The prom bubble has burst. Sort of.

thAccording to a Visa survey of 4,000 people, families will be spending 14 percent less on the prom this year.

“I think people are realizing that prom is a dance, and you don’t have to spend like a celebrity to have a great time,” says Nat Sillin, head of U.S. financial education for Visa.

While I’m glad to hear spending is down, I’m still a little startled by the average price tag: $978.

Regionally speaking, the West Coast region pays the most and the Midwest the least (although more than last year). The Northeast registered a 27 percent spending drop since last year and the South 23 percent.

Here’s how that shakes down per family, per region:

  • Western, $1,125
  • Northeastern, $1,104
  • Southern, $926
  • Midwestern, $835

Doesn’t that sound like an awful lot of money for a high-school dance?

It’s not that I begrudge any kid a nice party with friends. But show of hands: Would you spend $978 on a single night out?

Keeping costs down

The drop follows three years of steady increases that were possibly fueled by too many hours cruising reality TV and social media. (“The Rich Kids of Instagram” – really?)

As with everything in life, there’s an app for prom spending. Visa developed the free Plan’it Prom to help youths make detailed budgets and track spending as they go. (And, of course, to share via social media. If we don’t tell everyone all the details, did something really happen?)

You can get the app in the iTunes store, the Google Play store and from www.practicalmoneyskills.com/prom. What I’d like to know is where the entitlement comes from, and whether there’s an app for dispersing it.

A couple of years ago I wrote an MSN Money article called “The shocking cost of the senior prom.” Some of the readers were pretty, uh, vocal about their disapproval of the evening of excess. I invited readers to suggest cost-cutting measures, and followed up with “31 ways to slash prom costs.”

Some tried-and-true ideas were offered in both articles, including:

Forget dinner out. One woman’s daughter was invited to a formal dinner at a classmate’s home. They were served a splendid meal by waiters (parents).

Ditch the pix. With all the smartphones in use, do you really need those stiff-grin shots in front of a sparkly background? At the dinner mentioned above, one of the fathers took photos and put them on CDs for each guest.

Forget the salon. That fancy coiff is going to sweat up/fall down after a couple of fast dances. Nobody is going to remember (or even notice) what kind of nail polish you wore, either. If you’re lucky, you’ve got a friend or relative who’s good with hair, and you and your friends can do one another’s nails.

More money-savers

Or how about:

Buy a tux. Formalwear shops have sale racks. One reader told me his son spent $99 on a monkey suit that he wore to three proms and three weddings before passing it on to a younger brother. “A classic tux never goes out of style,” he said. They also show up at secondhand stores; DF has bought a couple of tuxes that way, which he and his sons have worn to all sorts of occasions.

And if you must rent? Get a bunch of guys together and call to ask the manager if you can have a group discount. Should the answer be “nope,” then look for tuxedo rental coupons on sites like Retail Me Not and Savings.com.

Don’t buy a dress. Quite a few people sent me this tip: “My daughter borrowed a dress from a friend/relative.” If your teen is dead-set on glam, keep in mind that you can lease evening wear at sites like Rent The Runway. But remind her also that the famous “little black dress” with a bit of jewelry and a sleek updo will also let her make quite the entrance.

Think “thrift.” As in, secondhand shop. My daughter suggested that plenty of young women donate their dresses. Then again, she drove my Nissan Sentra to the prom with a cardboard sign in the window: COMPACT LIMO. At that point in her life she was staring college tuition dead in its unblinking eye, and decided that every dollar she didn’t spend on stuff like limo rentals was a dollar she wouldn’t have to borrow.

Which brings me to my biggest beef: Wouldn’t a thousand bucks do a lot more good toward paying for college or trade school than for tuxes, limos, tickets, dinner out and so help me, prom souvenirs. Despite themes like “A Night to Remember,” I’d bet $978 that quite a few folks are fuzzy on the details 10 years later – or even five.

No doubt some people do have the times of their lives. I still think it’s an awfully expensive evening.

