was a terrific experience, there was some shenanigans at the end. The trickiest part? Sleeping on the ground, in the pitch black, in the middle of the Georgia woods. This truly is something that freaked me out, not a little, but a lot. I'm no fan of bugs or critters (though REI's Jungle Juice, a bug repellant, is the truth, the light, and the way, for real!), but it wasn't the creepy crawlies that bothered me. It was the noises. And the darkness. And the fear of what was lurking the unknown. I posted the whole story on my blog: http://mybrownbaby.com/2009/06...

What is your best tip for parents on making the most of summer break?

The best "make the most of summer" tip I have for parents is to remember that downtime is KING for kids. They need it. Crave it. Gotta have it. And it's okay if they're sitting around, being lazy and just enjoying that downtime.

Denene started the My Brown Baby blog as an outlet for African American parents. She currently lives and writes from her home in Atlanta, GA where she resides with her husband, stepson, two daughters and goldendoodle. You can find Denene on Twitter and Facebook.

Get more tips and ideas for summer activities in the Care.com Interview Series: Summer Survival »

Photo used with permission from Denene Millner.

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