If you've got teenagers, you already know how expensive high school can be. Besides food, clothing and school supplies, a whole host of extracurricular activities are competing for a share of your wallet -- even as you frantically try to save for college and your own retirement.
One of the biggest expenses you'll encounter is prom. Gone are the days of borrowing dad's suit and crepe paper streamers in the school gym: Today's proms are often more like a Hollywood premiere with limousines, designer gowns and swanky after-parties.
I'm not kidding. According to a recent nationwide survey conducted by my employer, Visa Inc., the average U.S. family with a high school student attending the prom expects to spend $978 this year. Surprisingly, that's down 14 percent from last year's survey average of $1,139 per family.A few other interesting statistics the survey uncovered:
- On average, parents plan to pay for about 56 percent of prom costs, with their kids picking up the remaining 44 percent.
- Parents in lower income brackets (less than $50,000 a year) plan to spend an average of $733 -- a considerable share of the family budget. Thankfully, that's down significantly from last year's $1,245 estimate.
- Those earning over $50,000 will spend an average of $1,151.
- Interestingly, the men surveyed expect their families will spend $1,357, more than double the $637 women expect to pay. (Maybe dad's a soft touch?)
- New prom dresses often cost $100 to $500 or more.
- Plan on spending another couple hundred for shoes, accessories, flowers and professionally styled hair, nails and make-up.
- New tuxedos cost several hundred dollars, not to mention the formal shirt, tie, studs and shoes you'll need. Even renting all this will likely run over $150.
- Figure at least $80 an hour plus tip to rent a limousine for a minimum of four to six hours.
- Prom tickets typically cost $50 to $150 per person, depending on venue, entertainment, meals, etc. And don't forget about commemorative photos.
- The couple will probably need at least $50 for a nice pre-prom meal.
- After-parties can run anywhere from a few bucks at the bowling alley to hundreds of dollars for group hotel suites.
As with weddings and vacations, spending on prom can easily spiral out of control, especially if your teenager isn't used to sticking to a budget. Use this as a learning experience by getting your kid involved making tough decisions, helping to prioritize expenses from vital to non-essential. If they want to exceed your agreed-to budget, a part-time job might be in order.
To help with the prom budgeting process, Visa launched a free smartphone app last year called Plan'it Prom. You simply enter your budgeted amounts for each item and then track actual spending on your phone or tablet as you shop. The app also includes budgeting tips, a photo gallery and a timeline for tracking pre-prom deadlines. Plan'it Prom is available at the iTunes store, the Google Play store and from Practical Money Skills for Life.
- Shop for formal wear at consignment stores or online. As with tuxedos, many outlets rent formal dresses and accessories for one-time use.
- Have make-up done at a department store's cosmetics department or find a talented friend to help out.
- Split the cost of a limo with other couples, or drive yourselves.
- Team up with other parents to host a pre-prom dinner buffet or after-party.
- Take pre-prom photos yourself and have the kids use their cellphones or digital cameras for candid shots at various events.
- The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) costs $51 each time it's taken, plus an additional $13 to $24.50 per individual subject test. Many students take the SATs at least twice.
- American College Testing (ACT) costs $33, plus another $15 for the writing test.
- An 18-hour SAT fundamentals review course from the Princeton Review will set you back $599 to $699.
- Personalized individual and small group tutoring sessions can cost thousands of dollars.
- College application fees -- often $40 to $90 per institution.
- Site visits. If you're looking at schools outside the area, costs can vary widely. Don't forget such variables as airfare, gas, lodging, meals, local transportation, etc.
- Professionally shot senior portraits and prints often cost hundreds of dollars.
- Graduation announcements, thank-you notes and postage -- depending on your network of family and friends, this could be $100-plus.
- Senior class dues -- check with your school.
- Yearbooks often cost $35 to $100, plus additional fees if you take out a congratulatory ad.
- Class rings -- different styles often run $100 to $500 or more.
- Cap and gown -- usually $25 to $50.
- Graduation gift and party -- it's up to you to manage expectations.
- Senior trip -- varies from school to school, but it could run hundreds of dollars for a ski weekend, for example.
Bottom line: You want to ensure your child has a memorable high school experience, but not at the expense of your overall budget. If you need help making a budget, numerous online tools are available at sites such as the U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission's MyMoney.gov, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and Practical Money Skills for Life, a free personal financial management program run by Visa Inc.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.
Restaurant.com sells $25 gift certificates for $10 or $50 gift certificates for $20. The site also has sales throughout the year, and I've snagged $25 gift certificates for $5. I keep a stack of these things in my wallet at all times. Most places have a minimum purchase requirement (from $35 and up) but you can generally use the gift certificates any time. But there are drawbacks: They're for dine-in only, they're nonrefundable, and they can only be redeemed once per month per restaurant. Still, the site has become so popular that you can double dip - buying Restaurant.com certificates through an airline's shopping portal in order to earn frequent flier miles, for instance.
If you're not already using Groupon and LivingSocial, start now. Both sites post daily deals that will give you 50 to 90 percent off at different restaurants. You'll have to act quickly, but you'll save a bunch. I just got a dozen cake pops (regularly $17) for $8 through Groupon. If you don't want to spend hours sifting through all the offers, Money Talks News deals diva Karla Bowsher has culled the very best on our deals page.
