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The $500 senior picture

Expensive photos, a $379 class ring, a $600 senior trip -- does 12th grade really have to cost so much?

By Donna_Freedman Oct 9, 2012 11:42AM

Logo: Teens in limousine (IT Stock Free/PictureQuest)Over on BlogHer, a woman who writes under the pseudonym "Free Penny Press" took on after the tradition of senior photos. Her son's sitting and prints cost $400. And don't get her started on the $90 yearbook.

"That's as much as a Steinbeck limited-edition book. So I skip my electric bill this month so he can buy a book full of faces," she "wrote in the post "Senior year hollers: Avoiding bankruptcy and using common sense."


Lucky she doesn't live near Baltimore, or she'd feel pressured to shell out for a banner with her son's name, a sign for her yard and a bow to stick on the mailbox around graduation time. Jeannette Dennis paid $75 for those items when her son graduated six years ago.

"In our area it's almost as if you're not normal if you don't do this. I kind of caved in to the feeling that it was expected," Dennis says.

In all, Dennis and her husband spent more than $1,400 on items like the yearbook, a yearbook ad, cap and gown, graduation announcements, and prom tickets, clothing and flowers. That doesn't count things like standardized testing fees, college applications, campus visits, the baccalaureate dinner, a sports team dinner or a graduation party.

Memories cost money

When did 12th grade get so expensive? And how can parents hold the line?

Short form: It's tough, but it's not impossible.

I can hear some teens (and parents!) wailing right now: "But you can't put a price tag on memories!"

To which I say: Some industries sure don't have a problem doing that. For example, Dennis spent $379 on her son's class ring, which he no longer wears. "Quite honestly, I don't even think that he knows where it is," she says.

The senior trip cost $600, but her son had to pay for it himself. And that $70 yearbook? He opened it once that she knows of -- to show it to his sister, now a high-school junior.

Christy McElroy's home-based medical transcription business was drying up and her husband had been laid off when their daughter hit senior year. They were matter-of-fact about the situation: The graduation industry exists to make money, and the family had none to spare.

A few of their strategies: no class ring, senior photos during a sale at a chain photography studio, prom dress from the Macy's clearance rack, backyard barbecue for the grad party.

"Many 18-year-olds really don't have a clue, don't realize mom and dad are not bottomless ATMs," says McElroy, of Puyallup, Wash.

'How much the world costs'

The 12th grade is a time of maximum emotion and excitement. Many teens have no perspective about where they'll be a year hence. (Hint: It is light-years away, psychologically, from senior homeroom.)

What might help: Asking a cousin or family friend who graduated a couple of years ago to weigh in. How long did she keep the souvenir "Class of 2011" tassel hanging from the rear-view mirror? How often does he wear that high-school letter jacket?

Deb Kelson, an at-home parent of six in Harrisburg, Ore., suggests bringing the teen into the equation and being upfront about what the family can afford: "You determine what you want, and we can work together to get it, as long as it stays within the budget."

Doing this will open your teen's eyes to "just how much the world costs," Kelson says.

You might not be able to put a price on memories. As adults, though, we can reduce the amount on the tag.

How did you handle senior photos, class rings and other "necessities"?

More on MSN Money:

Oct 9, 2012 3:05PM
Daughter just graduated.  Senior portraits taken by me (Mom with digital SLR), announcements personalized and ordered through Shutterfly.  No yearbook.  Daughter and her close friends had a field day with their digital cameras instead and created a photobook of their favorite pics (again, ordered through Shutterfly).  More personal and pics are actually of people they know and like! No class ring ordered, but Grandma passed down her high school ring from 1956 (just sitting in her memory box)  to daughter who is oldest grandchild - MUCH more special and personal AND daughter cherishes it and wears it proudly (not even same h.s!).   
Oct 9, 2012 3:54PM
My mom and step-dad gave me a senior ring (around $90 in the 70's), the cap and gown (really cheap materials) and the graduation announcements (none of which I mailed).  No prom dress or grad party, no senior trip.  We were working class and had lots of medical bills.  They had no problem saying "no". 
Oct 11, 2012 2:57PM

This is becoming a racket second only to the wedding industry. My daughter graduated in May. I bought the yearbook for $75 (saved by ordering early) but passed on the school ring. Once a kid is in college, they will never wear a high school ring. And the prices of the rings were in the hundreds. They made me buy the cap and gown even though I still had my older daughter's. Why are we buying caps and gowns instead of renting them? What are we supposed to do with them after graduation especially if we aren't allowed to pass them down?

The answer to most of this stuff is simple: parents have to learn to say no. We're supposed to be saving for retirement, not buying 20 different mementos.

Oct 11, 2012 12:23PM

Daughter is currently a senior.  Went with JC Penneys for senior portraits for a total of $30 because we are portrait club members.  Did this for our oldest 3 years ago.  Class rings - up to them.  Both decided the $300 wasn't worth the number of hours their minimum wage jobs would take.  Oldest bought a nice $100 ring because she likes jewelry, next went for a $20 ring as a momento.  School pushes the class rings real hard due to a "ring ceremony" but any ring will do.


Will buy the announcements through the school.  Too lazy to format and print our own, but that's only about $90. 


Real cost for senior year is the college applications and test score sendouts.

Oct 10, 2012 8:20PM

I have no problem spending money on a yearbook, and even a class ring. These are items I still have from my senior year in 1983. And yes, I have looked at my yearbook and my daughter liked looking at the fashions and such of that time. As a matter of fact, I still have MY mom's yearbook from the 1940s. I will spend no money on the cap and gown if I have any choice in the matter. They are cheap material and, let's face it, can you ever see a time it will be worn again?


