Chicago In other years Lisa Price has dished out money for intricate haircuts, manicures, tanning, facials, dresses, tuxedos, limo rentals, flowers and photos — all to make prom night magical for her teenage children.
“I love every second of it,” the single mother of four said. “It’s the best memory in the world.”
But this year, with a faltering economy, such memories come at a steeper cost. Now is not the time to drop hundreds of dollars for one night, Price said. Instead, she came up with a plan that slashed her spending by more than $500, not counting transportation. It included having her daughter’s hair done at a cosmetology school, getting flowers at a grocery store and using a borrowed dress.
“My wedding dress in 1987 cost $600; there are prom dresses out there now for $500,” the Frankfort, Ill., mom said. “The pricing on this stuff is unbelievable. These dances kill me every year.”
Once lavish affairs where parents maxed-out credit cards, prom this year is being scaled back — by schools, students and parents.
To cut costs, schools are changing venues, aggressively negotiating prices, doing their own decorations and offering shuttle-bus services. Students are doing their part, making their own dresses, going dateless and finding other ways to scrimp.
At Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort, moving prom from The Field Museum in Chicago to a venue near home will help save money while boosting the local economy.
“We all know what our community does for us,” said Principal Brenda Jensen. “Our community supports our programs and not just financially. They pass our referendums; they attend our events. It’s nice when you can support the local vendors.”
Thornridge High School in Dolton, Ill., picked a nearby venue this year that offered a buffet dinner so students wouldn’t have to spend money at a restaurant and pay for parking — as they have in years past.
“This is a prom, not a wedding,” said Barbra Green-Kenan, a guidance counselor who helps plan it. “We tell our students prom is important, but graduation is the prize.”
Green-Kenan said she also saves by buying decorations and favors in bulk off-season, and using local disc jockeys, photographers and vendors who offer discounts.
Students at Mundelein High School in Mundelein, Ill., wanted to upgrade and hold prom in Chicago, but finances dictated that it’ll stay at Concorde Banquets in Kildeer, Ill., where it’s been for years.
“The kids are bored,” said Tracy Carlson, who helps coordinate the affair, explaining the reason for wanting to switch locations. “But we are looking to keep it local.”
Oak Park and River Forest High School administrators are encouraging students to attend prom with friends. That way, no one feels pressured to buy two $95 tickets, said Cindy Milojevic, an assistant principal.
“Back in the day people felt they had to go to prom with a date,” she said. “The new trend is it’s OK to just buy your own ticket.”
At Evanston Township, Ill., High School, administrators aggressively negotiated a contract with their hosts at Navy Pier to freeze ticket prices. Though the cost of a dinner and boat ride has increased, the school won’t pay much more.
Some schools have the same prom plans, but students are taking it upon themselves to save money.
Students at Warren Township High School in Gurnee, Ill., are opting to take a shuttle bus rather than drive or rent cars or limos, said Carolyn Waller, community relations director.
Instead of having her hair professionally styled, Kelly McGill, 17, who attends Rich East High School in Park Forest, Ill., said she’s going to have her updo created at a cosmetology school in Bradley, Ill., for a third of the cost.
And though Bianca Gaytan, 17, is able to attend her prom at Kankakee High School in Kankakee, Ill., and her boyfriend’s, she’ll probably attend just one.
“The biggest thing is not having the same dress as someone else,” she said. “I’m not going to waste money.”
Victoria Kenny, 18, of Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, Ill., asked her mother to buy her a $40 used gown, which doubled as a birthday gift.
“The economy is hitting us hard,” said Victoria’s mother, Julie Kennedy. “I’m very proud of my daughter. She’s willing to give up a few things to help us financially. Our children understand, and they work with us.”
It wouldn’t be shocking for some seniors to be upset with having to downgrade their plans.
Proms are deeply rooted in tradition, giving teenagers a fancy send-off into adulthood, said Amy Best, a sociology professor at George Mason University, who has written a book on the topic.
“We’ve constructed a narrative around prom,” Best said. “We have said ‘it’s a night to remember,’ ‘a night that can’t be missed.’ High school students are inundated with that message. If they don’t go, they will have a big gaping hole in their memories. We’ve created a circular, self-propelling narrative that helps push itself.”
And that push creates an estimated $2.7 billion to $4.1 billion spending on prom each year, Best said.
Kathy Witte of Orland Park, Ill., can believe the numbers. She has two daughters in high school, and the oldest, a senior, chose a $450 prom dress.
So on a recent Friday night, Witte brought her youngest daughter, Kristine, 17, to a used-dress sale to find something for her to wear.
“I’ve always been frugal. We borrow and share when we can,” Witte, 49, said.
As mom and daughter shopped, they were mindful of avoiding dresses that needed major alterations (another expense) and looking for those that could go with shoes and accessories she already has.
Kristine, a junior at Sandburg High School in Orland Park, didn’t seem to mind.
“I used to work at Goodwill, so I’m used to everything being secondhand,” she said. “If you’re not going to wear it anymore and it’s still in good condition, I’ll use that to my advantage.”
Plus, she said, the dress isn’t the big deal. “It’s about how much fun you have.”
She eventually left the shop with two dresses — a strapless black floor-length and a pink one with silver-colored beads at the top. The total came to $65.
“She’ll have one for homecoming next year,” her mother said. “She can always lend them to friends.”