Keeping prom in perspective

Michelle Singletary
Columnist April 30, 2013

Don’t tell her I said this, but I’m happy my daughter isn’t overexcited about her senior prom.

“I’m going, but only because I don’t want to look back years from now and think I’ve missed out on something,” Olivia said as she discussed her budget for this rite of passage for which many students and parents spend way too much money.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

My daughter isn’t fawning over dresses. She’s still looking and rejecting pricey frocks. She grumbled about the price of the prom: $90 a ticket. The only luxury she’s looking forward to is sharing a limo — and the cost — with a group of her best girlfriends.

In fact, when our daughter told us her budget for a dress — $100 “max,” she said with emphasis — her father was surprised.

“That’s all?” he asked.

I immediately shot him a stinky eye.

I thought her budgeted amount was just right for a dress she’s not likely to wear again. One of her best friends vetoed a dress because it cost about $300. (Love her frugal friends!)

Yet many teenagers across the country will do what adults do all the time. They will spend more than they can afford. Students should shave what they spend for the prom and use it to help pay for books when they go to college in the fall.

For the second year, the spending on proms nationwide has increased, outpacing inflation, reaching an average of $1,139 per family, according to a survey by Visa.

“Prom has devolved into a competition to crown the victor of high school society, but teens shouldn’t be trying to keep up with the Kardashians,” said Nat Sillin, Visa’s head of U.S. financial education. 

As far as who pays, parents are kicking in the majority of the funds. But this often results in teens not focusing on the cost because they aren’t paying for it. In looking over the survey, Sillin said he was concerned that many parents making less than $50,000 a year were spending more than the average, upward of $1,200.

Parents are always asking me how to teach their children good financial habits. The best way is to use teachable moments that come up in their lives. The prom is a perfect time to show your child how to budget sensibly.

So, have you had the talk?

Did you set specific limits for all the expenses: dress or tux, shoes, hair, corsage (do the young men still do that?), limo, pictures and the after-party? I still don’t understand why people are paying for another party after the party. (I know, I’m sounding old.)

To help with budgeting, Visa launched a free, smartphone app called “Plan’it Prom,” which allows parents and teenagers to manage prom expenses. By the way, except for the starting page, Visa doesn’t load the app with ads.

“Recognizing that prom spending now represents a major expense for American families with high school students, we wanted to create a fun tool that would help teens budget and save for prom and encourage a conversation about responsible spending between parents and teens,” Sillin said.

To stay within a budget, prom spenders need to set limits. You’ll find a suggested budget ceiling for 13 categories, including tips. The recommended amount for a prom dress, for example, is $145.

The app comes with a “budget health meter” to let users know when they are overshooting their spending plan. If you find yourself creeping into the red, it’s an indication you need to cut back in other areas. The app also has a calculator to show the true cost if an item is purchased on credit.

In addition to being available at the iTunes and Google Play stores, you can get it at www.practicalmoneyskills.com/ prom.

This is the parents’ chance to emphasize that a budget matters. So if your daughter is pining or whining for a $400 dress but you’ve budgeted $700 total for the prom, she’s got to cut expenses somewhere. This is a good financial lesson on discerning what’s important when you have limited funds.

I’m so pleased that my daughter has picked up my penny-pinching ways. She’s got a good perspective on her prom. She sees it as a nice event to enjoy with her friends but not one that will define her existence. She won’t be crushed if her dress isn’t to die for. There has been zero drama about her prom. And her measured excitement is helping her keep the costs down. I am so proud of her, I get tears of joy.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.
com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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