Prom Spending Surges? Media Panics, Hype & Critical Thinking

May 15, 2015 Update! Great then/now retrospective in the New York Times that spans proms over 60 years, all the way up to current “promposal shenanigans, spending surges and social media selfies! Enjoy. 

May 24, 2012 UPDATE woohoo! Called it! Validation happy dance! Today Show notes HUGE Visa survey inaccuracies in this blurb-> “Prom Spending Myth” but no one is seeing it buried in an ‘aside’ comment, gah! This calls for a part two, pronto! 

Original Post: May 19, 2012 I could’ve called this, “Perception Vs Reality in the Media Salad Spinner” or “Frugal Findings Don’t Add Up to Prom Pricing Panic” but after seeing the massive ‘Prom Spending Surges’ headlines, I thought I’d give the alliteration a rest.

If I see one more “$1078 on average” headline or “33% nationwide” Visa survey stat presented without critical thinking skills or actual common sense parenting queries, I’ll be ready to toss our teen prom pics into a heap and hand-carry them to Visa headquarters myself.

Truth is, I’ve been quietly collecting peer parenting data about Prom 2012 costs over the last two months and I have a few choice things to say on the media literacy front…

Ever since media headlines began trumpeting four-figure price escalations and pundits started crowing that ‘prom is the new wedding’ citing a national AVERAGE of $1078 per a widely distributed Visa survey of 1000 phone respondents, I decided to put my incredulousness to an informal peer review using social media as a conduit. (for a quick per item detail to gauge some of the ancillary costs, try this fun little mouseover-style interactive of prom costs from USAToday)

Never one to drink the media KoolAid, especially sipping from the ‘can you top this’ chalice of ratings, sensationalism and outrage baiting, I set out to unearth prom spins with media mindfulness, knowing full well I had my own firsthand data in ‘a tale of two proms’ since my 16 year old attended both an April and May Junior Prom at two different public schools on the San Francisco peninsula.

Like the manufactured milestone ‘musts’ of 5th grade “graduation” and 8th grade “bridging” ceremonies, I’ve become desensitized to the fabricated parental peer pressure of distorted social norming (cough, one-upsmanship) that pretty much started with the “going rate for the tooth fairy” comparisons way back in the pre-K days. Are parents really in need of a shoulder shake en masse? Am I that out of touch with my peers?

I normally shrug off peer pressure with a ‘whatever’ and go on my merry way, but like the inescapable collegiate concerns about “Junior year” test fests and all the yakking about “prom pressure” and “finances” it made me try to authentically assess whether these pressure cooker dynamics building up with the weight of a season finale are media mirroring or “shoulds” amped up with peer expectations, or a chicken/egg combo of both.

It’s easy to see ‘how we got here’  in terms of pop culture cues signaling “appearance-is-everything” hottie-worship, bod over brains/vapid values, starstruck celebrification and of course the whole fame game of “who wore it best,” red carpet capers and teen proms depicted on TV as some sort of mashup between Disney’s Cinderella, MTV My Sweet 16 and a dollop of Dancing with the Stars glitz…

…But always one for circumspect media analysis, I can’t help but note that casual cost queries I’ve collected are easily HALF (and sometimes 1/5) the ‘average’ cited in ALL categories of their published demographics, which makes me peek behind the curtain to see if the tail is wagging the dog, as in ‘if you report it enough it becomes true.’

It’s kind of like infographics that dazzle with data and give insta-cred with visual insights all wrapped in a tidy package, until you unpack it to see how it’s presented, who came up with the numbers, and what research methodology was used to cement these numbers into our minds as a newly minted factoid.

Mind you, I’m not picking on ALL aspects of Visa’s survey, even though many mouths are agape at the “lower the income the higher the prom spending” corollary, that’s actually very consistent with Shaping Youth’s data dealing with media literacy education in socioeconomic pockets with student aid.

Whether it’s brand-name designer fashion, eating out, processed food pouches or techno toys we’ve been working to counter-market the identity issues of “you are what you own” and rise above the consumption blather, but it’s a tough intervention, as the desire to belong is a deep rooted motivational trigger. (lest you think otherwise, the low income consumer is also ‘targeted’ very specifically as you can see by this research showing 78% of the global population is ‘low income’) 

But overall, Visa’s survey gives me pause. You?

“Parents who make under $20,000 will spend an average of $1,200

Parents who make $20,000-$29,999 will spend an average of $2,635 (those two are the biggest corkers)

Parents who make $30,000-$39,999 will spend an average of $801

Parents who make $40,000-$49,999 will spend an average of $695

Parents who make over $50,000 will spend an average of $988

Parents who make over $75,000 will spend an average of $842″

This video clip of an aghast LA Times reporter breathlessly puts forth with wild-eyed assumption, “Well, Visa crunched the numbers and…”

Hard stop, right there please.

Media literacy requires due diligence to research the researchers, find out more about the methodology, and start deep diving into the missing questions here…

All I see in this release is “based on 1,000 telephone interviews conducted nationally from March 30 – April 1 in cooperation with GfK Roper OmniTel.”  Source: PR Newswire

Come on now, folks, let’s at least ask the basics before gulping down this $1078 average in one swallow!

What’s the ratio of public vs private schools factored into the socioeconomic mix if any?

How many representatives are from each region, and what are their ages and education levels? What’s the percentage of male/female respondents?

Is this a parent poll, a student recap, or a mixture?

