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The high cost of the high school prom

Spending a good deal in excess of $1,000 for the prom is not unheard of in some parts. Here's how to reduce your costs.

By Karen Datko Mar 11, 2013 12:19PM

Image: Teens in limosine (© IT Stock Free/PictureQuest)A friend of mine is working extra shifts at her job to help pay for her daughter's prom.


Here's what the money is going for: The mom set a $500 limit for the dress. While many of the dresses the daughter looked at cost more than that, the one she finally picked was only $398. Also: nails, $56; pedicure, $45; hairstyling, $40 -- and those prices don't include a 20% tip. Add in tanning salon ($40), alterations to the dress (cost not yet known) and flowers (still to be determined).


The mother added, "These are the moments, though, right? The ones they call … priceless."


Or how about too pricey? Another friend, just a few years past her prom, said, "I think expectations about what prom should be are changing. Things like limos, nice dinners and nearly designer dresses were once luxurious. Now they are considered necessities for the ideal prom."


Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce the cost.


What can you expect to spend?

Prom costs vary from state to state, community to community. says the big night generally can cost anywhere from $175 to $2,100, and gives some ranges. For example: 

  • Tickets -- $20 to $250.
  • Pre-prom dinner -- $25 to $130. Just be sure a dinner isn't included in the ticket price.
  • Hair, makeup, etc. -- $30 to $275.
  • Gown -- $100 to $400.
  • Photo -- $30 to $125.
  • Limo -- "Renting a limo is an extravagant option, but it is very common. They could cost anywhere from $200 to $500." 

A story at identifies some additional costs that were unheard of 10 or 20 years ago:

"Instead of driving your date home in your father's car at the end of the dance and saying goodnight, now students are packing rented limos and party buses with 30 of their friends after the dance to an after-party, often becoming more of the 'social event' then the dance itself.
"The day after prom has also become popular for planning trips to the beach or amusement parks, or to stays at a friend's lake or vacation home. It is now a whole weekend of celebration."

One store owner said she's making pocket squares and bow ties that match the girl's dress. "If you had told me eight years ago when I opened the store that I would be bejeweling bow ties for prom I would not have believed you," Bianca Jackson told the newspaper.


The total can be an excessive amount of money to spend on an event with a date you may not even see again once you leave for college (plus it deprives your college fund of much-needed cash).


So, let's consider some ways to hold costs in line:


Set a prom budget. How much can you realistically afford? Some costs are fixed, like the prom and post-prom tickets. Now you know what you have left to spend on everything else. And if your teen wants to exceed the budget, tell that child to chip in.


Thankfully, some kids see the need to scale back. Said the blog post "Prom: Getting out of hand" at the North Central High School website (the city and state aren't identified): "After going through the 'proma' myself, my best advice would be the less you hype prom up, the more it will exceed your expectations, and the better time you'll have."


"Proma," you likely have noted, rhymes with drama.


Or you can use the approach of Jim Higley, who blogs at Bobblehead Dad. He had his daughter take charge of most of the cost:

"One of my standby strategies is to set a limit as to what I can contribute to something. As an example, when my daughter was a senior, I told her I'd contribute $100 toward her dress and accessories. Everything else was her responsibility. Setting a limit for a parent contribution can really bring out some wonderful penny-pinching qualities in kids."

Here are some cost-cutting tips:



  • Shop around, both online and at local stores. One store we found online, Bliss Bridal, says all 2012 prom dresses are now on sale for $25. Courtney Alicia Miles, a senior at King/Drew Magnet High School, told her school paper, the Golden Gazette, that she too found deals online. "I only spent like $140. I found my dress online for a discounted price, which left me room to splurge on my shoes."
  • Rent the tux or dress either online or from a local shop.
  • Buy the dress at a consignment shop. Often they've jeen worn just once, like a wedding gown. After the prom, you can resell it.
  • Borrow a dress from a friend.
  • Get help from charitable groups. Cinderella's Closet provides dresses, shoes and accessories, as well as services such as hairstyling to girls who might not be able to afford them. Check for organizations in your area. For instance, the Chicago area has the Glass Slipper Project. The University of North Carolina's Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority holds the annual Pearlfect Prom Project to collect dresses and accessories and also provide hair and makeup sessions. In New Milford, Conn., says NBC News, a high school asked people to donate gowns, which the girls got either for free or for a donation.

Other costs

  • Shoes and accessories. Think of the shoes already in your closet when selecting the dress. Also, you must know someone who has beautiful jewelry (and is willing to entrust you with it) and purses.
  • Makeup and hair. Surely you can do this yourself or get some donated help.
  • Photos. Have the photos taken at home by a talented friend or relative.
  • Dinner, if it's not provided at the prom. The father of the girl I mentioned above is an excellent cook and is making dinner for her and her date.
  • Transportation. Skip the limo and let parents drive, or carpool. Or get a big group of kids to hire a party bus.  

A long-term approach is to encourage the organizers to reduce the expense. For instance, seniors at Mountlake Terrace High School in Washington state have fundraisers throughout the year to keep the ticket cost at $25 apiece, says The Weekly Herald


"Matt F." offered his cost-cutting suggestions on Teen Ink:

"The prom could easily become less expensive if guys wore suits and girls wore nice long dresses. Having the prom in the gym and sponsored by the underclassmen would lower the ticket price. Parents could serve a special dinner at home to defer the cost of eating out."

