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The shocking cost of the senior prom

The average tab is now $1,078. Yes, really. But it doesn't have to be.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 25, 2012 1:45PM
Image: Prom couple (© Tim Jones/Getty Images)A national survey by Visa indicates that families will spend $696 to $1,944 on their kids' prom costs. That's a 33.6% increase over the 2011 average expenditure.

Startling, huh? But it gets worse: Parents who make less than $20,000 a year plan to spend more than the national average. They'll fork over $1,200 for this evening to remember.

Trouble is, the kids may not remember it for very long. Do you remember yours? Pop quiz: What color were the flowers in your girlfriend's corsage? Where did you eat before the prom? Do you still have the photos?

Post continues after video.

"The prom is a high school dance, not a wedding," notes Visa spokesman Jason Alderman, "and parents need to set limits in order to demonstrate financial responsibility."

Good luck with that. After all, the parents surveyed are willingly paying nearly two-thirds of the prom costs.

I don't think you need to drop a small fortune on a school party. And I'm reaching out to you, the readers, for tips on keeping costs down while preserving the fun.

Frugal yet magic

It's an uphill battle, since expectations get larger every year. Some teens expect mani-pedis and professional makeup jobs, glittering gowns and glamorous tuxes, limousines the size of studio apartments, hotel rooms for after-parties.

But not every adolescent expects a prom-night version of "My Super Sweet 16." Ann, a South Carolina reader, "lucked out" with her daughter's 2011 bash. Laura has a lot of cousins and, by extension, an impressive selection of loaner gowns. She bought "sparkly" shoes cheaply online, and Ann found a brand-new sequined bag at a thrift store.

A classmate's parents hosted a formal dinner for 15 promgoers, eliminating the cost of a restaurant meal. One of the dads took pictures and later put them on CDs for each teen -- no need for those pricey, stiffly posed portraits.

"We could have spent more," Ann said, "but it wouldn't have (made the evening) any more fun."

In a post on the Moneycrashers personal finance site, blogger Casey Slide acknowledges that the prom is a big deal to teens. "But it's only one night out of their entire lives," she says.

"Talk to your kids about the budget you've set aside for the prom and work together on ways to save money, without squashing the fun."

Got any tips to share?

Remember, "budget" does not translate to "no fun at all." It means being creative. For example, Slide notes that wrist corsages are all the rage but they're more expensive than the traditional type. Her solution: Get the pin-on type, then use a ribbon to tie it to a wrist.

That's the kind of clever, common-sense tactic I'm hoping readers will share. What techniques would you suggest to keep prom costs reasonable?

You can leave the tips below or e-mail them to I'll run the best ones next week.

To get the ball rolling, here are a few ideas I've already received:

Skip the souvenirs.
Andrea, who blogs at So Over Debt, says her $40 prom favors -- a photo frame and a gel candle -- were "a complete waste of money."

A professional face.
Schedule an appointment for a makeover at a department store's cosmetics counter, suggests Kimberly of The Girl Next Door's Guide to Finance. Technically this service is free; in reality, it's expected you'll buy something. Get a lip color or mascara you know you'll use.

Thrift-store tuxes.
"You could rock a 'Dumb & Dumber' look for under $15 super-easily, and then you have it for Halloween too. Of course, it takes some confidence -- and a date with a sense of humor -- to pull it off," says blogger J. Money of Budgets Are Sexy.


Thrift-store gowns. "Plenty of gals get rid of their prom dresses. You see a decent number of bridesmaids' dresses there, and some of those might pass as prom dresses," says Abigail Perry of I Pick Up Pennies. (Full disclosure: Perry, who has written for MSN Money’s Smart Spending blog, is my daughter. For her own prom she drove my Nissan Sentra with a "COMPACT LIMO" sign in the window.)

Choose the right date.
Here's a tongue-in-cheek suggestion from Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling: Invite a girl whose parents are really strict. "They'll never let her go to the after-party, so you'll automatically save money."

More on MSN Money

Apr 25, 2012 3:35PM
And then we wonder why people are so far in debt. Until we start setting limits for ourselves and our children we will continue to enable them. We all need to learn that it's not about the money we spend.It's about the time we spend with each other.
Apr 25, 2012 5:37PM
Do I ever yearn for the "GOOD OLD DAYS", No Florists ripping you off or The Tuxedo People . My ride was my 1965 Mustang and we went to the Shore to see the sunrise. Cost me a couple of Tolls and some gas. The Sunrise was Free ! And my Prom date, she still watches the sunrise every day with me for the last 45 Years  ! ! It doesn't get any better than that.
Apr 25, 2012 5:19PM
Exactly who is the prom for. The parent or the kid.  That is why these kids are so awful -- they are
spoiled to death.  Do they have jobs to help pay for all this "necessities"?  No wonder this country is in such a mess.

