My story as a camp professional is classic. I spent a summer after college as a canoe trip leader at a camp in northern Wisconsin, expecting that it was going to be a no-big-deal, fun summer — but it changed my life.

I changed career paths, kept going back to camp, and got a master's degree in environmental education. When I finished school and it was time to find a year-round job, I accepted an assistant director job at a wonderful, independent, nonprofit camp in the Pacific Northwest. A few years later, I became that camp's executive director. Now here I am, 23 years later, having had a career and a life that's built around summer camp.

Among the many stories (and lessons learned) from those two-plus decades, there's one that very arguably had the most positive impact on me personally. I suspect there are many similar stories out there among longtime camp professionals who have built full, satisfying, peaceful careers and lives in camping. But these stories rarely get told, because they revolve around one of the most taboo topics in our society and profession: money.

My story is that after college, I watched my first camp boss have to leave her job under challenging circumstances, without the financial cushion necessary to make that transition easy or even possible. Because she lived on the camp property, leaving her job meant simultaneously losing her income and housing.

It takes a substantial financial cushion to make that sort of transition anything but crushingly stressful, and of course the need to leave a job quickly and unexpectedly likely comes with additional worries.

Frankly, watching her go through that when I was a 27-year-old, brand new camp professional terrified me. And it's probably the event most responsible for turning me into a personal finance nerd.

Fear is a heck of a motivator. But if you can build a financial life that can withstand an event the likes of my first boss's experience, there is a beautiful side effect: peace. Imagine what our industry would be like if every camp professional knew that if they had to leave their job for any reason, they and their family would be just fine. How about if every camp professional knew that they'd be able to retire with dignity? What if nobody left camping for a higher-paying field because they felt they had to in order to be responsible? Imagine that no camp professional ever stayed in a toxic work environment or after they'd lost their passion for the work.

This is the kind of peace that comes to those camp professionals who can consistently maintain a high savings rate and develop a few other good personal finance habits.

"No One Got into Camping for the Money"

I've heard this expression countless times from camp pros — and not only when I'm annoyingly bringing up personal finance in conversation. I've heard it from young camp pros, seasoned veterans, agency and independent people, individuals from religious and secular camps, for-profit and nonprofit workers, W-2 employees, and camp owners.

The phrase is a great example of what's known in the personal finance space as an "invisible money script." These are maxims that we pick up through the culture, our upbringing, and various experiences (Sethi, 2019). Other examples from outside the camp world include:

  • "I work hard, I deserve it."
  • "The stock market is gambling."
  • "Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life."

All of these invisible money scripts contain elements of truth — but if you follow them blindly, they can all lead you to bad places.

Virtually every camp pro I've ever met could make more money doing something else. While I'm an advocate for increasing pay rates throughout the camp industry, I suspect that this reality may always be true. Most of us got into this work because of, well, the work. But nothing about being a camp pro means you can't have a secure, peaceful financial life. If that refrain translates in your head to "Money is the domain of other types of people, not of camp pros," it is likely to prevent you from taking the steps necessary to have the peace and security I'm talking about.

The Prime Directive

So far I've avoided being too specific about any personal finance advice, and I've included exactly zero math. That's intentional. The idea that personal finance is about numbers is mostly an illusion. Emotions, feeling, and mindset are all far more important.

With that said, what I'll call The Prime Directive of Personal Finance (with apologies to Trekkies everywhere) is that for the vast majority of your working life, your income will need to exceed your expenses — and ideally by a good bit. To put it another way, you need to set a savings rate, and it ought to be on the high side.

How much is enough? That's personal, but there is a good rule of thumb to follow. A popular personal finance principle called the "50/30/20 rule" states that a household should spend 50 percent of its after-tax income on needs, 30 percent on wants, and 20 percent on savings and/or debt reduction (Warren & Warren Tyagi, 2006). If your housing is not tied to your employment, this is a good place to start.