I have heard nothing about a senior trip, but that could be that my kids, both seniors this year, realize that money is tight and that is not something we could afford to do. As for photos, well, I work for a photo company that does senior pictures. We will do what we can as far as other "necessities". I am sure there will be things they would like to have, but we can't afford everything. If they want these things badly enough, they will have to earn or save the money themselves.


One of the best things we have done is to open savings and checking accounts for the kids. Throughout high school they have been learning how the real world works financially. I believe they are better off than a lot of kids when it comes to understanding that we are not a bottomless source of money.


Oct 13, 2012 1:12AM

I am a high school teacher who used to be over the yearbook, and I also used to work at a jewelry store. Here are a few of my tricks:

1. A lot of high schools sign a contract with their photography companies saying that they will not use any other individual class portraits than those offered by that company. When the yearbook advisor goes to load the class portraits into the yearbook, they come straight off of the photography company's picture CD. To save money, opt for the free/low cost individual portrait to get your child's picture in the yearbook. Then, go elsewhere to have the rest of his/her senior portraits made and purchase your packages there. (Keep in mind, though, the school gets a cut of the profits from class pictures. They might lose money that's used for school technology programs or scholarships. You weight the decision.)

2. Instead of buying an expensive class ring that many students don't wear after senior year, visit your local jewelry store. Some teens are smartly opting to buy a less expensive ring from their local jewelers with their graduation date, high school name, or initials engraved on the inside (or the outside if you wish). They can pick a stone that is either one of their school colors or their birthstone. Then, they have a ring that is appropriate to wear for life. (And cheaper, too!)

3. When purchasing a senior ad in the yearbook, think about splitting the cost and the page with your child's friends (and their parents).I've had up to four kids split one page. In the center they included a picture of them together as children. (Not a good idea for boyfriends and girlfriends, though.)

4. For prom, encourage your local high school to have a dress resale day. Students donate their old dresses. They receive vouchers from a parent or teacher in charge of the event. Then they pay a small, adjusted price for a gently used dress. The proceeds can either benefit the school, a scholarship program, or prom, in general.

5. If you want to buy a yearbook, ask your high school if they have a payment plan. Some yearbook company's will break the cost into two or three payments. However, keep in mind that most schools' annual staffs raise money to lower the cost of the yearbook. The price that they pass forward to the students is most likely the exact amount per book that the school is paying. Costs have also risen tremendously for the book companies, too.

6. Encourage your school to rent caps & gowns. However, this may be difficult as the sales of caps & gowns also earn the school a check. Perhaps there is a compromise. Maybe the school can earn the same amount of money off of a smaller rental fee. Also, keep in mind that every child is guaranteed a "free public education." They cannot legally keep your child from graduating because of the inability to pay school fees unless it is a private school.

7. Instead of buying the advertised senior announcements and graduation cards, check prices online. Many internet-based companies are a lot cheaper.

8. Finally, with Christmas just around the corner, consider making your own "gift certificates" for senior expenses like trips, yearbooks, senior ads, etc. Encourage your family members to do the same. AND a little known fact is that if you make a senior ad, your school's yearbook staff can usually give you a PDF copy on a flash drive or CD. Take this to your local photo print store (like Wolf Camera), and you can have the senior ad blown up into a poster for under $40. It makes a nice wall decoration for college, and you can announce the complete gift of the senior ad at the same time!


Best of luck to all of you hard-hit senior parents out there. Us teachers know it's tough, too, because we are also feeling tremendous financial hits with the current economic climate. Support education, and remember when you vote, economists have proven educating our children is one of the best way to ensure we strengthen our economy!

Oct 9, 2012 5:31PM
We just did a sitting for class pictures and ordere no pictures. He went to the senior party but it wasn't too expensive since they start raising money for it since freshman fundraising. Always get a yearbook, and of course cap and gown. He had no interest in proms or rings. Left us more money to just give him some cash for a gift. Who doesn't like cash!
Oct 9, 2012 7:26PM

Dtr graduated in June.  Everyone warned me just how expensive Senior year can be.  She did get a class ring- wore it for a year and a half.  She went off to college and it now sits in her jewlery box.  The 2012 tassel is hanging in the car that did NOT go to campus.  I paid $300 for senior pictures, did them through the school and I think they came out nice.  Prom was $120 total between shoes, dress.  She helped pay for the $75 yearbook. Senior trip was $500- it was with her friends from orchestra, she gave some money for it, grandparents paid for some, we paid for some.  Paid $75 for cap, gown and announcements.  Couldn't get away with no announcements since family is scattered all over the country and they wanted to know.


We went out for dinner after graduation.  Granparents paid (because they never see us and they wanted to).  Graduation party was in our backyard.  Husband grilled hamburgers, the grandmas made sides.  Though husband said he will never grill for that many people again (25 people or so), since getting food catered was almost as cheap as us feeding everyone.  It was more of a week-long celebration, we had family come in from 3 different states and they all stayed about a week

Oct 13, 2012 9:52AM
I totally agree with putting the teen in the equation. My daughter wanted a class ring we made her pay half. My son did not and we gave him the money to use on his senior trip. We put the ball in their court with limits and they made the decisions on what they wanted. My son and daughter wanted big graduation parties so we got a few of their friends together and shared the cost of one large party in our backyard. The kids and the parents had a blast getting ready and participating in the festivities.
Oct 12, 2012 12:35PM
Perfect word, racket. After 11 yrs. of 40 dollar packages just to be hit with 400 at 12th grade? Luckily my son didn't want a ring and as a boy the prom costs were manageable. Then the after prom party tickets and transportation. But the tours of colleges and the other collegeboard racket is a total scam to charge nearly 15.00 for each school. 
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.