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How do you combat prom inflation?

Written by William Cowie - 6 Comments

This post is from new staff writer William Cowie.

Prom inflation? There’s such a thing now? Seriously? Yep.

Visa evidently thinks prom spending is significant enough that they’re spending money doing an annual survey about how much people are going to spend on proms.

The 2013 report just came out a few weeks ago. What did it say?

New records

Recession, schmecession, prom spending is expected to set new records this year. Check out the chart below:

If 40 percent over two years is not inflation, what is?

The prudent ones among us, who routinely budget for planned expenses, would have had to put away close to $100 per month for the past year to pay for this year’s shindig. How much will it be next year?

Prom debt

However, something tells me that saving ahead of time is probably not happening all that much. What gives me that idea?

Clue #1: Credit card company survey sponsor. Do you think Visa would spend good money reporting on something people bought for cash? Out of interest I Googled “Visa survey on grocery spending” and came up empty. Think about it: if you made your money from people incurring debt, would you be interested in a class of spending that in most cases does not involve debt? Me neither.

Clue #2: Those with an annual income of less than $50,000 plan to outspend those earning over $50,000. Does it make you shake your furrowed-brow head, too?

Clue #3: Single parents plan to spend almost double what married parents spend. $1,563 to $770. Slow down and let that sink in: single parents usually make less than a married household, and spend almost double on prom night.

So, what are the chances that the higher spending by lower income earners is funded with credit card debt? Pretty high, I suspect. (Visa didn’t disclose that percentage, but in the past month they launched a new smart phone app, Plan’it Prom, to, well, you guessed it, plan out the prom, 21st century style.)

So, not only is the spending on prom nights rising to record levels, but it probably is funded by a disproportionate amount of debt.

What?

According to Kit Yarrow, a consumer research psychologist, ”prom is the new wedding.” When you look at where the money is going, it’s easy to see her point.

The big-ticket item is the dress or the tux. Some will spend upward of $300 on a dress, worn one night, although that probably wouldn’t be the average.

Then there’s the venue. The school hall doesn’t cut it any more. (Wait, you mean there are actually people who once had their prom in a school hall?)

Well, how are you going to get your fancy bottom to said fancy venue? In a fancy limo, of course. Maybe a party bus? Borrowing Dad’s car to take your date to the prom and having her back in her parents’ home by 11pm is so… hey, did they even have a century when people did that?

So, once the well-dressed young adult has arrived in stylish wheels to the fancy venue, how can you just end right there? And so the after-party was born.

I didn’t mention the pre-prom tan, because I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. The prommers apparently do it, though. Add it to the tab, Dad.

Why?

Those among us who are older are no doubt aware that prom night has always been an important event. But important didn’t always equate to spending at this debt-inducing level. Why, then, has prom spending skyrocketed?

Perhaps a form of peer pressure (“C’mon, Mom, I don’t want to be the one left behind!”) is partly responsible for ballooning prom budgets?

However, the stat mentioned above which shows single parents outspending married parents two to one makes one wonder if prom night isn’t some attempt, conscious or unconscious, by a parent to have a “do-over” to recapture the romance of a time with no responsibility beyond being home at a certain time.

Or could it be that the recession is over and any occasion to step out and celebrate is a welcome distraction from the hard times we all went through?

By far the most troubling thought to me is that this one night will be the highlight of a young adult’s life. Can that be? Is there nothing better in someone’s future than prom night? Isn’t that just the most depressing thing you heard all year?

Why do you think prom spending is rising so quickly? Especially among those who seemingly can least afford it?

Advice

How do you feel about the level of prom spending? Do you feel it’s getting out of hand, or is this just part of the new normal? What do you feel is a reasonable budget? How much of that budget should the parents pay for?

More importantly, what advice would you give to parents with teens getting ready for prom night?

Published on May 15th, 2013
Modified on May 28th, 2013 - 6 Comments
Filed under: Consumer, Family & Life, Polls

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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6 Responses to “How do you combat prom inflation?”

