How to Tame the Rising Cost of Prom Season

Americans generally remain frugal in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But prom night appears invulnerable to austerity. Here's what you can do about it.

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The cost of prom night rose 5% this year to an average $1,139 per attendee—a staggering sum that should spark frank spending discussions in every household with a teenager.

Only three years ago, the recession was fresh and families were vowing to tighten their belts for good. In that environment, prom spending on everything from dresses and tuxedos to limos and flowers totaled an average $807. That’s a lot. But as the economy improved spending shot passed $1,000 last year before jumping again this spring, according to an annual Visa survey.

Prom spending has been called the new social arms race, as both parents and their teens seek to stand out and choose to spend extravagantly for one evening. “Prom has devolved into a competition to crown the victor of high school society,” Nat Sillin Visa’s head of U.S. Financial Education, said in a release.

The most troubling aspect of this spending free-for-all is the recurring finding that those who can least afford it are spending the most. In households with less than $50,000 of annual income, spending plans this year average $1,245; parents who make more than $50,000 will spend an average of $1,129. Two years ago, Visa found that the top prom spenders had household income under $30,000.

(MORE: Communication Breakdown: If You Think You’re Talking About Money, Your Kids Don’t Hear It)

Prom night is also an opportunity for single parents to spend lavishly on their teens—forking over an average $1,563, which is almost double the $770 that married parents will spend.

What’s going on here? People have not forgotten the lessons of the Great Recession. In a recent Fidelity survey nearly half said that even now they are saving more, reducing debt and building an emergency fund, and 78% of those taking such steps said the measures were part of permanent personal financial strategy.

Yet prom night appears untouchable. Okay, splurging has its place. But keeping up appearances and one-upping the cool kids probably isn’t the wisest choice. Sticking to a budget almost always makes more sense.

Recognizing that prom has become a major expense for teen-bearing households, Visa recently introduced a smartphone Plan it Prom app that lets users make a detailed budget and track spending as they shop. See it on iTunes or at practicalmoneyskills.com.

(MOREIs Paying Allowance to Your Kids Cruelty?)

To save on the cost of the prom, here are a few tips:

  • Shop for formal wear at consignment stores or online. Many outlets rent tuxedos and formal dresses and accessories.
  • Have make-up done at a department store’s cosmetics department or enlist a friend to help.
  • Split the cost of a limo with other couples, or simply drive.
  • Take pre-prom photos yourself and have the kids use cell phones for candid shots at the events.
  • Work out a prom budget in advance and set a limit for how much you will contribute. If teens want to spend more, encourage them to earn the money first.

Finally, when peers are overspending it’s a perfect time to do your part to make fiscal responsibility cool. Talk about how much you saved with little real sacrifice—not about how much you spent. Then set the difference aside for something you’ll need in the first semester of college, like books or a new computer. It will only hurt for a day.

30 comments
pendragon05
pendragon05

Stuff like this makes me glad the parochial high school I attended had no proms nor dances

aelric75
aelric75

Agree with Keylolo.  Also, kids from low income families have already been made to feel inferior because of clothes, not having a car, etc.,.  That said, no way would my mother have spent that much on a prom, and I wouldn't have asked her too.  As a woman and a teacher, we have got to get past this notion that being Princess-for-a-day is some kind of rite of femininity.  We'd all save a lot on weddings too. 

DianaLynnLong
DianaLynnLong

it is totally ludicrous that we spend this amount on a high 

school prom!  What are we teaching our young people about the value of money? 

Keylolo
Keylolo

I think its easy to explain why poor families are spending so much on prom. If you are poor, you are constantly having to tell your kids or deny your kids things they may want, but you simply cant afford. Poor children are no stranger to the words, "We cant baby, sorry, we cant afford it." So when prom comes of around, it represents the one night that the parents will pull out all the stops for them and try to go all out to make it really special, because they cant do that normally. Pretty easy to understand.

Vetteman1985
Vetteman1985

Is this supposed to be including a sightseeing tour of the Bahamas?!?  I don't know of anyone who spent even close to half of that.

