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Back Talk: Getting a handle on prom expenses

TribLocal and The Mash, the Chicago Tribune’s weekly newspaper and website for teenagers in the city and suburbs, have been checking in with area high school students to find the most pressing questions they have for members of their parents’ generation. As part of the regular Back Talk column, we’ll pose these questions to TribLocal’s parent bloggers, who are able to draw on their own experiences coming of age and raising kids.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Prom is an expensive but socially important rite of passage for teens today. What are your ground rules? And how do you keep costs in check?

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When my son announced that he asked his girlfriend to Prom, he was quick to point out that he and his date were going to “go dutch” on the tickets. Whew, what a relief, huh?

I handed him a lengthy list of chores that, on completion, would help fund the rest of his expenses and thanked my lucky stars that I was blessed with boys. Having just received a suspiciously well-timed coupon in the mail, my son then made his way to the tuxedo rental store clutching a swatch of fabric from his date’s dress.

I knew that he was about to spend roughly the same amount for the rental that his date did for her gown – which, by the by, she gets to keep, but I suppose that’s only fair. Aside from a corsage, a haircut and a possible car wash, my son’s expenditures ended there. His date (or perhaps her parents), on the other hand, had to invest a small fortune in the rest of her ensemble and a trip to the salon where she had everything from her hair to her toenails spiffed up.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I did not go to Prom. My first big formal dance was my wedding reception.

Like prom, the cost of the wedding, with the exception of the rehearsal dinner and maybe a box of toothpicks for the hot hors d’oevures, falls on the bride’s parents.

To avert this, my then-fiancé and I took matters into our own hands and financed the entire wedding ourselves. We drew up a budget and stuck to it.

Striking this balance, we not only maintained control over the details, but we had the time of our lives with none of the debt-induced after taste typical of large expenditures.

As for keeping the cost of prom in check, if you want to go, instead of sticking your parents with a hefty credit card bill, why not earn what it would cost to go before hand?

Now that’s what I call a socially important rite of passage.

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The reality for some kids is they jump into the prom pool not fully understanding how it’s all going to be paid for. Granted, there’s plenty of moms and dads out there who are able and happy to foot the bill. A shout-out to all you parents who are generous in doing that. I hope your kids show you a ton of appreciation.

But for the rest of us, the cost of prom is something that needs some conversation and planning. I’ve been happy to help my kids fund certain aspects of their prom tab. But not all of it. And figuring out what that magic number is takes a little dialogue.

I’ve made my older son and daughter both build a prom budget to itemize each and every cost of the night. In doing so, I also ask them to make some estimates as to what they think their date is responsible for as well – it’s important that they understand the bigger picture of costs.

Building that list of costs is an eye-opening experience. Anyone who’s been through prom recently knows the list. Tickets, attire, hair, photos, transportation, flowers, dinner, and the after-prom party. And then there’s the more-and-more-common breakfast and play day the day following prom.

The numbers add up quickly. And I’ve watched both of my kids look at the total tally, develop a great, big gulp in their throat, and then ask, “Can you help?”

And, of course, I want to help. But there’s also a great opportunity at hand to show kids how to cut costs. Maybe that expensive dinner gets replaced with a fun, creative event at someone’s home or some other unusual venue? Maybe the flowers can be minimized or even eliminated (sorry to my florist friends!)? Is that limo really the only option for getting from point “A” to “B”?

One of my stand-by strategies is to set a limit as to what I can contribute to something. As an example, when my daughter was a senior, I told her I’d contribute $100 towards her dress and accessories. Everything else was her responsibility. Setting a limit for a parent contribution can really bring out some wonderful penny-pinching qualities in kids.

That budget limit for my daughter helped her as we searched for the perfect dress which, for her, needed to meet two criteria. It needed to be yellow. And it needed to be soft and flowing. Our dress-shopping experience found a number of options – all costing $200 and above. I could see her processing the pros and cons financially as she thought through all of her options. And – to her credit – she was determined to not have to use any of her own funds. At the suggestion of another parent, I ran up to an outlet store for a high-end dress manufacturer. It was about 30 minutes away. And I almost didn’t go. I mean, what were the chances of dear-old dad finding his daughter’s prom dress on his own?

Well, as it turned out, the chances were great. And I found a $39 price tag to prove it. That price tag was attached to the perfect dress. And I mean PERFECT. Like $400 marked down to $39 perfect. And the bonus was that it left extra money for some new earrings and a bracelet. She even borrowed shoes from a friend to keep from forking out unnecessary personal funds.

But you want to know the funny thing? As much as she loved her dress, she was more proud of its price.

The key, as is the case with everything parenting, is for moms and dads to be involved in planning for prom. Even if a parent can’t contribute financially, they can contribute ideas to help their kids manage their precious funds.

And my last bit of advice for parents? Go to a movie or enjoy a nice dinner out while your kids are at prom. You’ll be worried about their every move throughout the night. So go treat yourself and give yourself a pat on the back for helping your kid arrive at this point in their life. A milestone for them? For sure.

But it’s also a huge one for you.

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Do you have a burning question for our teen writers? Maybe something you don’t want to ask your own teen? Email us at with subject line “Back Talk”!

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