By Susan Johnston
As prom season approaches, high schoolers throughout the country will don tuxes or bejeweled dresses for this classic rite of passage. But those fancy outfits and the flowers that accompany them don't come cheap. In fact, Visa's 2011 Prom Spending Survey found that families spent an average of $807 on prom costs, including attire, flowers, transportation, and tickets.
If that number has you clutching your wallet in panic, here's how to keep costs down without ruining the fun.
1. Allow ample time for dress shopping. As prom night approaches, the selection may get picked over and the urge to blow the budget out of desperation may overshadow frugality. Jane Behre, a high school junior in New Hope, Penn., bought her prom outfit for just under $80. It included a $50 long black dress on sale at jcpenney and a pair of Christian Siriano shoes at Payless for $29. Her strategy? Start early and search the sale racks.
No prom-goer wants to arrive at the dance wearing the same dress as someone else, so alternative options like consignment shops, Etsy.com, and eBay.com offer more unusual styles at an affordable price. Kimberly Foss, a certified financial planner and founder of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville, Calif., recommends frequenting consignment shops in the upscale part of town to find the best selection. "They have some fabulous clothes that most of those people wore one time," she adds. Of course, shopping online requires extra time for shipping and consignment shopping can be hit or miss, so these strategies also require extra lead time.
2. Consider renting instead of buying. Many tuxedo rental shops offer coupons or other deals during prom season. But nowadays, guys aren't the only ones who can rent prom attire. Foss suggests sites like RenttheRunway.com, a Netflix-like service that rents designer dresses and accessories for as little as $50. Some brick-and-mortar boutiques also offer dress rentals for a fraction of the full retail cost.
3. Team up with friends. Friends and family members can be a huge help in prepping for prom. For instance, Behre's younger sister has a knack for makeup, so she'll likely have her makeup done at home instead of going to the cosmetics counter at a department store. Friends or relatives might also have expertise you could enlist for making boutonnières or styling hair. Hosting a spa party, complete with manis and pedis and hair styling stations, is a budget-friendly way to bond with friends before the big event. For transportation, car-pooling or sharing the costs of a limo or party bus help ease the financial load.
Of course, if your high schooler has a flair for creating the perfect smoky eye or stylish updo, those skills could prove profitable this time of year. Behre's mom, Leah Ingram, a frugal living blogger, says her younger daughter has gotten so many complements on her makeup skill that she's encouraging her to market herself to students at other schools.
4. Nix unnecessary extras. Digital cameras and camera phones have made professional prom photos all but obsolete for many people. Rather than posing against a cheesy sunset or curtain backdrop, prom-goers can snap photos of each other on the dance floor, in front of the school mascot, or at a park or other setting before the dance.
Instead of dining at a fancy restaurant before the dance, consider hosting a pre-prom gathering at home. Several years ago, when Barb Freda's teenage son attended prom in Louisville, Ky., a group of parents and teens gathered at one family's house for a pre-prom potluck dinner. "The hosts made the entree, someone else did the dinner, I made the desserts," she says. "After we saw the kids off on a bus to get them safely there and back, we enjoyed dinner ourselves." This is also a good opportunity for parents to snap photos paparazzi-style.
If your teen insists on dining out, Foss suggests using credit-card rewards points to pay for the restaurant tab. Alternately, he or she could pay for the meal out of savings from babysitting or a part-time job, which is what Ingram will suggest if her daughter wants to splurge on a fancy dinner or a limo.
5. Resell or repurpose the dress. If you opt to buy a dress instead of renting, recoup some of that investment by reselling it on eBay or at a consignment shop. When Foss' daughter moved away to college, the pair sifted through her formal dresses and earned about $2,200 by consigning them.
Behre has other plans for her long black dress. Instead of reselling it after the dance, she'll have it shortened so she can wear it for less-formal occasions and get more mileage out of the dress. Swapping dresses with a friend for a future dance is another cost-cutting option.