Expenses can add up when school lets out

Ah, summer vacation. Time to lounge by the pool, splash through backyard slip-and-slides and ride bikes all day with friends. Oh wait. That was 30 years ago, when families in most income brackets could actually afford to have a stay-at-home parent.

In 2017, the majority of moms and dads work, turning summer break into a 12-week scramble to patch together just enough child care to keep the boss happy. Money flies out of your wallet, and families who are just getting by the rest of the year can fall behind fast if they aren't careful. Suddenly, there are child care bills for school-age kids, extra expenses for more meals at home, and gas and fees for trips to the pool, the zoo and the camp du jour.

In 2014, the most recent data available, American parents shelled out $70 billion for summer activities, not including day care, according to American Express. Families spent an average $958 per child, up 12 percent from 2013 and 59 percent from 2012. For parents, summer can be far from relaxing, as they “shell out more to keep their kids busy outside of the school year,” said David Rabkin, the company's vice president of consumer lending products.

So what's a family to do? Even if you can't cut big expenses such as day camp and day care, there are ways to trim elsewhere. Here are a few Band-Aids.

Cheap Eats

Moms make nearly 70 percent of America's home-cooked meals, but sometimes working mothers need a break. Most chain restaurants—think Applebee's, Bob Evans, Denny's, MCL and O'Charley's—offer some sort of deeply discounted meal or kids-eat-free night each week with the purchase of an adult entree. Of course it's cheaper to eat at home, but if you can't, get the price break.

North Side dad of two Stephen Kinnell took his children to Steak & Shake for the kids-eat-free special when they were younger. “It saved us about $8 on a $30 bill,” he said.

Powell mom of three Sara Coy takes her brood to the Old Bag of Nails Pub, which offers a free kids meal with a coupon from their website, and Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern, for its Bucketeer Bookworm program. (Kids read five books and get a free meal.) She likes the latter because it's tied to reading rather than a certain night of the week. “We tend to go places we know the kids will be happy,” and that the grown-ups like, too, Coy said.

Need ideas? There's a Facebook group and app dedicated to sharing kids meal deals in Central Ohio. Check it out at facebook.com/kids-eat-free-columbus-327068579451. And don't forget to scour coupons that come in the newspaper and mail, plus deal sites such as Groupon.

Entertainment

“I'm bored.” Maybe your kids are self-entertaining angels, but mine? No sirree. I keep these ace cards in my back pocket to keep the budget in check when the dreaded chorus begins:

Kids bowl free – Children younger than 12 can play two free games each day, all summer at participating bowling alleys. There are about a dozen in Central Ohio. Even if you spring for a soda or a snack, you'll still get out the door for less. Sign up at kidsbowlfree.com. Movies – Who doesn't like to watch the latest Star Wars flick on a giant inflatable screen surrounded by the gentle buzz of mosquitoes? The list of movies in local parks is long—including Upper Arlington, Columbus Commons, Movies by Moonlight at Easton and Fryer Park in Grove City—so there are sure to be free flicks near you. If you prefer air conditioning, look for discounts such as Cinemark's Summer Movie Clubhouse ($1 tickets on select movies) and the CAPA Summer Movie Series, where same-day tickets are $5. Concerts – There's plenty of free music, such as the PBJ & Jazz series at Topiary Park, and summer series in communities such as Dublin, Gahanna, Pickerington, Westerville, Worthington and more. Parks – Regale kids with the magic of your closest city or Metro Park, many of which feature amenities such as splash pads, guided nature hikes, fishing, canoe lessons, disc golf and fitness classes. When in doubt, go outside!

Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance. Follow her on Twitter at @DeniseTrowbridg.