Apr 25, 2012 4:56PM
Limo's, mani-peds???? Really? You want the works, get a job and save for it! 
Apr 25, 2012 5:24PM
For my senior prom this year, which is just two weeks away, I purchased a $200 dress, half off, am wearing the same heels as last year and found jewlery 30% off. I've only spent $130 of my OWN money and the only thing I have left to buy is my ticket since a friend's parent is offering to make dinner for a group of us. Everything again was purchased with the money that I have earned this year working. People crazy enough to spend over $1000, well they should go out and get a part time job and pay for it themselves. Maybe that would make them think twice about spending that much.
Apr 25, 2012 2:57PM









Apr 25, 2012 3:38PM

Jr/Sr Prom 1965. Went as a junior. No one I wanted to go with as a senior. Cost of tux rental 29.95,

flowers ( white  and pink roses ) 13.95, ticket to dance 15.00, after dance dinner 45.00, drove my dad's new 65 mustang convertible. Still have pictures. If you allow your son or daughter to spend more than $500 your out of your mind as a parent! It's just a dance.

Apr 25, 2012 3:50PM
Wow I guess being a hick can come in handy. My son is borrowing his grandfather's 1960 Chevi, can't remember the exact car but it has bench seats front and back with a slider window in the rear. He is the official driver for the event taking two other couples in "the car". He owns a suit we bought for his brother's wedding, which he has worn to three other dances, just change the shirt and tie. Thankfully he has quit growing up, now he's just getting muscled. Dinner at a friend's house whose mom is one of those chef type people and off to prom for under $100.00. Oh and no after party everyone has to work in the morning.
Apr 25, 2012 6:42PM
for my prom i looked the most beautiful with:
 a gorgeous home-made gown that my mom made for me out of fancy fabrics she had laying around in the house. 

My boyfriend and i spent about 15 dollars on gas getting there.  My mom did my hair with your average straighter, i did my own makeup.

 my mom made a corsage for me and my boyfriend out of ribbons and lace she had in her fabrics drawer and flowers from our garden, my older sister had a gorgeous  pair of beautiful lace shoes that she let me borrow(surprising because she always complains that i 'ruin' her stuff).

and i bought i beautiful clutch from dsw. in all, i probably spent  $70

Apr 25, 2012 5:14PM
I went to prom for under $150, incuding the cost of my ticket. Got my dress at Goodwill, no fancy limo or dinner, and still had a good time.
Apr 25, 2012 6:09PM
My son bought a used tux from a tuxedo rental for $99 and wore it to three proms, his own wedding and 2 other friend's weddings before he passed it on to his younger brother. A classic tux never goes out of style and is worn very little. Definitely got our monies worth.
Apr 25, 2012 4:57PM

I have a son attending prom this year and we live in a major US city and these national numbers are crazy!! The same people spend hundreds of dollars when their children graduate elementary school and middle school! It is just pure stupidity- no wonder all these teens are running around feeling so entitled. My son was outraged at how much a tux cost to rent $150. We got lucky and purchased one for $105 with alterations. If my younger son can't wear it next year then I will just sell it and recoup some of the cost. Tickets are probably $50 each (not sure because it is at his girl friend’s HS so her family bought them) there will be NO limo, NO hotel room and NO costly after party! The parents will gather before hand and take pictures -so no souvenir package necessary. They are going to dinner at a nice but not outrageous restaurant which will probably cost $80-$100 (if they get dessert) and if they decide to go bowling or do something silly and memorable after the dance then he will pay for it with his own money. So I calculate our family cost at less than $200 because the group decided not to even have flowers! I don’t know what her family is spending, but I know I have raised my boys to respect their hard earned dollars and spend them wisely, not like fools!

Apr 25, 2012 5:14PM
I offered my daughter $300 NOT to go to her Senior prom (she had been to proms the previous two years). She took the money and never looked back.  Win-win for both of us!
Apr 25, 2012 6:22PM
Stupid is as Stupid does - no wonder kids today have no self control and expect everything on a silver platter
Apr 25, 2012 6:53PM
My prom is this weekend, and when reading this I can't help but feel these families are doing a bit to much. I didn't even spend over 100 dollars over my dress. And I think my dress is amazing. I mean its a dress you are going to wear one night probably in your life. I get that prom is a big thing for us seniors, I myself are extremely excited. But I'm not spending three of my paychecks on my dress and other items. :)
Apr 25, 2012 5:37PM
Don't go I didn't and never missed not going.
Apr 25, 2012 4:25PM
CRAZY!  My dress was one I used for another event, we went out to dinner afterward, but "back in the day" there were no limos, no mani-pedis, none of that stuff.  I think the ticket was $10.  Flowers were probably about $15. and dinner was the highlight at $30.  Parents took pictures.  Yes I still remember it well 46 years later.....
Apr 25, 2012 4:22PM
I graduated in 1982.  I wore the same dress to both my Junior and Senoir prom.  Not  like anyone remembered.
Apr 25, 2012 6:29PM
I graduated from high school in 1970. Only nerds, suck-ups, and young republicans went to the prom. In retrospect, I probably short changed myself and missed out on some good memories. However, any parent that would pay over a grand to vicariously live the "prom dream" through their children is just making their kids into the next useless generation of self centered Americans.
Isn't the experience of getting dressed up, going out to dinner, and "proming" with all your friends supposed to be the fun of prom?  I do not see pissing away money on limos, and whatever else as adding to this experience.
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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.