All That Fun Can Add Up, but Cheap Relief Is Available

Time is money, and never more so than when calculating the costs of children's activities. During the school year, at least, budgeting for ballet, piano, or soccer classes requires an early version of the computer program "Quicken" to balance the costs and the checkbook.

But when the last school bell rings and suddenly every second is on the cash clock, summertime can sink the family finances without careful planning.

A family of four could easily rack up a three-month schedule that looks something like this:

Assume two kids, a six-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, whose parents both work, full time. The moment school lets out at noon on a Wednesday in early June, the child-care carousel begins.

Baby-sitting for the afternoon: at $5 an hour = $25.

Thursday and Friday, full-day sitting: $40 per day.

On Monday, the kids start a two-week local science camp at $210 per week, per child. But the day camp ends at 2 p.m., so additional baby-sitting is $15 a day.

Then, mom works from home for a week and the children do everything from running down the ice cream truck at $3 to $4 a stop, taking in a matinee (with baby sitter, popcorn, drinks, and tickets, $31), and getting a friend's mom to shuttle them to Six Flags Magic Mountain, at $34 a head.

Finally, both kids are off to a month of sleep-away camp for a mere $4,000, after camp T-shirts, photos, and camp stores charges are factored in. But don't forget airfare to the out-of-state camp: $289 a head.

Meanwhile, mom collects a stash of ideas for when the kids get older and even more money can be spent. A few choices from the file:

* Crow Canyon Archaeological Center for fourth through 12th graders. Dig for Pueblo artifacts with an archaeologist. $775 per week.

* A Reef Field Survey Program. Survey tropical fish all over the world with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. $650 to $850 per week.

* For those already in Hawaii, a two-hour teen sail aboard a 38-foot catamaran, Makani Kai II, costs a mere $45.

BY August, expense exhaustion has finally set in. There are ways to get off the treadmill, starting with a one-on-one with the kids about the importance of budgets and not keeping up with the Jones. Older children become refreshingly reasonable when asked to subsidize their next trip to a major theme park with their allowance.

Beyond baby-sitting co-ops, and imposing on relatives, there are money-saving solutions to be found with only a modicum of effort.

A random sampling of a popular Internet Web site for Houston shows a variety of free and/or cheap activities at places found in most cities:

The opera offers a free puppet show of "Hansel and Gretel" at Hermann Park; an "Indian skills workshop," teaching flint knapping, bow making, and hide tanning at Jesse Jones Park; the Museum of Fine Arts is free to children under 18; the George Observatory offers $1 passes to peek through the main 36-inch telescope; and the Parker Williams Library offers free preschooler storytime at 10:30 a.m.

Note that lists of activities for under $5 can be downloaded off the Internet for every city from one of the many parent-related sites, beginning with www.parentsoup. com.

By the time the school year rolls around, the astronomic costs of summer have at least one dubious virtue - the regular routine of soccer, ballet, and piano looks pretty good, if not downright cheap.

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