How much is the senior prom worth?

High School Prom © by Randy Kashka

Would you spend 6% (or more) of your gross annual income to send your teen to the prom? A survey by Visa Inc. indicated that families earning less than $20,000 per year planned to shell out $1,200 for the annual school dance.

I don’t know what’s scarier: The fact that parents are willing to do this or the fact that kids think it’s necessary.

Obviously prom costs vary depending on where you live. Here’s how the survey broke it down

    • Northeastern families, $1,944
    • Southern families, $1,047
    • Western families, $744
    • Midwestern families, $696

While parties in New York City or Miami probably skew the numbers – there’s simply more to do in those places than there is in, say, Fairton, New Jersey — access to cable and Internet have made proms an industry.

Kids who live way out in East Nowhere can now buy drop-dead-sexy gowns online. They know that the cool kids book hotel suites for after-parties. They want spray-on tans, mani-pedis, new shoes and jewelry, professional makeup, dramatic hairstyles. Dinner out beforehand is an absolute must, although you think they’d worry about getting food on those rented tuxes.

The last hurrah

Why are parents willing to pay for this? Some may go along because they want their kids to have what they presume the other kids have.

Others, remembering their own proms, may believe that this is some kind of pinnacle and they want it to be memorable. Of course, they probably also believe that high school constitutes the best years of your life.

Some parents are unable to deny their kids. They gave in on the expensive Christmas toys and the big-ass birthday parties and they’ll give in on the $600 prom dress, too. (The best option is to shop for more affordable prom dresses that offer the same or better elegance.)

I also expect there are parents living vicariously through their children: Their sons or daughters are the vessels into which they’ve poured all their hopes, and everything must be absolutely perfect.

The prom is part dress-up and part last hurrah. It’s a bunch of kids putting on their parents’ clothes and being shocked at the effect. Look at us! We’re beautiful! They’re close enough to what they see as freedom to be intoxicated by the idea, and young enough to think that everything they want is easily attainable.

Some teens, of course, are already disillusioned. They know that this is the pinnacle. Life after senior year may mean college or trade school, but it’s just as likely to mean living at home while looking for a job, or working and taking care of/paying support for the babies born while they were still in high school.

So you better believe you want to make a grand entrance, and to cut a dashing figure on the dance floor. Those memories and photos are your last chance to shine, your last shot at the carefree life. Even if you plan to spend the next four years in college, those years will have a price tag.

Holding the line

I think there’s a middle ground that some parents are afraid to inhabit. That would mean getting real both with our kids and ourselves. It sounds something like this:

Prom is coming up in a couple of months. I know you’re very excited. Here is what I can afford to contribute. We need to come up with ways to make those dollars work really hard.

While working on a piece about prom for MSN Money, I heard from people who got creative about the party. One young woman bought a bridesmaid’s gown for a dollar at a yard sale, then cut and hemmed it to tea length and embellished it with tulle. Total cost: About $15.

Another young woman had her pick of 10 dresses previously worn by her cousins. She chose a floor-length, strapless, periwinkle-blue sequined gown and wore it quite happily, rather than throw a hissy fit about wanting her own dress. She also carried a sequined bag that her mom found at a thrift store.

Other suggested ways to save: Calling a car service instead of a limo (or, I don’t know, borrowing your dad’s car); hitting a beauty school instead of a swanky salon (or doing it yourself); making your own corsage; borrowing jewelry from a relative; taking photos at home; having dinner at home before the party.

It’s up to us, the adults, to keep things real. Even if your kid is 18, he or she is still likely to be tempted by bright shiny objects. This is one night of their lives. Help them keep that in perspective.

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  1. We have a similar event here in Ireland and my son had his last year. My outlay was about $200 in total. We bought a dress shirt and bow tie. He borrowed a black suit. They all had their meal at the venue and the school provided a bus for the kids to get to the venue for a reasonable charge. Whatever drinks etc he bought at the event he paid for out of his Summer job money. There was a professional photographer at the event but my son had a friend take some very good photos.
    I imagine boys are less expensive but I am appalled at some of the statistics you mentioned. What on earth would they want a limo for?

