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How to Manage Your Summer Spending Wisely

David Francis

Summer is a time for vacation, relaxing, and spending time with family. But it's also a time when the best-laid spending plans can be thrown by the wayside.

Extra time in the car means spending more at the pump. Many children spend the summers at home, increasing the amount of time and money parents must spend with and on them. Costs for summer activities for children, such as a sport of stay-away camp, can be pricey. Vacations can quickly drain savings accrued over the course of the year.

[See 20 Hot Money Moves for Summer.]

Summer energy costs have been and are expected to be especially expensive. Much of the country has been hit with massive heat waves, forcing many to turn up the air conditioner to stay cool, sending electricity bills sky-high. Massive storms associated with the heat have knocked out power up and down the East Coast, forcing people to make often-expensive arrangements to stay cool.

U.S. News asked personal-finance experts for their best advice on how to control spending in the summer months. According to these experts, small changes from typical summer routines and some energy-saving tricks can help families boost their bottom line.

Relief on the roads offset by increased energy costs. Karen Carlson is the director of education and creative programs at InCharge Education Foundation, a group that helps people reduce debt and improve budget practices. She says gas prices, which are currently slumping, are giving consumers an unanticipated break. According to AAA's Daily Fuel Gage Report, national gas prices currently average $3.38, compared to $3.65 at the same time last year.

"On one hand, this has been a great summer for saving money on gas," Carlson says. "But it's been a bad summer for energy because of the heat."

The full impact of this month's heat wave are not yet clear, as many people throughout the country have yet to receive their monthly bill. Nationwide, power companies have reported a large surge in electricity demand in recent weeks. This increased demand will be reflected in coming bills.

[See 10 Ways to Reduce Your Summer Utility Bills.]

Carlson says the best way to manage electricity costs during the summer is to use timers on air conditioning units, a feature available on many newer models. For instance, create a timing system that keeps the house cool during the morning and evening, when you are likely to be home. Then adjust the temperature higher during the day when the house is empty and overnight while you're asleep.

"You can save 30 percent on your energy bill with timers that make sure when you're home it's the coldest," she says. "You can do the same with your hot water heater on a timer."

Cooking outside and keeping the oven off can also conserve energy: A hot oven increases the temperature in a house, keeping the air conditioner running. Closing blinds also helps keep homes cooler.

Managing camp and vacation costs. Camps are a great way to keep kids active and busy during the summer. But according to Carlson, many camps are expensive and fill up quickly. She suggests looking to local churches and YMCAs for cheaper alternatives that often have last-minute openings.

"Kid stuff can get expensive really quickly," Carlson said. "Put in the time and do the research and you can find activities that are inexpensive."

Finding savings when planning vacations is a lot trickier, says consumer advocate and nationally syndicated columnist Christopher Elliot. "This is the first summer in probably five years that many families are taking vacations because they've held back on taking time off because of the recession and concerns about the economy," he says. "The knee-jerk decision is to go to the place where they used to go."

[See 5 Ways to Plan a Better, Cheaper Vacation.]

Elliot says this is often a mistake. He cites Ocean City, Md., a popular vacation destination, as an example. Many people from the mid-Atlantic visit Ocean City during the summer. During the rest of the year, the city is a ghost town, Elliot says.

"It's high season, and the folks in Ocean City know they have three months to make their yearly revenue," he says. "So they're going to charge you prices that are in line with that goal."

Elliot recommends choosing unlikely destinations to save money. "Think differently about where you want to go. Head in the opposite direction of the crowds," he says. "In the mountains, you're going to pay off-season prices, and you're not going to find a lot of people right now."

Carlson says so-called "stay-cations," or spending time off close to home, can also help keep vacation costs low. "A lot of people are still underemployed and are looking at what they can do locally. A lot of families are going back to basics," she says. "They're skipping theme parks and airports for old-fashioned road trips. Summer can be about simplicity."

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