Is your prom preparation careening out of control?

March 28, 2013 | Posted in: High School

There is a vivid video clip in my memory of my oldest girl when she was about 2½. She is wearing a dress she loves: pink and white striped with a watermelon collar that is trimmed with green and dotted with black seeds. The string tied to her wrist tethers a Barney balloon that is nearly as tall as she is.

Her caramel curls bounce in the summer heat as she twirls in the street, oblivious to the sites and sounds of the Italian festival we are attending in Boston’s North End. Her face beams as she watches the balloon dance through the air above her head. She is lost in her own world, unaware of the smiling faces observing from the curb. Her smile is magical, her joy contagious.

Nearly 15 years later, I am watching the same girl, this time in a coral colored dress that cascades to the floor. Its gold beaded waist sparkles. Her curls are darker and looser, swept up in a messy bun as she turns this way and that in front of the mirror. Her face glows. She is beautiful.

“I really love it,” she says, and I know she wants me to say, “Yes, we can buy the dress.” I think how much easier – and cheaper – life was when a simple Barney balloon could elicit the same smile.

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from reasonable reptile request to potentially pricey prom preparations.

With the balloon, it was one and done. With the prom dress? Not so much.

The dress, I am fully aware, is only the beginning. She’s talking hair, nails, makeup, shoes, accessories – and, oh! maybe a gold earring for her tragus piercing, so it will match the beading on the gown.

Whoa, Nelly! I think as I pull the prom wagon to a screeching halt. We need to talk.

I’ve done some research, and I realize, after reading, that this night can cost us anywhere from $175 to $2,100 (which, on my scale, is “that’s reasonable” to “absolutely not”). Some rough estimates of where we could drop more than a few dollars:

  • Tickets – $20 to $250.
  • Pre-prom dinner – $25 to $130 (If dinner isn’t included in the ticket price)
  • Hair, makeup, nails, etc. – $30 to $275.
  • Gown – $100 to $400 (though we’ve seen gowns priced higher than this)
  • Photo – $30 to $125.
  • Limo – $200 to $500

There are also options such as alterations, flowers and tanning – not to mention her date’s tuxedo (which I hear will cost him about $150) – but I haven’t tracked down those estimates yet.

I am tempted to pull out all the stops for my girl. Prom is once in a lifetime! the voice in my head clamors excitedly, as she jumps up and down, clapping her invisible hands. Until next year! says another voice (the one called “reason”). My daughter is, after all, only a junior.

My daughter has said fewer classmates will go to senior prom, so this year is a bigger deal. I attempt to smile. Rarely have I fared well listening to the advice of an odds-maker.

The voice of reason reminds me that I have two other children to feed and cloth in the next several months. As much as I would love to be able to say, “The sky’s the limit,” the reality is that it isn’t.

As her parents, our responsibility is to share realistic expectations about what she (i.e., we) can spend on prom. We set a budget – we will buy the dress and provide X-amount toward the other “necessities.”

She accepts that she will have to make some choices and decide what she is willing to spend on her own – “It’s your money, it’s your choice,” I say as she mulls the $70 gold heels she found online. She decides they probably won’t be worn again, so she’ll opt to spend less on footwear. The gold tragus earring went by the wayside as well, once she realized the price of gold. Other decisions are still up in the air.

Setting a budget has made the process easier for all of us, and it makes her think more carefully about choices that would require she spend her own money.

If you’re in the midst of prom madness, consider these options for trimming your prom budget.

Shop around. Check out options online and locally. Some stores will discount dresses off the rack. Consignment stores are also a great option. Of course, there’s also borrowing or making your own dress.

Be reasonable about shoes and accessories. Will you wear the $70 heels again, and can anyone really see them under your long gown? Consider going with a less expensive shoe or borrowing.

Opt for simple flowers, and order ahead.

Get help from charitable groups. Organizations with names such as Cinderella’s Closet or The Cinderella Project provide dresses, shoes and accessories, as well as services such as hairstyling to girls who might not be able to afford them. There are other organizations such as the Glass Slipper Project and Dream a Dress. Check for organizations in your area.

And if all else fails, turn to quintessential Bill Cosby: The episode in which Cliff Huckstable (Cosby) gives his son Theo (Malcolm-Jamar Warner) a lesson on money and the importance of education should be required viewing for all prom-goers and their parents.


There are lots of resources to help you with a prom budget:

From How to Prepare Your Prom Budget

Perfect Prom on a Budget: 13 Ways to Spend Less and Still Shine

The CDC has some tips for prom safety as well.

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. Prior to that, she spent many years as a journalist in the Boston area. She is mom to two teen-age daughters and an 8-year-old son, all of whom would appreciate if she could please ignore the voice of reason a little more often.

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