  2. My sister ached and moaned about how much she hated her bridesmaid dress for my wedding (actually threw a tantrum in the dressing room and had a random stranger inform her it wasn’t *her* wedding– so embarrassing!) and then her prom dress ended up being almost identical except for the back (and the larger price tag). I’m so glad she’s not a teenager anymore.

    You don’t want to know how much her Cotillion cost my parents (hint: the Cotillion dress is a wedding dress). I suspect some of the money my parents had been planning to spend but saved on my college education from all my scholarships ended up funding my sister’s dances.

    As for me, we couldn’t afford the $80/each cruise tickets plus everything else (money still being ear-marked for my college education), so my boyfriend (now husband) and I went out for ice cream at all the ice cream places in the neighboring towns. It was a very nice weekend.

  3. I didn’t go to the prom. My very conservative father talked me out of it. Looking back, I don’t think I missed much. I was never very close to my high school friends and only keep in touch with very few.

  4. My mom made my dress as I couldn’t find anything I wanted (I was very picky). We already had the fabric as my sister had called off her wedding and we had no other use for 50+ yards of emerald green satin (which was for the bridesmaids dresses.) I picked up my younger male date in my 1979 Ford Granada (this was 15 years ago) and we had a lovely dinner on my dime since I asked him. Afterward, we went to Shari’s for pie with a big group of friends. I think kids are so worried about image that they don’t worry enough about having fun with their friends. We had a really good time for less than $300 between the two of us.

  5. lostAnnfound

    Our older daughter (an 18 year-old H.S. senior) asked us a couple of weeks ago what was the budget for a dress for prom. She just got her dress for prom tonight. We found a very nice David’s Bridal gown (used once in a wedding last year) on Craigslist. It was listed at $80 or b.o. (retails new for $190) and the woman sold it to us for $70. We just have to take it in a bit and she will be good to go. And when she has finished using it, we will be listing it back on Craigslist for someone else to buy and recoup some of the cost.

    Daughter will be carpooling with friends, eating the dinner provided at the prom venue, and then having a sleepover at a friend’s house. The big splurge will be going to the hairdresser’s that day to have her hair done, which our hairdresser does an awesome job for about half the price of most of the salons in this area. Also, we’ll buy a corsage for her (sentimental mom & dad that we are). She has jewelry she owns already and shoes as well that she will wear that night.

    All in all, her prom will cost about $150.00. And we live in the Northeast.

  6. Back when I was in high school, most of us paid our own prom expenses with money we’d earned from summer and/or afterschool jobs.

  7. Virginia

    1997 – My prom dress was probably about $100. Dinner was probably $40. I didn’t get my nails done at $20. No Limo. Oh, and my date bought me a corsage. I didn’t feel like I was missing out because this seemed pretty standard for everyone at my high school.

  8. WWII Kid

    Please do a piece on Sweet Sixteen parties. I have a whopper of a tale for that money hole!

  9. mimipaula1

    Oldest daughter went to prom her sophomore, junior, and senior years in high school. Each year, her grandmother, an accomplished seamstress, made the dress designed by my daughter as her contribution to the prom attendee. My daughter and her boyfriend passed out flyers at the high school as advertisements for a local florist and received all of their prom flowers FREE. She carried a matching evening bag made by her grandmother. I did her hair for her, as I am a licensed hairdresser. She and boyfriend traveled in his car–no limo rental for them! And….her memories are just as wonderful as those folks who spent thousands of dollars on Prom!

  10. Holy mackerel.

    So…we’re talking a prom, just a school prom, right? Not a bat mitzvah or a quinceañera or a debutante ball?

    Having come of age in the Late Cretaceous, I just can’t imagine. My mother bought me a nice dress, which probably was expensive for a 16-year-old but certainly didn’t cost anything like what a bridal gown cost. My hair was already short and had to be trimmed regularly, so that was no big deal. In those days, the young man shelled out more than the girl did, because he was expected to take his date out to a nice dinner. He had to rent a tux or a get a good suit, too, which was no small matter. And of course he’d better show up with an orchid for the girl, too!

    In these parts, I’ve heard of people renting a limo (complete with wet bar) and a suite at a resort for their kids & kids’ friends. The theory is that the kids are going to drink and get high, as a given, and so it’s better for a limo driver to be chauffeuring them around than to have them risking their lives driving drunk or stoned. Same theory in renting them a room: confine the party to one place, do a little less damage (parents have, however, been stuck with the bill for completely redecorating a trashed suite), and keep them off the road.