WilmaWonka
WilmaWonka

Cost of designer dress:  $120.00 (found in high end department store boutique, tried on for size, and bought on-line)

Cost of boutenierre:  $13.00 (can't avoid the traditional flower cost) - Not sure what the corsage cost.

Cost of dinner/dance (actual prom):  ZERO - (daughter is on the prom committee - you help plan and decorate - you don't pay admission)

Cost of limo:  $100 (20 people in group + since admission to prom was free - not bad)

Shoes:  $50.00 (she'll wear them again 'cause they're really cool)

Purse:  ZERO - borrowed

Hair:  ZERO - styled at home and it looked beautiful

Tux:  Really not sure but probably not over $100

My daughter is an honor student at a private high school.  We can send her there because we dont pay ridiculous amounts for ridiculous things, like $1200.00 for prom night.

So, my daughters end was Dress, his flower, shoes = $190.00 and her date's end was about $250.00?.  They had a great time and they looked fabulous.  Plus, we have no regret or bills to pay off for it.

KateML
KateML

My daughter graduated last year.  Her dress (from a consignment store) & shoes cost about $250 with alterations.  The boy BOUGHT his tux last year for $100.  (He's worn it three times already and once more to go for his prom, so, about $25 per dance!)  Flowers for both were under $20.  Their group (including girls without dates)  met for a before party at another girl's home.  Prom tickets were $30.  Lazer tag after was $25 each.  FancyAmerican breakfast buffet at our house after that for about 15 kids cost us about $60.  No alcohol!  after a movie the boys went home & girls slept over.   Everyone had a fabulous time and the fancy buffet is a special memory for a special night.  So I guess we spent around $400.  The school laid out specific guidelines regarding appropriate dress (no backless or split skirts), no limos and no hotels! Anyone caught at a hotel or breaking other rules would not receive their diploma on stage.   Also, everyone had to pass a breathalizer test before coming into the dance (every school dance).   The school and the parents must work together to keep kids safe and make sure they have happy and sober memories of their prom night.  If you bring them all back to your house, you know where your kid is.   It was a lot of work car-pooling and cooking at 2am but my kid is worth it. 

tbbaot
tbbaot

Total bunk, if parents are spending that kind of money on a high school prom they are spineless jellyfish

ScottPrelwitz
ScottPrelwitz

That's why I never went to "our" prom.  Bad cloths, bad music, epileptic behavior disguised as dance, yeah, sounds like great fun. 

wuzzup
wuzzup

This is why I have such contempt for the Kardashians and the Real Housewives.  Everyone thinks of these women as benign, pampered little beaches.  They're far worse!  They're creating an image of American life that is not just frivolous and disgusting (in it's opulence) but spiteful and self-destructive, too.  If I raised an "animal" like Kim K., Bethenny or Theresa, I'd seriously consider suicide...I'd be in such despair over my failure as a parent. 

mm1970
mm1970

Holy cow that's a lot of money.  Glad I have boys.  But what's wrong with doing your own hair and makeup?  I understand buying a dress and shoes for the girl, and renting a tux buying flowers for the boy.  But that's not $1000.

KittyD
KittyD

I have two teenage girls going to prom this school year. Each was given a budget of $150.00 or less for their dress. They shopped online and in stores till they found what they wanted. One spent budget and the other was $50.00 under. Both dresses are elegant and long. The each are spending $20.00 for shoes and a friend does both their hair and makeup for $30.00 and a ride to and from home. Our income is over $50K and our expenses for two teenagers (who are concerned about looking great!) is less than $500.00. Additionally we paid cash and did not charge on a Visa. Maybe this is Visa's confusion.

CheleenyB
CheleenyB

i spent $400 max on prom and most of it was the dress. this was only a few years ago mind you. this is ridiculous, what people are you interviewing? i've never heard of such an outrageous amount for prom.

SukeMadiq
SukeMadiq

A lot of money for your teenagers to get laid.

hmd2477
hmd2477

I have such a light-hearted fun feeling about prom.  I know some can be crazy and I've heard of the motel things, but I loved shopping for my daughter's dresses and buying the beautiful flowers.  We took a lot of pics at home, they drove their own car.  Hair and make-up were paid for $60.  My two sons also went and their tuxedos (cheapest ones) were 109 a piece 20 for shoes and corsages that were 25 a piece.  It was so awesome to see them proud to dress up and dance the night away.  I'm sure the bill was over a $1,000.

mandycat
mandycat

When we lived in Atlanta, a local high school prom made headlines when many of the attendees spent the night in the hotel where the prom was held.   The "after-prom" event turn into a huge orgy followed by a destructive rampage that had other guests cowering in their rooms until a posse of policemen arrived.

