Soaring and ‘genuinely silly’ prom costs prompt families to budget for big dance

Tim Skillern
The Lookout

Don’t call this prom cheap. It’s more like financially sane.

When Kim Jacobs Walker’s son, Devon Pankratz, told her he had decided to attend his high school prom this spring, it was “a happy surprise,” she says. Pankratz, 18, had never been to a school dance, and she had hated to see him miss out on a teenage rite of passage.

Walker was chagrined, however, by the $55 per ticket price tag. Her prom—a four-course, sit-down affair at a four-star hotel in Houston in 1983—was basically free. Her junior class, she says, covered the costs through bake sales, magazine sales and concession sales at basketball games.

But it’s not 1983 anymore, and prom costs have crept higher and higher. According to Visa’s annual survey released last week, parents plan on coughing up $1,078 on average for their kids’ proms this year. That’s a 33 percent increase over 2011, when families spent $807, says Visa.

Two of the more staggering figures: Parents in the northeastern United States are budgeting $1,944 for the dance; and nationwide, families in the $20,000 to $29,000 income bracket are doling out the most—$2,635 for prom—about three times as much as a family that makes more than $75,000.

Prom can be fun for much less, right? That’s one question Yahoo News asked families around the country this week. We also wanted to know: Is dropping a grand on a dance outrageous? Or is that what we pay for a once-in-a-lifetime party? In an economy still rotten for many, how do budgeting families shave costs and still make prom, well, prom?

“I feel the same about the high cost of prom as I do about the soaring costs of everything else," Walker, who lives in Austin, wrote in a first-person account for Yahoo News this week. "It's a reflection of the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Those who still have well-paying jobs are being preyed upon by businesses who know they will spend whatever they have to. Parents want to give their kids everything, and businesses are—logically—taking advantage of this.”

So Walker and her son budgeted $25 for his date’s wrist corsage of white roses and purple ribbons, bought from the local grocery story; $25 for dinner before the prom; $4 per game of black-light bowling after prom; and $110 for a lower-end tux from a rental shop (because, as Walker says, “the sales people will quickly tell you that no self-respecting teenager would wear the economy suit” priced at $59.99).

“These days, outfitting a boy for prom is at least as expensive, if not more so than dressing a girl,” she says.

Add in the 55 bucks for the ticket, and they spent about $220, far from the $1,000 tab the average family is admitting to.

Most importantly: Did Pankratz enjoy prom?

Walker says he told her that "'the best part was the bowling.'"

“I guess he could have done that without the tuxedo,” she says.

Unromantic? Perhaps. Inexpensive? For sure

Dalton Gilbert did, in fact, decide against the tux.

The 16-year-old and his friends opted to dress down for their prom in the Denver suburbs last year, when he and four friends (there were four couples and one went stag) attended prom in dress shirts and jeans.

“Our family doesn't have much wiggle room in our budget for events like prom, which, unfortunately, cost upward of $500,” shared Nannette Gilbert, Dalton’s mom, in her first-person story. She and her husband contributed $100 toward the costs.

He barely spent that. After eschewing a $70 rental tux and forgoing a $75 limo ride to instead carpool in a friend’s mom’s Suburban, Gilbert's only costs were $20 for a wrist corsage, $30 for each prom ticket and $10 for the after-prom party. They ate dinner at IHOP for $40. (Dalton ordered a steak; his date opted for the shrimp.)

“I thought this was a bit unromantic,” his mother says. “I think his prom date night would have been more romantic with a tux rental and limo. But, more importantly, they all had a great time.”

‘Splurging’ $107 on prom

In Davis, Calif., Jennifer Wolfe and her 16-year-old daughter, Lily, found frugality in numbers.

Rather than spending wads of cash on fancy individual dates and dinner, Lily and her friends threw a “group primping party” at her house this year.

Jennifer Wolfe explains: “Nine girls trickled in our front door during the early evening and immediately began flat ironing and curling each other's hair; they enjoyed the time together, and it didn't cost a cent. Makeup and fragrance took a similar route: Applied on each other, they giggled and fussed until each one looked stunning.”

The preprom party included "sparkling apple cider in champagne flutes for $8 and two extra-large take-n-bake pizzas for 20 bucks," Wolfe continues. Other families stopped by to snap photos before the girls carpooled to prom. “No outrageous limo costs for this group of girls!” she says.

The biggest expense, as it is for most, was the dress: “We knew it would be hard to match last year's find (a bright red strapless number from Macy's for only $10), and ultimately she found her dream dress online—for $79," says Wolfe. "It was definitely more than I would have liked to spend, but the dress was just perfect for her so we ‘splurged.’”

While Visa says that families in the western United States will spend an average of $744, Wolfe notes that “our family didn't spend anything close to that. Our bill came to a grand total of $107, and I dare anyone to prove that the average prom-going California girl had $637 more worth of fun than my girl did.”

$1,000-plus proms are 'silly'

“You can't beat free,” Lyn Brooks says.

When the Virginia mother of four began tabulating the cost of her daughter Cierra’s 2011 prom, she spotted a trend: Zero dollars goes a long way. A friend’s mom styled the younger Brooks' hair and cosmetics for free and the family took their own photographs. A limousine was out of the question.

Her daughter's dress—“a strapless, two-toned royal and periwinkle blue, taffeta and tulle, full-length prom dress with sequins, beads and multi-tiered bodice,” describes Brooks—dominated the costs, but at $120, the dress that retailed for $400 was a steal.

“Several of my friends either rented their kids' formal attire or shopped at consignment shops and then altered their find,” Brooks says. “I've noticed the best department store deals can be found by either shopping in June or July at the end of the prom season, or beginning your search early in January or February.”

Mother and daughter spent $190 total, and because Cierra reused her accessories for a JROTC ball that year, the price tag for two formal events came to $235—“much cheaper than what many will pay this year for their child to attend one prom," says Lyn Brooks.

She adds, “I've always thought that buying clothes on credit or paying what I feel is a ridiculous amount for clothing, especially for a one-time event, is genuinely silly."