Prom costs on the rise: gowns and shoes and limos, oh my!

Prom season in America is an important time in the lives of many teenagers. But some parents are finding the costs – for the gowns, shoes and limos, just for starters –are on the rise, making the annual rite of passage too expensive.

Prom is a big deal. Harker Heights High School senior Brandy Day, who's mother Tammy paid for this billboard to advertise her bid for prom queen this year in Killeen, Tex. But some parents are finding the costs - for the gowns, shoes and limos, just for starters – make the annual rite of passage too expensive.

It's a period during the high school year when the economic disparity between the privileged and not-so privileged becomes more evident, and popularity contests are waged with formal attire, after-parties, limousines and ... billboards.

Waiting at the intersection of W.S. Young Drive and Veterans Memorial Boulevard, drivers were captivated last month by a pink rotating outdoor sign: "Vote Brandy Day for Prom Queen!"

The billboard message, along with similarly vibrant print ads and more subdued fliers, were purchased by Tammy Day, mother of the senior who campaigned to wear the crown at the Harker Heights High School prom.

Tammy Day said she took a collection from family and friends to help pay for the advertisements, and hoped they'd give her daughter an unforgettable prom.

"She's my only child and she's all I have," said Tammy Day. "This is her last school year and school means an awful lot to her."

Brandy Day said she joked to her mother about using a billboard to advertise her bid for prom queen and was surprised when she found out her mother followed through. "I was joking, but she took me seriously. When she texted me a pic of the billboard and the newspaper, I was shocked."

Giving her daughter the perfect prom didn't come cheap. In total, Tammy Day estimated the one-time event cost about $1,200 to $1,300.

While the cost of prom continues to rise, parents continue to pay even during tough economic times. The results of a national survey by Visa Inc. revealed a 33 percent increase in the amount of money an average American family will spend on prom this year, from $807 in 2011 to $1,078 in 2012.

The number didn't surprise Kionna Hunter, a Harker Heights High School senior.

"I know a lot of people who go crazy at prom," she said, estimating she*d spend about $600. "They have to have the dress, the shoes, the hair, the makeup, the limo, an after-party, all of that stuff."

Brandy Day agreed with her classmate. "The ones who don*t want to spend that much don*t end up going toprom," she said.

The rising cost is indicative of a culture that continually raises the bar for extravagant celebrations, said Keisha Bentley-Edwards, an assistant professor of education psychology at the University of Texas in Austin.

"Part of it is the need to keep up with the Joneses and it*s become part of the norm for some upper middle-class parents to spend $1,000 on a birthday party for their 5-year old," she said. "So when your kids start off having an over-the-top party at age 4 or 5, how do you top that once they get to prom?"

Ms. Bentley-Edwards said many parents see the ability to give their child a lavish prom as a reflection of their parenting.

"There is also pressure from other kids and even from television and reality TV, where (teens) see people spending thousands of dollars on proms and sweet sixteen parties for their kids," she said.

The desire for a memorable night and the willingness of students and parents to cover the increasing costs may be putting prom out of reach for disadvantaged teens.

"It has been an issue for some of the students," said Janice Wilson, a site director for Communities in Schools at Shoemaker High School.

"We had our prom April 14, and there were students who opted not to go because they just couldn*t afford it."

Wilson said her organization works with some of the area's poorest students. At least four teens who qualified for assistance to go to prom turned it down.

"Their last thought is to spend all that money to live it up one day when they are worried about having the money for a cap and gown and other graduation costs," she said. "(Prom) is considered a luxury for them."

Courtney Clyde, a Harker Heights High School senior, said she understood why many students and their parents were willing to spend so much money for one school dance.

"It's high school and everyone wants to have that experience," she said. "It*s an important night, especially for seniors who won't be here next year."

Ms. Clyde admitted there were limits to how much she, her peers and their families should spend for one night. "You have some kids buying $500 dresses, renting limos and party buses. ... It's just not worth spending that much money," she said. "I'm not going overboard."

Whether the money spent by Tammy Day will pay off remains to be seen.

Voting for prom court at Harker Heights High School occurred Monday, but the winner won't be announced until the dance Saturday night.

Tammy Day said the cost would be worth every penny.

"It's her last year, and she has never run for anything before," she said. "She's a wonderful girl, so I want to make it happen for her."

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