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  1. I heard these numbers on the radio last week – and nearly fell out of my chair!
    I went to *one* prom – in my last year of high school. None of this “kindergarten prom” and “junior prom” and “sophomore prom” – one prom, when you’re graduating.
    I got my dress from the clearance rack – $45 and I was stoked. A pair of shoes for $15, a hair clip that matched the dress color, and a fancy gold evening bag from Goodwill and I was set!
    My friends and I met up at one girl’s house before prom for photos – her backyard was gorgeous and full of flowers and greenery.
    The prom included dinner, and afterwards we all went back to another friend’s house and hung out until we fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning.
    It was awesome and a wonderful time – but it didn’t cost anywhere near $1000 per person!

  2. Having “sat in the front seat” in this drive down “crazy lane”…I’ll tell ya the whole prom thing has become almost a “mini wedding”. Limos….big dollar dresses…tuxs…flowers…premier locations for the prom itself…Crazy…Thank goodness this is behind us with the DD’s….

  3. lostAnnfound

    We live in the Northeast and I cannot get over that “average” price tag! We’re getting ready for senior prom for our second daughter now. We were able to find a black strapless gown in the style she wanted on the clearance rack of a local bridal store ($100.00 PLUS an additional 20% off). She bought flat black shoes for $30.00 that she can wear many times after prom (“I’m wearing a long gown so nobody is going to see my shoes”). She is going with a friend (neither one has dates) so they will drive together there. She is getting her nails done as a gift from grandma and also getting her hair done, both by our long-time hair stylist who is VERY reasonable ($5.00 for nails, $15.00 for hair). Dinner is served at the prom, so no additional cost there.

    The first daughter for her senior prom two years bought her gown off of Craigslist for $75.00, a new pair of solid colored pumps from JC Penney for $19.99 that she has used afterwards, and also had her hair & nails done by our long-time favorite hairdresser.

    Our “average” for senior prom is ~$150.00 per daughter. And we will get some of that money back when we resell the gowns on Craigslist.

    • Donna Freedman

      One of the other tips offered was “don’t worry about the shoes — no one’s looking at them and you’ll probably wind up taking them off anyway.”
      And by selling the gown on Craigslist, you’re helping some other young woman stay within her budget. Win-win!

  4. Tina in NJ

    Not only has the price gone through the roof, but guys are expected to go all out asking the girl to prom. If it isn’t a dramatic surprise, he’s being a jerk. It’s worse than a marriage proposal. The peer pressure is tremendous.

    • Donna Freedman

      Appalling, really. I wish the expectation level in this country would ratchet down a couple of thousand notches.

    • O.M.G. right? It’s crazy! Last year my daughter went to her boyfriend’s prom and he came over and lit candles on our driveway spelling out “Prom?”, and had a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I was a bit annoyed because that was more than my husband did when he asked me to marry him! :)!

      • By the way, we spent $80 for dress, and she waited to get her hair cut on prom day so she didn’t have to go twice. I think total cost w/flats (that she uses all the time) came to $140.00, and $45 of that was for her haircut and style, which we would have done anyway. My husband drove them ‘limo style’ to a restaurant (boyfriend paid) and then my husband picked them up at restaurant and brought to prom. Then picked up from prom. $1,000??? Are you kidding me!

  5. I grew up in the Midwest & attended high school dances in the early 2000s. In my hometown, hoop dresses were all the rage for homecoming & straight dresses for prom. I never gave in to the $1k hoop dresses. For two dances, I purchased dresses off the rack for about $20 each. For two other dances I had dresses made from a design I drew. Might sound pricey, but each ran under $200 (I paid for it) & they fit my petite size 0 frame to a tee, so worth every penny for me! I did splurge on hair styling ($30-40) & shoes for my [also] petite feet. I rewore the shoes. No trip to the nail salon or fancy photos.. Mom had a digital camera. Twice, friends and I split the cost of a trolly & 6 person limo. Dinner was served at prom. I *think* tickets cost around $20ish, and afterprom similar. Afterprom was a BLAST! The parents put on a big extravaganza to give something for kids to do after the dance, like carnival games, bounce houses, snacks, giveaways, etc. All in all, I probably spent a few hundred dollars each dance. The cost might seem silly to some, but I felt like I found a good balance, especially since I helped pay for most of it.

