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How to Keep Prom Costs Under Control

Parents need to take an active role in the planning.

As I was flipping radio stations recently, I happened to hear Delilah, the radio personality, talking about how her family dealt with prom expenses. For her daughters, the tradition was to buy a dress from a consignment store and freshen it up by changing the look or adding embellishments. Each girl had a unique design, and the costs didn’t spiral out of control.

QUIZ: Parents of Teens: Test Your Reflexes

I thought about that the following day when I saw the results of a survey from Visa that showed prom spending hit an average of $1,139 per family this year, up 5% from last year. The tally varied by region: $1,528 in the Northeast, $1,203 in the South, $1,079 in the West and $722 in the Midwest. And preparations seem to be getting more elaborate. According to one press report, the dresses are fancier, girls are buying a second pair of shoes for dancing, and spray tans have been added to the list of must-haves (somehow I can’t see Delilah springing for a spray tan).

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The good news -- sort of -- was that teens were contributing 41% of the cost, which is far better than nothing. But that still leaves parents footing 59% of the bill, or more than $670, on average -- enough to buy a computer for a student to take to college.

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Now, I know that prom can be an exciting rite of passage with lasting memories. But it seems to me that it’s up to parents to offer some perspective, lest kids expect more than one evening can deliver and everyone ends up disappointed and broke.

What parents can do. One way to keep expenses under control is for parents to take an active role in prom planning -- and not just by paying the bills. They can host at-home dinners before the prom or breakfasts afterward, and play unofficial photographer. PTA groups can sponsor used-dress sales or raise money to sponsor all-night parties that keep kids entertained, safe and sober.

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My children are past prom age, but I’m told by parents who are still in the thick of things that kids don’t mind having their parents involved. One friend told me that instead of going out to dinner beforehand, her son and his friends had a backyard barbecue at the home of one of the girls. Her parents cooked the food and served the kids in the dining room, which was set with the best china. All of the other parents were invited to come and take photos in the yard, which was “in bloom and beautiful.” The kids carpooled to the dance, went to a free post-prom party at school, and wound up at another girl’s house for breakfast. “Lots of kids in his class did the limo-restaurant thing, but at least in his group it was not at all uncool to be frugal,” said my friend. “They had a great time, as far as I can tell.”

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Cap your costs. Another way to keep costs under control is to set a limit on how much you’ll spend. If you’re paying the freight, give your kids a set amount and have them make the decisions about how to spend it. (Visa has a free prom budgeting app, called Plan’it Prom, available in the iTunes store, Google Play and www.practicalmoneyskills.com).

Even better, however, is to have your kids pick up more of the tab themselves. In fact, I’d flip the numbers in the Visa survey so that kids are responsible for 59% or more of the cost. True, they’d probably be hard-pressed to come up with $600, but that’s the point. I read one newspaper story about Casey, a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania, whose mother told him he’d have to pay for all his prom expenses. He paid $129 to rent a tux, $50 for a prom ticket, $20 for two tickets to the after-prom party and $10 to get his car cleaned -- all with money earned by cleaning stalls at a horse barn. The prom was fun, said Casey, but in his opinion, “it’s not worth that much money. I worked a little over two weeks shoveling stalls to spend five hours at a dance.”

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