Couldn’t Afford to Send Your Kid to Prom?

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Prom season is mostly over, but the financial effects linger like the smell of an old corsage left under a car seat. A recent survey by Visa found that between tickets, limos, dresses, hair, photos, and all the other assorted expenses, the average family with a high school student attending prom spent about $807 on the experience.
And with the unemployment rate for high school students somewhere around 30 percent, there’s a good chance mom and dad were asked to pick up most, if not all, of that tab. This comes at a time when close to half of Americans couldn’t come up with $2,000 for an emergency without taking out a loan.

(MORE: Philadelphia Shop Sells $14,000 Prom Dress)

A few thoughts: First, if you can’t afford to help your kid pay for the prom you need to be honest about that and not try to make it work when you can’t. There might be some things worth making heroic parental sacrifices for; a high school dance isn’t one of them. A quarter of families admitted that their kids hadn’t gone to prom beause they couldn’t afford it.

I emailed my mother, a children’s therapist with more years of experience than she’d want me to say she has publicly, to see what she’d think. Her response was a diatribe; in recent months, several of her clients have addressed the issue of excessive spending on the prom.

One low-income family spent hundreds of dollars on the event. “Among other things, it left the family with neither food nor gas money for the week and added more stress on the mother,” she told me. “By the way, her bright, beautiful daughter would have looked good no matter what she wore.”

My mom’s advice?

“There is virtually no better value at thrift stores than formal attire. Usually, they are worn once, possibly twice and there are classics that simply never go out of style. If the family takes pictures, drives their kids to and from the prom, and a friend or relative who is good at it helps with nails and hair, the cost of a semi-formal or prom can easily run under $100.”

(GALLERY: Top 10 Ways to Survive a Horror Movie — Hint: Avoid Proms)

And when it comes to self-expression and individuality — two things that young people claim to prize — there really is no better way to go than second-hand. Shabby Chic founder Rachel Ashwell once put it this way:
“When you shop at a flea market you are on your own, without the reassurance that comes with the advertised, mass-produced purchase, accompanied by an illustration on the package showing you how to use it and where to put it. At the flea market, your own taste is your only guide – uninfluenced by what is currently being pushed in the shop windows and mail-order catalogues. Here you can express yourself in how you furnish your home, the clothes you wear, or the presents you give.”
The last line of my mom’s email was this: “It’s really about the date and the friends and looking good enough to feel at ease. All the rest is Modern American Insanity. Don’t drink the Kool Aid.”