  6. We hosted the prom dinner in our house. The kids requested lasagna, bread, salad, and a dessert. My husband and I were the cook, waiter, and dishwasher. There were 8 kids, the costs were negligible, we made ourselves scarce, and parents came over afaterward to take pics. It was great! With her borrowed dress, shoes for $20 she wore later, and corsages made by one of the mothers, daughter had more fun than going out for expensive dinners!

  7. I look for dresses suitable for prom at every yard sale I visit. I buy these for about $3-$5 and resell for $6-$15 to a costume shop. She rents them for proms, parties, and Halloween or sells them. The price is still very low. I wait until I have a few dresses and make one trip to the costume shop. Oh, she buys shoes from me, too. But, I rarely buy shoes to resell to her.

    At one yard sale, the mother said the dresses go into the trash if they don’t sell. When I asked her why she did not sell them on Craigslist or donate to a thrift store, she said she was too busy. I bought three dresses for $9($3 each)and sold them for $30.

    There are two sides to the prom dress issue.

    The limo is a good choice because it assures no one drinks and drives. Parents think their child won’t drink and drive or go with a buzzed driver. This notion has resulted in too many prom night deaths to make me comfortable. My grandson was driven to his prom and picked up by his father because he did not have a license. In NYC he functioned without a license and still does.

    I styled my friend’s daughter’s hair for the prom a few years ago. It was a short bob and she wanted it up. That was a catastrophe. But, the child was very happy.

  8. We never spent more that $100 for our DDs’ dresses. In fact, I bought one for DD2 for $8 on clearance (a post prom sale–I was thinking ahead! Girls went dutch so had to buy their ticket which included dinner–another $100. The guy paid for the pictures and they split the limo costs with 4 or 5 other couples. I think that was @ $100 each. DD1 had a friend who liked to do hair so that was free. DD2 did have hers done which was @ $50. So, total for DD1 was @ $300 and DD2 $258. With tux rental, it was probably @ the same for DS as he went dutch as well.

  9. I searched for a tux and trimmings at thrift stores and found not one but 2 sets. Total–maybe $20. My son wore his and lent one to a friend.

    Somewhere in my blog is an old post about my daughter’s prom. She and her friends made gowns out of garbage bags. They looked great! I should dig that old post up.

  10. My best friend in high school was the daughter of a Methodist minister. As such, she had quite a few friends in the funeral business. She was able to get us a deal on a limo from a funeral home.

  11. Punkin Pye

    My son took a girl to her senior prom. She was the daughter of my friend who had just broken up with her boyfriend and needed a date. Since my son is extremely easy on the eyes, she had her eye on him has a potential escort. We moms did a little finagling and got him to ask her. He was actually very happy to do this because my friends daughter is equally easy on the eyes, but because he was partially doing this as a favor to us, his dad and I insisted on covering his costs. We bought him a tuxedo. Fortunately, his father works for a major retailer and we got a deep discount on the tux and shoes. The tux came in handy later for several family weddings. We made sure he provided her with a nice corsage, paid for the prom tickets, and then took her out for dinner at a very nice (read very expensive) restaurant before the dance. But instead of a limo rental (I do have limits), his dad bravely lent him our almost new Jeep Liberty for the evening. The young lady graciously offered to pay for her own prom ticket, but we insisted that he provide them. My husband and I are not usually this extravagant, but we are old fashioned and were determined to produce a son who understands how to take a young lady out for a nice evening. She frugally wore a dress that she already owned and the pictures were taken by both sets of parents. They had a wonderful time, made a beautiful couple, and the evening, though a bit pricey, did not cost anywhere near the average you quoted.

  12. OK for a gown from a garbage bag–here’s the url: http://frugalscholar.blogspot.com/2009/05/cheap-chic-garbage-couture.html
    I see I misremembered: this was for the senior breakfast. But the post notes that the prom had an India theme, so all the girls borrowed or concocted saris. There were many students of Indian descent at her school (a state residential magnet school) so many saris to choose from!

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