    Jeez. I was so underindulged… {sob}

  11. factchecker

    The purpose of prom is to at least have a decent fun time which may require money but certainly not thousands or even hundreds of dollars
    , I think the fuss is all because the prom is like a new wedding or mitzvah as the person above said, however when you compete against each other or waste money here and there, money gets spent, like keeping up with the jonesses, in addition while prom costs money, more money does not equal happiness, and skipping the limo, and having folks more sober may equal a more fun time, or cooking up a great home meal instead of a restaurant at someone’s home in advance, in fact , more on this later

  12. factchecker

    The other issue is here too, you never know when you may need money,
    spend a few grand on prom, and pay interest and get a car repair,
    I think the other issue is poor planning and management and easily throwing money to fix the problem, the is true in life for general,
    also what’s next throwing thousands of dollars for other “once in a lifetime events”, however this is situation isn’t unique to prom or other events , its the keeping up with the jones, and spending money
    unwisely, foolishly, but without planning, think about a restaurant,
    do you really think a dinner at a fancy restaurant is worth the money , certain places yes, but usually food is marked up highly
    and your paying for a lot of things, you could be happier at a picnic and cooking your prime meats (if folks care), or certain recipes, folks would then have a great time instead of rushing to finish, etc .

    But this is true in life in general, its easy not to make cost saving decisions, whether it be cooking, ditching phone/cable,
    carpooling, collecting scrap,etc

  13. rb mamma

    I just stumbled across this and found it interesting. I had heard these statistics elsewhere and think people are off their rockers. My son just attended his senior prom, and he and his girlfriend paid for their own tickets. $46 each and included dinner. I bought him a black suit for last years prom and it still fits so he wore it again. I also bought him a tuxedo shirt complete with bow tie, cummberbund, cuff-links, and button clips, on sale for $19.99. He had dinkles left from his band days so wore those. He is a student at Vo-tech so got his girlfriend a corsage with 6 miniature roses for $7.50 from their floral design department. She looked beautiful in a gown that was given to her by a relative, and I helped her pick a simple boutonniere. I don’t think we spent $200 between the 2 of them. Renting a limo or room. Really? Isn’t that just enabling bad behavior?

    My daughter already picked her gown out for next year’s prom … at a consignment shop. Pure silk for $41. It’s all in how you raise them. Of course those spending $1000’s on the prom aren’t reading this website. Sorry for their luck.

  14. Shannon

    When I went to prom we bought a reasonable dress. It was a classy A-line dress and NOT one of the skanky prom dresses I keep seeing in ads with slits clear up to the hip and massive cleavage showing. My mom let me get my hair and nails done, but it was a treat- I didn’t expect it or demand it. 6 of us (3 couples) found a serious discount on a limo service that weekend so it wasn’t very expensive when we split the cost. We ate at the prom, and afterward we all had ice cream sundaes. All in all, we didn’t really spend an outrageous amount and I had a great (and SOBER) time.

  15. I just found your great site through your article “Free admission to hundreds of museums” on MSN. Love your writing style. As to proms, I can speak from recent experience. My 17-year-old granddaughter, who is a sophomore at a military-base school in TN, went to prom with her senior boyfriend in May of this year. Yes, she got a $300 dress, which made her look like a princess, was classy and beautiful, and which her dad paid for in 3 lay-away payments at a small locally-owned boutique. The cleaners wanted $100 for alterations, so since I’m an experienced seamstress, I did the hemming and alterations. She and her boyfriend drove his dad’s new(er) SUV, went to eat with another couple at a reasonable restaurant and his mom took photos at a local park before prom. When I went to get copies of the photos developed, the clerk at Walmart said I couldn’t print them because I didn’t have a signed copyright release! He thought they were professionally done! (I convinced him otherwise, finally.) As to why people indulge their children in these matters, I believe it is mostly keeping up with the Joneses, and also a desire to give your child what you might not have had at their age. Seeing my granddaughter looking like a princess and beaming with happiness was totally worth the outlay.

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