How much are you spending on prom?

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When we think of spending on almost anything, we assume that the wealthy will spend more. While this is often the case, there is a notable exception: prom.

At prom time, according to Bankrate, poor families shell out more than anyone else. Here’s the breakdown of prom spending by annual household income:

  • Less than $25,000: $1,393
  • Less than $50,000: $1,109
  • More than $50,000: $799

The cost of prom has actually decreased by 6 percent since 2014, but that doesn’t stop some families from spending more. When you think of the trappings of prom — the flowers, clothing, food, photos, tickets, and limo rental — it suddenly becomes obvious why so many families end up breaking the bank for prom. Even the invitation to prom has become an elaborate and expensive ritual, with “proposals” costing more than $300 according to Bankrate (and the person being asked has to respond in kind, with an elaborate and expensive acceptance).

How much are you spending on prom

Prom is expensive, and it seems like the perfect time for the wealthy to show off their wealth. However, that isn’t the case. April Masini, the author of relationship advice books, points out that a lot of it has to do with social pressure. “Prom is often a first date or a special date, and the excitement kids feel about this big night is often spelled out in the amount of money they spend,” she points out. “Simply venting and processing emotions is harder to do.”

Masini also says that many poor parents are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to spend on prom because they want their children to have experiences that perhaps they missed. “Parents who didn’t go to their own proms or couldn’t afford to often relive their own missed opportunities through their children,” she says. “Money that should have been spent on more mundane things gets blasted on prom. Kids follow the lead their parents provide.”

Part of the issue is that the rich are willing to spend their money on things they think are important, and prom isn’t a priority. For the poor, opportunities to enjoy these situations are few and far between, so it seems as a fair trade for an evening to feel “fancy.” The wealthy know that there will be other events available to them in life to dress up and eat at an expensive restaurant; the poor aren’t sure that they will get that chance again.

Chella Diaz has more than 20 years of experience in the lending industry and uses her observations on the differences between how the rich and poor use their money to coach teens and others on how to better use their money. She says that sometimes it’s more a matter of education. “People in low-income areas are not aware of some of the things they can do to get a good deal on prom.”

Diaz points out, too, that the secondhand shops in wealthier neighborhoods often have a greater variety of designer labels and high-end products than what is found in lower-income neighborhoods. She tells a story of one of her wealthy clients paying $35 for a dress that originally cost $800. The likelihood of finding a dress that originally cost $800 in a consignment shop located in a lower-income neighborhood is fairly small.

How you can save money on prom

You don’t have to spend more than $1,000 to have a good prom. “Since prom is a special night, it’s okay to spend money on one big item,” says Barry Choi, a personal finance expert at “But you should try to save on all the other things so your costs don’t add up.

Choi suggests that you start by looking at splitting the cost of transportation. Rather than renting a limo for you and your date alone, invite two or three other couples to join you. Split the cost of the limo so it is more manageable. He also suggests coordinating hair and makeup with others: “Ask a few salons to see if they offer a group rate.” Beauty schools can also provide a cost-effective way to have someone else do your hair and makeup. Or, you could just do it yourself.

“When looking for your prom dress, avoid stores that specialize in formalwear,” Choi says. “Instead, just check out your favorite department stores and look for a regular evening dress.” He recommends that young men rent their prom attire if they don’t already own a suit.

Additionally, it makes sense to look at secondhand shops and check with local charities. Organizations like Operation Prom help lower-income individuals find attire for prom.

Another possibility is to change what prom means for you. Consider low-cost activities, rather than an expensive dinner. Is a limo really necessary? Are there some things you could do on your own, rather than paying someone else? Of course, if you decide that spending on prom is a priority, plan ahead for it. Set aside a little bit each month for prom so that the expense doesn’t ruin your budget for the month.

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Miranda is a freelance writer and professional blogger specializing in financial topics. Her work has appeared in numerous media, online and offline. Her blog is Planting Money Seeds.