How Did Prom Become So Expensive? Finding a Budget That Works

Posted April 29, 2015 by

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When did graduating high school become so expensive? It feels like every other week I’m writing a check to my daughter’s high school–senior pictures, yearbook, college application fees, AP exam fees, cap and gown, graduation tassel (isn’t that part of the cap and gown?)…the list seems endless. I feel like I am hemorrhaging money! And let’s not forget all of the expenses that go along with the penultimate senior ritual: prom. There’s the dress or tux rental, shoes, hair, makeup, various accessories and flowers. And, that’s just the basics – you could also be shelling out for a limo, dinner, professional photos, tickets and clothes for the after-party. After-party? When did the prom become the Oscars?

Budgeting for Prom

Prom certainly has changed A LOT since I was in high school. I graduated in the mid ‘80s and at that time, the dress was the major expense. There were the occasional limo rentals and parties at friends’ houses when the prom was over, but it wasn’t anything like today’s after-parties with themes, five-course breakfasts, and entertainment. Even asking someone to the prom has changed. No longer is it enough to simply walk up to your secret crush and ask if s/he would like to go to the prom with you. Now it’s all about the “promposal,” which can be a simple video using a clever pun to ask your chosen one to prom, or it can include dinner at a special restaurant, sign rental, banner graphics, or some other form of over-the-top invite. Think marriage proposal without the lifelong commitment.

I read the other day that the average amount spent on prom is close to $1200. So, how does a parent rein it in so they don’t have to take out a second mortgage to finance this rite of passage?

First, set a budget. Be clear, with yourself and with your child, about how much you’re willing to spend on prom as a whole. You might even consider having your son or daughter take responsibility for part of the expense, either through earnings from a job or by doing extra household tasks. Understand you are probably going to be tempted to go a bit overboard. For most kids, there is only one prom, after all. But, you don’t have to spend $1200 because that’s “what everyone else is spending.” Granted, prom is important, but not so important that you need to spend more than you can afford trying to make it a memorable experience. It’s the experience itself that makes an event memorable, not how much money is spent.

Once a budget is set, ask your child what is most important to him/her? Does your daughter want to spend more money on her dress while doing her own hair and make-up? Is the tux all that important to your son or would he rather spend money on tickets to the after-party all his friends will be attending? This way, you can plan out how the overall budget will be divided. Giving your child a say in how it’s allotted will be a good lesson in budgeting as well.

You may find yourself feeling guilty if you’re not able to outfit your child in designer formal wear for the prom. Parenting guilt comes pretty easily after all, especially in the age of constant social media comparisons and FOMO—or “fear of missing out.” We don’t want our child to miss out on the experiences other kids are having. Unfortunately, this guilt may cause us to overspend as a way of trying to relieve our own feelings. The truth is, disappointment and learning to live within your means are a part of everyday life for most of us. When you overspend or overbuy for your child so you don’t have to experience their unhappiness, you’re also removing an opportunity for him/her to develop the skills to deal with disappointment effectively. Take some time to think about what your motivation is for buying your child the $500 prom dress or spending $300 to rent a limo to drive your son to and from the prom. Ask yourself, “am I buying this so my child doesn’t get upset, or am I buying this because it’s something I really think they should have?”

I know from experience how difficult it can be to answer this question. My daughter and I went prom dress shopping not too long ago. The first dress she tried on looked stunning on her. The price tag was also quite stunning, and about $200 over what we had set for the dress budget. I will admit, I waffled for a bit, with a little argument going back and forth in my head about how she’s only going to have one prom and shouldn’t it be special? My practical side won out and we didn’t buy that dress. She was disappointed but the world didn’t end. And, we found a dress she liked much better a couple weeks later for quite a bit less.

For those of you who have already spent too much, let me say—I can feel your pain. While I may have been able to stick to the budget for prom, there have been times when I have let my desire for the perfect childhood experience get the better of my judgement and spent way more than I had planned or budgeted for. It happens. The intent behind overbuying is based on both love for your child and the desire to be a good parent. The desire for your child to be happy and not have to experience discomfort or embarrassment is normal. No one likes to see someone they love suffer. My advice is, recognize where you may have slipped up and figure out a way to curb that impulse the next time.

About

Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.

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