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Senior prom sticker shock

April 24, 2009

Forget college – just paying for your kid's senior year in high school can break the bank if you haven't planned carefully. While it's always a challenge to deny your kids enjoyable experiences, today's tough economy is forcing many families to make difficult decisions regarding these once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

One of the costliest senior expenses is the prom. At the risk of dating myself, my prom set me back $150, mostly for a tuxedo rental. These days, according to a Your Prom magazine survey, the average couple spends at least $1,000 – many pay much more.

It all adds up. Consider:

  • New prom dresses cost from $100 to $700 or more. Plan on another couple of hundred for shoes, accessories, flowers and professionally styled hair, nails and make-up.
  • A new tuxedo will set you back at least a few hundred dollars, not to mention the shirt, tie, studs and shoes you'll need. Even renting all this will likely cost $150 or more.
  • Figure at least $100 an hour plus tip to rent a limousine, for a minimum of four hours.
  • The national average for prom tickets varies from $50 to $150 per person, depending on venue, entertainment, meals, etc. And don't forget about commemorative photos.
  • The couple probably won't want to eat at McDonalds, so figure at least $40 for a nice meal.
  • After-party. This could be anywhere from a few bucks at the bowling alley to hundreds of dollars for group hotel suites.

When Visa Inc. surveyed prom goers recently, 27 percent recalled having paid for everything themselves, 26 percent had parents who picked up the whole tab, 14 percent split it 50-50 with their folks and 12 percent shared the cost with their date. Bottom line: Don't feel compelled to foot the whole cost. If your kids have skin in the game, they'll quickly determine what they can and can't live without.

Here are a few cost-saving ideas:

  • Shop for formal wear at consignment stores or online at sites like eBay or Craig's List. 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.
  • At the very least, split the cost of a limo with other couples.
  • Team up with other parents to host a pre-prom dinner buffet or after-party.
  • Take photos yourself – and buy disposable cameras for candid shots at various events.

Besides the prom, you should anticipate many other senior-year expenses. Talk to recent graduates and their parents about their lessons learned; then, before the school year begins, sit down with your child and hammer out a budget. Consider expenses such as:

  • College entrance exams, study guides and tutoring
  • College application fees and site visits
  • Senior portraits
  • Graduation announcements
  • Cap and gown
  • Graduation party
  • Senior trip

Use senior year as an opportunity to teach your kids about the importance of setting and sticking to a budget. Visa's free personal financial management site, Practical Money Skills for Life, features many easy-to-use budgeting tools and interactive calculators that can help (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/budgeting).


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This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered health, legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.

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