If you have a smartphone, some social networking apps will get you free stuff and discounts. Last weekend, I got free guacamole and a free flan for checking into the restaurant on Yelp. Here are a few apps that score you deals: Yelp Check-ins - After you check in, mention Yelp to your server to get the goods. Foursquare - Many places offer discounts and buy-one-get-one offers to people who check in. SCVNGR - Every time you check in, you accumulate points. You can redeem your points for a discount on your bill or a free item depending on the restaurant.
Every restaurant in town knows when my birthday is. Last year, I got three half-price meals, six free desserts, two free entrees, and about a dozen free cocktails - and all I had to do was sign up for a birthday mailing list and turn a year older. Many restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club. Signing up is free and they'll send you a coupon around the date. Ask your server how to sign up - and even if they don't have a mailing list, he'll tell you what you can get for free or cheap on your special occasion. There's even a site devoted to listing restaurants where you can eat free on your birthday: eatfreeonyourbirthday.com
Social media-savvy restaurants post special deals on Twitter. Some even post code words. If you tell your server the code word, you'll get a discount or a freebie. Last month, I got a free dessert for saying "Free Sean Payton" to my server. (I live in New Orleans, and the code words referred to our NFL coach who has been suspended by the league.) To find a restaurant's Twitter info, visit its website and look for the "Follow Us" links. One should be for Twitter. Another should be for Facebook. Speaking of which...
Here at Money Talks News, we take surveys, hold contests, and give out freebies on our Facebook page as a way to keep in touch with you. Many restaurants do the same thing. By "liking" the restaurant page, you'll get access to special deals not mentioned anywhere else.
I've made it a habit to open a few apps before I walk into a restaurant. There are several free apps that post deals to local and chain restaurants. Most places will apply the discount to your bill if you show them the app - no need to print the coupon. Here are a few apps worth downloading: Dining Deals LocalEats The Valpak App
Many restaurants in my area extend their lunch hours until late afternoon. By eating dinner early, I get the lunch prices, which are often 25 to 50 percent cheaper than the dinner prices for the same entrees. Before you try somewhere new, visit the restaurant's website and see if they have a lunch or early bird special.
It's uncommon, but some restaurants let you bring your own beer or wine, which is usually cheaper than the cost of paying per glass. Before you go, call ahead and ask if the establishment is BYOB. If they're not, skip the cocktail and have one somewhere else. Some places will charge a "corkage fee" if you bring your own wine, but even at $10 per bottle, it's still often cheaper than buying the same bottle in the restaurant. Most restaurants in my area overcharge for alcohol. For example, my local bar charges $3 for a mixed drink, but the restaurant next door charges $6. I save 50 percent stopping by the bar for my after-dinner drink.
Restaurant meals are over-proportioned, so split your meal in two. You'll eat dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow for one price. It may seem like obvious advice, but it's harder in practice. If you're not careful, you'll end up eating everything on the plate. To beat the extra calories and save money, I divide my plate in half before I start eating. I only eat from my "now" half of the plate and ask for a to-go box for the rest.
Knowing the different steak cuts and how they're prepared will save you money. For example, my friend always goes for the filet mignon because it's well known and tender. It's also one of the most expensive cuts you can order. Meanwhile, I ask if the hanger or flank steak was marinated. If it was, I order that. It's the cheapest steak on the menu, but it's also flavorful and tender - if marinated. MSN says sirloin, flank, skirt, and hanger steaks are really underrated. Give them a chance.
If I've learned one thing being a local in a tourist town like New Orleans, it's this: Tourist traps are alive and well. Many of the famous restaurants tourists want to visit are overpriced and not the best dining experience. If you want an authentic experience and a better price, check out a review site like Yelp or Urban Spoon before you visit a vacation spot. Pick a few places the locals rated highly and check their websites for menu prices. You can save a ton by planning ahead and skipping the hot spots.
I'm fortunate to have very cheap friends. "I don't care where we go as long as it's cheap," is a common refrain on a Friday night. But I also have some less-than-frugal friends who visit from out of town. Since I know they'll want to try that expensive five-star restaurant they heard about on the Food Network, I jump the gun and suggest a similar but cheaper place. If you're dining out with a group, suggest reasonably priced places ahead of time. It will keep you from having to choose between a $25 salad or a $30 piece of chicken.
Around here they call it lagniappe - the little something extra you get for being a great customer. Like the free cup of gumbo I've gotten every time I visit a diner in my neighborhood. I get that little something extra because I'm a regular. Trying new places is great, but you can get a discount (or a lagniappe) by building a relationship with the servers or owners of local restaurants.
With iDine, you can earn 5 to 15 percent back any time you eat out. Just sign up on their website. Within 30 days of your meal, sign on and complete a quick survey. For every survey you take, you'll earn cash back. When you reach $20, iDine will mail you an American Express gift card. It takes some effort, but it's free money. See? Dining out doesn't have to mean going all in - or staying in.
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