Economy & Finance

Taffeta shock: What U.S. families shell out for school proms

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NEW YORK (Reuters) – Inspired by celebrities on the red carpet, influenced by couture photos circulated on Pinterest and armed with price information from online browsing, American girls plan to spend more when they shop for prom dresses this year.

“I have a budget of $200 for my dress, because I know from shopping online that most prices are $150 and up,” said Anna Brown, 17, while shopping at Macy’s in Manhattan this week. Brown, a senior at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, New York, will attend her prom on May 27.

Brown has no idea what her total prom spend will be this year, because it all starts with the dress.

If she is anything close to average, Brown’s wallet will be much lighter at the end of next month. Overall spending on U.S. prom events grew to an average of $1,139 per family in 2013, up 5 percent over last year – and higher than the 1.5 percent rate of inflation in the United States – according to Visa Inc’s third annual survey of prom spending.

Depicted in movies as sweet as “Pretty in Pink” and as disturbing as “Carrie,” the prom is an American institution – a lavish dance that traditionally celebrates the culmination of high school.

While Visa’s survey does not break down exactly where that average spending of $1,139 came from, teens typically focus on attire first. Adding to the cost are event tickets, limousines, hotel rooms or after-party events, corsages and other accessories, hair, makeup and other extras.

The prom price tag is up significantly from a 2008 survey by Hearst’s Seventeen magazine which found families were planning to spend $566 on the prom.

The official tallies are not in from this year’s prom season yet, which runs through June. But stores like David’s Bridal are already seeing higher spends this year, with dresses going for an average of $100 to $150.

Windsor Store chain, another retailer with 62 locations across the United States, said this year’s average prom dress costs $100, and families are spending about $300 total in their stores.

There are also online retailers selling both new prom dresses and reselling used ones. “The average prom dress on our site sells for $150 but retails for average of $300,” said Tracy DiNunzio, chief executive officer of, which is an eBay-like site for fashion. “For a lot of families that $300 is a big investment for a dress that a girl’s going to wear once. We’ve seen parents that make their daughters promise to sell the dress after they wear it.”

However, the dresses can be hard to part with. Emily Casarola, a 16-year-old from Colts Neck, New Jersey, intended to hold on to her $250 dress, at least for a little while. If anything, she said, she would eventually donate it to a site like Operation Prom or Cinderella’s Closet, which provides dresses to families that cannot afford them.


Casarola ended up getting her white, feathered dress from David’s Bridal, where her mother Amy, 50, works as a district manager. They did plenty of shopping online and at other stores first, and a lot of checking on a private Facebook group to make sure that none of her friends were buying the same thing. They also picked up $35 earrings, $50 shoes and a $149 bridal headband. The family had a budget of $500 before Emily would have to start contributing her own money.

Nationally, Visa’s survey found that parents were planning to pay 59 percent of prom costs, and teens were paying the remainder themselves. The survey also noted that families with income less than $50,000 were planning to spend $100 more than the national average on prom, and that single parents were planning to spend double the amount of married parents – $1,563 versus $770.

Credit card company Visa conducted a telephone poll of 3,000 families nationally over February and March, which was twice the size of its sample last year. The company launched a new smartphone app, Plan’it Prom, to help with the budgeting process.

“It’s become a social arms race,” said Nat Sillin, Visa’s head of financial literacy. “It’s an opportunity for parents to engage their teens and have a conversation about budgeting.”

That is exactly what has been going on in the Astoria, Queens, household of Amalia Garced, 17, who has a May 17 prom for her Manhattan high school, Vanguard. She has been talking to her mother – whose budget tapped out at $500 for her own prom years ago – about what she should spend.

Garced planned to spend no more than $300 for the dress, $20 for hair, $40 for nails and then she also has to pay for shoes, plus tickets for herself and her date. Her mom is helping with half of the cost of the limo, but she is paying for everything else on her own.

“I never thought I’d have to spend so much,” she said, while shopping in Macy’s with a friend. “It’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, how am I going to afford all of this?'”

(This version of the story corrects paragraph four to reflect that U.S. prom spending already grew this year, according to the Visa survey, instead of that it is projected to grow.)

(Editing by Lauren Young and Matthew Lewis- Follow us @ReutersMoney or here)

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