If your housing is tied to your employment, that savings percentage needs to go up. Why? In the short term, you need a bigger emergency fund so you can withstand the simultaneous financial trauma of losing your job and your housing. In the long term, most standard personal finance advice assumes that your expenses will go down when you retire. Camp pros who live on their camp's property may pay for housing for the first time when they retire, meaning their expenses will likely go up. It's a very rough guideline, but my advice is to take advantage of the fact that you're not paying for housing and save 20 percent of the 50 percent someone else would have to spend on needs (which would include their rent or mortgage payment), shooting for a 40-percent after-tax savings rate.

I promise I'll give some advice in a minute to anyone who thinks those savings-rate targets are impossibly high, but first a question to anyone who has influence over the salaries of year-round camp pros: Do the salaries your organization pay make a savings rate like the one I described possible? If not, I'd encourage you to get ahead of that problem. Get yourself on a multiyear program designed to raise salaries. Are you paying people less than you would otherwise pay because their housing is provided on the camp property? I understand the impulse, but I think I've demonstrated that such rationale often leads to bad places. If you start to work on this problem before it becomes a crisis, you — and your people — will be much better off.

Back to Those Sky-High Savings Targets

It's totally fair if your initial reaction to my suggested savings rate target is that it's impossible. If your savings rate is low (or you're currently spending more than you make) or if you have no idea what your savings rate is, no one — least of all me — would expect you to get it to 20 percent or 40 percent overnight.

Could you boost your savings rate by 3 percent this year? Or 1 percent? Next time you get a raise, could you allocate most or all of that pay increase to savings? That's a fine place to begin. Keep doing that year after year, and you'll be shocked at where your savings rate could be.

You don't have to turn personal finance into a hobby, but this is an area of your life that you quite literally can't afford to ignore. While there is some questionable advice in the personal finance space, I've included some good and reliable resources in the sidebar.


A good camp director friend of mine recently retired. Early in his camp career, his boss pulled him aside and told him that even though he was living on his camp property at no cost he should pretend he had a mortgage payment and set that money aside in good investments. My friend followed that advice throughout his career — and he spent his work years at peace, knowing he and his family would be financially OK no matter what happened. He retired comfortably when he wanted to. He didn't have to live in scarcity throughout his career to pull this off. He spent money on the things that brought him joy. But he didn't fall into the many traps American capitalism can set for us. He knew his priorities, he had a plan, and he stuck to it.

I want that abundance for every camp professional out there; that's why I'm breaking the taboo on talking about personal finances in the camp world. Take the first step, whatever that is for you. Your future self will thank you, and you'll be in a better position to keep making the world a better place.


Additional Resources

  • The Choose FI podcast,
  • I Will Teach You to Be Rich, by Ramit Sethi
    Clickbait-y title, but a great general personal finance book, especially for those who are doing OK but need to get organized.
  • All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan, by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi
    Doesn't sweat the details but focuses on a balanced financial life and avoiding the big traps.
  • The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn't Have to Be Complicated, by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack
    Perhaps one tick too simple, but a great place to start.
  • Total Money Makeover, by Dave Ramsey
    Best for those for whom debt is a major stressor.
  • The Simple Path to Wealth, by JL Collins
    Focuses on saving, investing, and the stock market — one of the best and most approachable books ever on the topic. Buy this for every high school and college graduate in your life.
  • Psychology of Money, by Morgan Housel
    Money is only about numbers on the very surface. Dig any depth below the surface, and you'll find a lot of feelings.
  • Your Money or Your Life, by Joseph R. Dominguez and Vicki Robin
    A classic — gets beyond the numbers to the essence of how we spend our time on earth.
  • The Golden Albatross: How To Determine If Your Pension Is Worth It, by Grumpus Maximus
    A great resource for those with traditional pensions.


  • Sethi, R. (2019). I will teach you to be rich: No guild. No excuses. Just a 6-week program that works, second edition. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Co., Inc.
  • Warren, E. & Warren Tyagi, A. (2006). All your worth: The ultimate lifetime money plan. New York, NY: Free Press.

Paul Sheridan is the executive director of Four Winds * Westward Ho Camp, on Orcas Island, Washington. He can be reached at