The punch-line to this sorry joke?  The room reservations had all been made and financed by the kids' parents, who apparently had no problems with their hormone crazed teenagers participating in an unsupervised, unchaperoned pajama party.  Sadly, none of the parents were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.  

Rhomega
Rhomega

I never went to prom.  Or any social event, except for the sophomore Homecoming rally, and that was out of curiosity.  I'm so introverted.

JulPhamily
JulPhamily

It just goes to show I was such a good kid - my parents spent zero on my prom. Kids need to pay for their own luxuries.

CanisNLibris
CanisNLibris

My German exchange student told me about the "prom" held at her high school. It was held at a dinner/dancing facility near a national monument.  Families (parents and siblings) were invited.  Awards were given by the principal.   The entire event was calculated to mark the student's departure from child/adolescent status to that of an adult, and to acknowledge the responsibilities to family and nation that this transition entails.  It was a very nice, formal event, but not overly expensive.

American proms, by contrast, celebrate the individual's passage to adulthood with extravagance of expense for luxury items (fancy dresses, limosines, etc.) and the exclusion of the adults who made it possible and likely paid for it. After-prom getaways and sex in the back seat of the car are American traditions.  The emphasis is, "Now that I'm an adult, I can do whatever I want."

As my father told my adolescent son, the sign of maturity is not that you can do whatever you want, but rather, that you have the common sense to do the right thing without being watched over or told.

KountyKobbler
KountyKobbler

See if your local area  still has the  Duct Tape  prom outfit  challenge  and spend about 50 dollars on  that   rather than renting  tux  for 200.  or buying dress  for a  half grand or morre..    and see how skillful you are  as  a taylor...  or for the guys  check the rental outlets for used tux for sale  they often cost less to buy than to rent.. 

jersharocks
jersharocks

You don't have to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on prom to have a great time. I went to THREE proms when I was in high school (2 at my school, 1 at my date's school). My prom date (now husband of almost 5 years) and I probably spent less than $500 total. Our first prom was the priciest because I spent $100 on that dress but he used a suit he already owned and bought a tie at a thrift store (hey, it matched perfectly). He had a silk corsage made at a craft store for $10 and I still have it today. I cooked dinner at my house and we ate by candlelight. We didn't rent a limo, we didn't eat at a fancy restaurant, and we didn't pay for the expensive picture package. For the 2nd and 3rd proms, we did pretty much the same things but I lucked out on getting 2 dresses on clearance for $12 at a local shop in October. I just saved the dresses until prom rolled around and they were perfect. We had a great time and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

RyanAllenLamm
RyanAllenLamm

I thought this said porn. If it did, then that is a pretty cheap thrill.

ElevatorLady
ElevatorLady

I wonder how much of this money comes from the parents, and how much comes from the teens themselves.  I had a job during my senior year and spent most of the money I earned on clothes and music.  I paid for pretty much all of my prom expenses...though my mother did make my dress, I bought the pattern and fabric, etc.

DebGonnOver
DebGonnOver

Crazy!  My daughter went to prom last Saturday - $230 for her dress, including alterations, $20 for prom and post-prom party tickets, went in her date's car, ate at Olive Garden, families took pictures, make-up done by neighbor, I did her hair.  She won an iPad mini at the post-prom party so she won as much as she spent!  Her date won at iPod, so he did, too. 

aelric75
aelric75

Sorry - I wouldn't have asked her to.  That'll teach me to read for misspelled homophones!

Rhomega
Rhomega

@DianaLynnLong We're teaching that formal events require expensive clothing like job interviews and weddings.

VictorMarinoJr.
VictorMarinoJr.

@tbbaot These must be the same parents who spend hundreds of dollars for a child's birthday party.  We never had more than a homemade cake and one small gift.