  1. 1
    Jenny @ Frugal Guru Guide Says:

    There’s a website called This Is Why You’re Fat, showcasing the horrible things that some people eat. This type of spending on prom could be showcased at a similar site, This Is Why You’re Poor.

  2. 2
    R S Says:

    I saw the numbers and thought “no way!”. Then I actually went through and calculated my own expenses (back in 2000), definitely spent around $500 total. That was dinner, limo, tickets, dress, hair, nails, makeup, shoes, pictures, and the after-prom party.

    I guess it helped that I got my dress 6 months in advance, and makeup & shoes later, so the expenses were spread out. Limo and prom tickets had to be booked in advance by atleast a month, as well.

    I didn’t go to every homecoming dance or prom as junior & a senior. So it was a one time big event. I get the feeling it was something they had saved up for.
    They encouraged me to get makeup (never had any before prom) and go out and get my hair & nails done. It wasn’t my suggestion, nor was it a keeping-up-with-the-Jones issue. It was simply something they wanted me to experience.
    I know a couple of my friends had budget issues, so they did their own hair & nails and/or got jobs to cover what their parents thought was excessive. Pretty much everyone’s parents were ok with covering the limo, tickets, dinner, clothes & after-prom.

    It’s a great teaching opportunity. Let your kids figure out/estimate all their costs, at the end of junior year. Then work with them on it. If you have kids that want to cover their date, let them be responsible for those costs. Plus it’ll give them time to get a summer job ;)

  3. 3
    William Says:

    You’re right in that it is a great opportunity for parents to teach kids good lessons, even while blessing them. Good point!

  4. 4
    first step Says:

    I have 2 HS aged daughters, and we’ve “bribed” them not to go to prom. I’m not sure what that says about us, but they must not have been that interested in going, or they wouldn’t have accepted the “bribe.” Instead of paying for prom expenses, we’ve offered them other opportunities such as concert tickets or other experiences that will likely produce better memories than prom. Our costs have been much lower than the prom expenses in the article, and our teens seem happy. None of their friends have raved about how much fun they had at prom, so my girls don’t feel that they’ve missed out on a great time.

    I would much rather help pay for formals at college, and by then they should have jobs that will offset some of the expenses. My college dances/events were much more enjoyable and memorable, and that’s what we’ve advised our daughters to wait for.

    We also won’t purchase HS class rings and will offer a a college class ring or a “real” ring that won’t be discarded after HS graduation, their choice.

  5. 5
    getagrip Says:

    For my son, tux, dinner, prom ticket, his share of the limo, all told maybe $400-500 spread over about two months.

    Same for daughter and her date and likely similar for their siblings.

    My son’s date, a single child of well off parents, I’d guess at $2000-2500. $1000 alone for the dress, at least $500-1000 for new jewelry and dress matching clutch purse, something like $200-300 for new shoes, $200 for hair and prep-work.

    I can see where people go overboard, especially if they only have one or two kids, but many times the PTA’s and kids fundraise to bring down the ticket cost of the venue or after prom activities, buses are rented or limo rides shared, etc. So I don’t see where it has to be so expensive.

    To be honest I didn’t attend my prom and had no expectation of my kids attending theirs. So I certainly wasn’t going to be putting a lot of money into it. If they wanted more than we offered, it came out of their pockets from their jobs. So that likely helped keep costs down.

  6. 6
    FrugalCat Says:

    I looked back at my prom expenses (way back in 1989) and they were similar to RS’s above. My parents helped me out with only the dress ($125) and I had to pay for the rest with my babysitting and part time job money. Even back then I thought it crazy to get a fancy limo or party bus. I did spring for some shoes, purse, flowers, etc. What memory is most clear about the prom? My date and I each chugging a pint of schnapps (peppermint for him, peach for me), him throwing up, then having us pass out after some horrible sex.
    At least I was able to wear the dress again. Three years later, I attended the prom of a guy I worked with. This time I was the mature one supplying the alcohol.

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