When Did Prom Become As Expensive As A Wedding?

Photo: Getty Images.
Sometimes, when I look back on my prom experience, I wonder if I should have done it up a little more. I (or rather, my parents) did get a dress — a floor-length, emerald-green, column-gown thing that was understated enough to be worn again. We also bought shoes, which were my real passion; three-and-a-half-inch strappy gold heels that I eventually wore into the ground.
But I did my own makeup (to best of my limited ability), styled my own hair, and although I don't totally remember, I'm pretty sure I drove to the venue with my dad. I didn't have a date, didn't expect to have one at any point, and it wasn't a big deal. To me, prom was just a fancier-than-normal party where I'd hang out with my friends, most of whom were dateless, too. There was an after-party; it was fun. A group of us went back to a friend's parents' apartment, gossiped, fell asleep, and went home the next day. My experience was absolutely provincial compared to the mini-Met Galas kids these days expect.
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Thumbtack estimates that the average cost to hire a makeup artist for an occasion like prom is $90, and that people are "likely to spend between $50 and $150." (You can go to the company's cost estimator to get a projected figure by zip code.) A prom dress, shoes, accessories, hair, ticket, non-parental transportation, photos, and dinner can throw costs even higher. Plus, lest anyone assume that most of the spending is all on women and their families, guys who go to the prom are increasingly expected to dig up enough cash — about $300 on average — to make a promposal that wows. (Like this dude, who asked his date with a bag full of makeup from Sephora — and Louboutins. Or any customer of this company, which extends the prom/wedding metaphor really far with a bath bomb that has a ring inside.)

My experience was absolutely provincial compared to the mini-Met Galas kids these days expect.

According to a 2015 national survey from Visa, the average cost of a promposal and prom is $919, with Northeastern families leading the pack, spending an average $1,169 for the night. To put that in perspective, consider that last year, research from American Express showed that the average wedding guest expected to spend $703 per event, while millennials specifically planned to spend $893. That's a lot of money for sure, but it's for an event that (theoretically, at least) is meant to celebrate a lifelong milestone. Prom is just one night (or maybe a few days up to a week if you're one of those lucky souls who holes up in a cabin after prom).
"Disconcertingly," the Visa researchers also learned that "families making under $25,000 will spend a total of $1,393 for the prom, while families who make over $50,000 will spend an average of $799." The company didn't account for the seemingly counterintuitive difference, but I'd wager that families who typically have less money to spare might feel like it's worth it to make a young person feel special and carefree for just one night, especially one that has so much cultural significance and visibility, no matter how high the cost.
So no shame to prom-goers and their parents who can afford a five-star fete and who have always dreamed of doing so. High school can be academically grueling, psychologically stressful, and emotionally draining, and moving on from that life phase is worth celebrating, too — for teens and their families. (Not to mention people who feel like they can finally be themselves.)
But if you need to cut costs? Try going with your friends like I did, or with your college acceptance letter, like this incoming Harvard freshman did. Maybe go vintage and revamp an older gown, or spend $15 on materials to make a bomb dress like this teen. PromGirl has a smart checklist of ideas as well, so you can cross every prom item of your list in a way that works for you — and doesn't drain your college savings fund.
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