Mary’s 17-year-old daughter is in the heart of prom season.
And, hearing how Mary describes the experience, it’s understandable why she doesn't want her real name used for this story.
“It's shocking how this has become an almost wedding-like event,” she said. “First you have the 'promposal' to deal with — each kid trying to outdo the next with the most creative way of just asking a date to prom.”
There’s more about “her highness,” as Mary refers to her.
“Then you have to shop for the dress. It's like these girls are in training from watching ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’ ” she continued. “We went to a boutique in Chicago — what a racket! Ended up walking out of that place with my secret savings wiped out just like that!”
If your long ago prom date consisted of your brother’s borrowed tux, a ride to the dance in a creaky Oldsmobile followed by sliders at White Castle, welcome to today’s pricey prom. The cost of stepping out has been rising steadily for years and, while recent figures show a slight drop off in spending, the days of cut-rate proms have gone the way of spats and rumble seats.
No one wants to put the kibosh on what should be a singularly special night. But it doesn’t have to leave the family credit card curled up into a ball and whimpering. Instead, as Kristin Cook, a spokeswoman for Ultimate Coupons, points out, money isn't the real issue in life's big events. “You don’t remember how much you spent. You remember the fun you had and the friends you were with.”
The average amount spent by American families on prom expenses dropped 14 percent in 2014 from the prior year, according to the “2014 Prom Spending Survey” by Visa.
That's good news — after a fashion. According to the Visa survey, American families in 2014 averaged $978 spent on the Big Night—down from $1,139 in 2013.
- The West and Northeast were the biggest average prom spenders — $1,125 and $1,104, respectively.
- Families with lower incomes (less than $50,000 annually) spent less on prom ($733) than the $50K-plus crowd ($1,151).
- Fathers spent twice as much on prom costs as mothers did ($1,357 versus $673).
There are ways to simply spend smarter. Here's a list of prom essentials and ways you can save:
1. Dresses. Dresses are a primary expense. A random online search routinely turned up prom dresses which, while occasionally as “inexpensive” as less than $100, more commonly ran into several hundred dollars and beyond.
That’s not a cost cast in stone. One strategy is tracking down a dress with a bit of mileage on it. Lori Soard, a writer from Memphis, Indiana, said she found a prom dress for her daughter at a local consignment shop for a modest $100.
Another idea is to keep an eye out for the daughters of friends and neighbors whose proms have come and gone but whose hardly used trappings remain.
“Growing up, I actually would borrow dresses from a neighbor who had a daughter who was the same size as me. Saved a lot just on that bit,” said Jennifer Haines, who operates the vintage jewelry website LivyLynn.com. “I also would look for classic style dresses during the offseason, which allowed me to purchase them at maybe 25 percent of what the cost would have been come prom time.”
2. Tuxedos. The guys don’t exactly get off cheaply, either. The average cost of renting a tuxedo is about $185, according to the website Weddingstats. Less expensive options that exclude vests and fancy handkerchiefs are available. Moreover, pay attention to style and brand, as less popular tuxes may be had for a discount. Nor is it an absolute necessity to go with a tux: “You can wear a suit you already own and spruce it up with a new vest,” said Cook.
3. Flowers. Here, it can be handy to find someone who’s an accomplished do-it-yourselfer. Amy Haley, spokeswoman for formal wear retailer Terry Costa, suggests starting with ribbon and floral tape and buy a small to medium size flower that matches the dress color. Toss in some greenery, arrange and use the floral tape to hold the arrangement in place. For step-by-step visual instructions, check out this handy online guide.
4. Hair and nails. Two other cost culprits are hair styling and nails. Beauty schools often offer cut-rate styling and makeup (delivered under the watchful eye of a qualified instructor.) And, suggested Haley, encourage your daughter to invite a few prom attending friends over for a “pedi party” to do up their nails. “Not only is it less expensive than going to a salon, it creates a sense of camaraderie,” she said.
5. The "Ride." The ride to the big event doesn’t necessarily have to be via Mom’s minivan. If the flash of a limo ride appeals, remember they can hold up to eight people or more, so get some friends to chip in on the overall expense. Maine Limousine Service in South Portland, Maine, said a four-hour rental (the minimum rental time) costs $480: "A big portion, if not a majority of our clients, split the costs with other passengers," said a company spokesman. If that's still too rich, think about car-pooling.
6. Food. Teens may dream of a sumptuous meal at a fancy restaurant as part of the prom experience, but there are ways to hold the caviar without dinging the memories. One is to host a potluck dinner party — family members and friends invited along with prom attendees — with everyone bringing a dish to share. Not only is that less expensive, but logistically sound, as everyone is together for post-meal transport to the prom or elsewhere. If you want to eat out, Livingsocial and Groupon are just a few sites offering cost-cutting coupons.
7. Photos. Naturally, every prom-goer wants to record the event with photographs. A professional photographer is nice, but not absolutely necessary, given the quality of cameras found on a smartphone. “Smartphones are a great alternative to professional photos,” said Natasha Campbell of Lifestyle Success Unlimited, a financial education company. “Photo apps like instaCollage and PicsArt Photo allow you to edit photos and create amazing images.”
And what to do if, despite all best efforts, you spend more than you wanted? Remember, that it's the memories, not the money, that matters: “For the first time in our married life, my husband actually didn't want to know how much I spent," said Mary. "I still haven't told him.”