How big a deal should prom be? Unless you eventually marry your prom date, will you really cherish those memories for many years, feeling a warm glow as you recall that special someone pinning on your flowers?


More from MSN Money:

Mar 15, 2013 8:47AM
OK, I am an old fuddy-dud, but whatever happened to the young folks EARNING the money for the prom or other things they want, not having Mommy dish it out or work the overtime for all that "fluff" for the kid? Yes, teenagers are old enough to earn it, babysit, rake leaves, deliver newspapers, flip burgers. Prom is not necessity, food, medication and heat for your house are necessity. Much of the reason young folks will forever carry debt is that they are not taught the difference of want vs need, pretty sad, and by the time they are 18 it's probably 15 years too late to start.
Mar 11, 2013 6:25PM
They forgot the birth control pills.
Mar 12, 2013 11:01AM

Article states "Now they are considered necessities for the ideal prom" ... I do not think so, it is people trying to keep up with the rich people. 

Mar 19, 2013 10:36AM
Most girls do a lot more for prom than I did for my own wedding day. Mani's, pedi's, tanning, professional hair and make-up, along with the spendy dress, shoes and accessories, all seem to be the norm now. It's really rather ridiculous.
Mar 19, 2013 5:33AM
What limo? I rode the subway to my prom.
Apr 17, 2013 1:39PM
who are these people?  There are 5 girls in my family, the ones who went to the prom wore hand me down dresses and baby sat to get extra money.  We did each other's hair and makeup, mom was driving.  Dinner at a little regular priced family place. Seriously, if my kids are "expecting" all this then they are in for a shock, better start saving now because the rest of the family isn't going to eat ramen noodles for 5 months so you can have "A perfect evening".  My parents didn't spring for all that foolishness for my sisters..  I didn't even go (science geek and not a big social person at the time)  and look, I went to college (used my GI Bill),  learned to fly and scuba dive,  have a good career, married a great guy, I'm enjoying my life...all without the benefit of a Prom and bankrupting my parents.  And I appreciate what I have because I had to earn it myself. The only reason all of this nonsense has become "the norm" is because enough silly parents have let it get that way. 
Mar 19, 2013 10:24AM
Wow, can't believe the costs sited here.  I won't say when it was but in our h.s. the junior class was responsible for planning, etc. and the jr. class members invited the members of Sr. class.  My junior year went to banquet in the h.s lunchroom that had been decorated by classmembers, and the prom was in school gym that had also been decorated.  My h.s. sweetheart was a soph. that year and thus ineligible to attend so there were about four of us guys (one of my brothers, and two others plus myself) that went to a movie, and then went to one of the guys' house and spent the night there.  My senior year the junior class had the banquet and prom at a hotel in town nearby, my h.s. sweetheart (still the same girl as year before) and I attended the banquet and prom (we left after about an hour and went to drive-in movie).  Oh yeah, no limo we took my parent's car a Ford Stn Wgn.  I don't remember what total cost for suit, shoes, etc for myself, or for my girlfriend but I know it was certainly less than $300.  Oh yeah, I provided her corsage.
Mar 19, 2013 9:45AM

I went to homecoming and skipped prom, but I would have approached it the same way:


Top:  "free" (from my closet)

Skirt:  ~$30 (including a 25% discount)

Shoes:  $5.00 (I love the thrift store)

Makeup:  My mom did mine using her makeup

Hair:  My friends would have curled mine, but I told them not to waste their time.

Nails:  I didn't do mine - but nail polish plus falsies, if so desired = ~$6.

Transportation:  Mom drove me to a friend's; we walked from there after we finished getting ready.

Dinner:  We ate dinner at home, and free refreshments (punch and cookies) were offered there.


I hadn't been planning on going, so I didn't have enough money saved up to buy "all this" so my parents paid - and after two weeks of working for my neighbors, I was able to pay them back.


MY TOTAL COST was $35.00, and I had more fun being with my friends than I did dressing up or being at the dance.  That's why I thought prom would be a waste of time and money, and never had the desire to go.  If I had gone, I would have been paying for it myself - but if my parents had paid for me, I would never have had the stupidity, selfishness, or disrespect to ask for more than that anyway.  That's a lot to spend on a dumb dance anyway; $50 is almost a whole tank of gas now!


Great Subway ride!!    


Limos are for show. Hard earned money gone within an hour or 2. Then comes the tip?


Mar 20, 2013 8:00PM
I didn't go to any dances or proms in high school. That's how I saved money.
Mar 21, 2013 6:27AM
I thought the whole idea of a "prom" was outdated back when I was in h.s., and that was in the 1960s!  I suppose in some rural areas with minimal population it could mean something, but for most places it seems peculiar. There were and are better places to get dressed up for with a significant other, and I'd rather have had a special occasion I didn't have to share with random, mostly immature and self-centered people.  After hearing so many stories about kids who spent money they couldn't easily spare, then had a miserable time because a) some people were mean, b) the cherished outfit didn't pass muster, c) the date misbehaved, d) technical difficulties, and so on and so on, it just seem a huge emotional investment with almost guaranteed poor returns.
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