Prom-flation: Average family spends more than $1,000 on teen dance

May 3, 2012 at 8:17 AM ET

Rana Faure / Getty images /

Like many other families staring at price tags for gowns and tuxes and shoes and manicures, prom-flation has hit the Lessard family of Leominister, Mass. Daughter Allison Lessard is going to not one, but two proms this year. She and her family are spending nearly $600.

But the Lessards are actually getting off pretty easy. U.S. families with teens will spend an average of $1,078 on the prom, a 34 percent jump over the $807 spent in 2011, according to a Visa national survey based on 1,000 telephone interviews.

And spending goes even higher in some areas. Families in the Northeast are shelling out an average of $1,994 on prom this year, according to the Visa survey — at least double what families in other parts of the country are spending. The survey says Southern families spend an average of $1,047, Western families $744, and Midwestern families a relatively modest $696.

With the average family shelling out more than $1,000 for prom, that means sending a couple to the big high-school dance costs enough to cover tuition and fees for two months at a typical in-state public university.

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Visa found that some lower income families will spend more than 10 percent of their annual income to send their teen to prom: Parents who make $20,000-$29,999 will spend an average of $2,635.

"It's important to remember that the prom is a high school dance, not a wedding, and parents need to set limits in order to demonstrate financial responsibility," Jason Alderman, Senior Director of Global Financial Education, Visa Inc., said in a press release.

Allison’s mom, Robin Lessard, blanched when her daughter called to tell her she’d found the perfect purple gown in a Peabody, Mass., boutique and, oh, yeah, it cost $379.

“She called me on the phone: 'I love it, I love it! It fits me great!'” recalls her mom, who works in accounting at the local paper. But when she heard the price, Lessard says, she replied, “No way, no way. I can’t do it.” Lessard says she’s never paid that kind of money for a dress for herself.

Allison, 18, has racked up prom costs every year of high school except tenth grade, says her mom. She attended her school’s junior-senior prom last year and wore a sky-blue gown from David’s Bridal that cost a comparatively modest $140.

This year she’ll be attending senior prom Friday at her own school, Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford, Mass., and May 19 at Leominster High School. But at least she’ll be wearing the same ensemble to both affairs.

Mother and daughter reached a compromise: Allison, who’s held a bunch of part-time jobs ranging from restaurant hostess to petting zoo ticket-taker, would pay half the cost of the dress. Allison also spent $40 for a matching necklace and earrings and $28 for a spray tan. She’s got a hair appointment Friday, and her mom says, “I’m hoping she’s not going to spend more than $50.”

A $50 hairstyle would bring her total prom expenses to $497. Oh, and then there are the prom photo packages. Lessard says she expects to spend about $40 on one for each of Allison’s proms and will share the pics with her dates’ families. That brings the total up to $577. Plus tax.

Lessard can’t imagine how some families spend $2,000 or more to send their teens to prom. Not in her neck of the woods, where she says folks aren’t out to one-up their neighbors at prom time. “I don’t see the competitiveness of it in the years the girls have gone to the prom,” Lessard says.

But you can see how the cost could go much higher without trying very hard. This is what Allison and her family aren’t paying for prom this year:

Shoes: Allison is wearing the same $40 pair she wore last year.

A limo: Lessard estimates limousine transportation in her area would cost upward of $700, although it probably would be shared by several couples. Instead, Allison’s dates will drive their own cars or hers to prom.

Prom ticket: They cost $75 each and include dinner, but Allison’s dates are paying for hers.

Manicure: That could cost $30 or $40, Lessard says, but Allison has decided to forego fancy nails because they’d violate the dress code at her petting-zoo job.

Although her family easily could have ended up spending twice as much for Allison’s proms, Lessard still is bemused. You can practically hear her shaking her head over the phone. “I would have never thought I’d pay that kind of money to send one of my girls to the prom.”

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