Prom spending soars despite down economy

Kaeleigh Green, a junior at Howard High in Howard County, poses in her prom gown. (Courtesy Photo)

Amy Hunter,

WASHINGTON – It took Charlene Daniel-Green and her daughter Kaeleigh two days, about a dozen stores and countless hours to find the perfect prom dress.

And that was just for the dress.

Preparations for the big night began more than a month in advance. There’s the hair appointment, the nail appointment, the makeup artist who will come to the house, the boutonniere, the pre-party, the after-party, the transportation and the buying of the actual tickets.

Still, the mother/daughter pair will come out of the whole affair having spent around $500 — which is far less than many high-schoolers in the region.

“I read an article about that, that last year’s average was about $850, which is crazy. I’m sorry. It can be done much cheaper if you’re willing to shop around. It’s not a wedding. It’s a prom,” Daniel-Green says.

Daniel-Green was correct. In 2011, American families spent an average of $807 on the prom. But, despite continued economic sluggishness, that number has soared.

The average amount families will spend on prom this year is 34 percent higher than the year before, about $1,088, according to a recent survey by Visa. And that’s just the national average. When broken down by region, Northeast families, including those in the D.C. area, will spend a whopping $1,944 on prom, according to the study.

It’s the highest average in the country.

In the South, Visa says families will spend an average of $1,047, families in the West will spend about $744 and in the Midwest, folks will spend $696, on average.

“I know some folks go a little crazy on spending for prom, but I just don’t see the purpose of that,” Daniel-Green says.

“She’s going to have a good time regardless of the price of her dress.”

Proms have already begun in the area, with some high schools hosting theirs this past weekend. Private schools traditionally hold theirs the earliest, and some public schools schedule theirs well into June. Regardless, store managers say they’ve been bustling with business for weeks.

“I don’t think people really watch what they spend when it comes to prom dresses — at least when it comes to this area,” says Breanne Fugere, who manages Luna, an upscale clothing store in Bethesda.

Fugere says her store sells specialty silk dresses that aren’t available elsewhere, so teens searching for that one-of-a-kind dress shop there. After the dress, teens are looking for jewelery, clutches and shoes.

“When it comes to prom dresses, I think parents assume they’re going to spend a couple hundred bucks, between $200 and $400,” Fugere says.

Gail Cohen owns Salon Central in Bethesda, a high-end salon that Bethesda Magazine rated “Best Salon” for the last three consecutive years. She says her prom clients are usually daughters of loyal customers “who would rather spend their money on a place like Salon Central, where they know they’re going to have a professional doing their hair.”

Cohen says prom clients often come early in the day to have their hair styled professionally, and then go elsewhere to get their nails and makeup done.

“There’s no limit,” she says. “They will spend the money, absolutely.”

According to the Visa survey, parents in the lowest income bracket plan to spend more than the national average. Those families who bring in less than $50,000 annually will spend an average of $1,307.

Households earning between $20,000 and $29,000 will spend the most: $2,635.

“Prom season spending is spiraling out of control as teens continuously try to one-up each other,” said Jason Alderman, senior director of Global Financial Education at Visa Inc. “Parents need to set limits in order to demonstrate financial responsibility.”

Daniel-Green, whose daughter will attend Howard High’s prom on May 4, says it may have more to do with the parents trying to outdo each other than the kids. But that’s not happening among the parents in her daughter’s group of friends.

She says her daughter is a lacrosse player who is very busy with school and sports, and so doesn’t have time for a part-time job. Because of that, Daniel-Green is footing the bill for Kaeleigh’s prom this year.

“That’s why I’m shopping around,” she says.

“The best part of it, we got her dress for $48. It was $60, but I had a coupon. I know, unbelievable compared to some of the prices we saw.”

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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