Are these phone queries quantifiable based on Visa bills, cost tracking, and finite fees from carryovers on cards or are these ‘best memory’ ballpark approximations?

Was answering incentivized and if so, with what carrot?

How long was each phone call and how were the questions worded?

Did they ever present a question about whether the respondent had knowledge of alternatives to brand new buys, such as swap and shop events or sponsor hubs like Prom for All or Princess Project with underwriting/donation stations?

Did borrowing items from friends/family ever get phrased into a query, and if so, what was the response as to why/why not these options could/couldn’t be used?

And, ahem…Being bold here…

I’m also wondering if anyone in media bothered to note that the survey hails from Visa’s financial literacy arm promoting their Practical Money Skills for Life  microsite?

Could Visa perhaps also have a vested interest in behavioral triggers perpetuating consumerism in ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ angst while positioning themselves as the good guy who’s going to keep spending in check with financial literacy? ‘Put it on the card’ is far too common when dealing with socioeconomic pockets drowning in debt that plastic purveyors have put there to begin with…

Full disclosure: I’m a former ad agency creative director/branding pro (25 years) and I’ve worked extensively with Visa so happen to know how smart they are with multiple marketing layers, they don’t do anything without a marketing mission and purposeful brand positioning, goodwill included…just sayin’…

Again, I’m not discounting the Visa survey, I’m critically questioning it.

Their data is easily about DOUBLE the spend I’m finding in conversations and it’s just not jiving with my own experiences and youth sampling gleaned from a query on my Facebook status line netting close to three figures in anonymous responses as well as dialog with “low income” kids via after school programs…

Just because “media said so” parents march like lemmings into submission with wallet open (albeit with epic disgust) and pat themselves on the back when they come in “under the national average.”

That’s a behavior in dire need of modification if you ask me.

I’ve contacted Visa and GfK Roper OmniTel with some queries of my own, so hope to hear back on these questions for a follow up to this post, especially since we’ll no doubt hear similar fees tossed about with graduation costs, gifting, etc. as well.  Meanwhile…

My media literacy refrain continues to be why are we perpetuating pop culture zeitgeists sans critical thinking skills?

Who is setting that national average for spending, specifically?

Where are these Vegas-style “one to two grand” figures floating in from?

What parents are shelling out this kind of money in a high stakes gambit that puts their own financial well-being at risk for a school dance?

Even a quick chat with some students/families in ‘Title One’ schools  with student aid, and Boys and Girls Club teen programs revealed NOWHERE near the $1200-2635 prom figures cited for families earning less than $30,000. (caveat: Quinceañera stories tumbled off tongues readily, citing costs for a 15 year old Latina rite of passage, a cultural fete with godparents, sponsors and regalia ratcheted up with ever-increasing media influences of shows like MTV’s My Sweet 16, but this is a “prom” only, school dance focus, so we’ll put that one in the queue for another time) 

Not one student in my sphere threw caution to the wind in “price is no object, the dress is everything” mode, in ANY socioeconomic bracket. Not one parent responded that money was NOT an issue. 

Anecdotally, aside from costs, “interesting backs” were big conversation this year which may be a response to all of the “skimpy dress press” put forth in the media once again painting with a very wide, generalized, sexualized brush.

This prom dress code video clip shows a school superintendent saying he has some “frequent fliers” that “need talking to” every year, so “their moms were contacted” in advance…not sure which part of that statement is most wince-worthy. But I digress…

While bargain hunting for ‘appropriate’ gowns, I drove about four different packs of teen girls hither and yon on shopping sprees throughout the Bay Area and must say, the whole ‘Promzilla” dress to obsess depictions of ‘wedding-like’ fanfare could use trimming…In fact, Prom 2012 has been media altered and distorted like a PhotoShop fantasy.

When I initiated the budgetary convo early on, suggesting girls ‘rent’ gowns for this one night fete for example, I received ZERO pushback with full, enthusiastic buy-in. Unfortunately, the realities of renting gowns precluded.

It’s not that teens wanted or needed to “own” the dress, they just found that frustratingly, other than a few bridesmaid and consignment store offerings, many of the rentals were online, and thus not able to be fitted, felt, or even found. In sum, it was more about the “try” than the “buy.”

These kids truly wanted NOT to spend, (100% true if even a smidge of it was their OWN money and not their parents forking over funding) they just couldn’t find a way to try on the ‘rental’ options, and didn’t want the hassle of returns/shipping/mailing delays and angst of whether it would arrive on time or not.

My new product development mindset kicked in: “Why don’t you girls create a social media swap-n-shop resell solution and locally TRADE gowns among different high schools from year to year?” I implored.

…“It could be a real cash cow reselling with an admin percentage, tying in w/a nonprofit to snag empty mall space for a seasonal pop up store and opening during spring prom/graduation and for fall homecoming/winter formals; it’s like a MeetUp meets Facebook local/social distribution hybrid!”

My teen (at left, w/a $59.99 Loehmann’s find) gave me her trademark eyeroll, “No, mom…We have a Facebook closed group at our school to post among ourselves so no one gets the same dress, but um…pretty sure no one has time to start a business.”

So instead, we focused on the most affordable prom gowns aside from rentals or borrowing…namely factory outlets, retail warehouses, and bridesmaid retailers ‘past season.’ “Wait, how’d you know about these outlets? Is this an old people’s thing?” said my daughter exiting the Jessica McClintock factory store in San Francisco en route to Loehmann’s “back room” in search of frugal finds. “It’s as traditional as Filene’s basement in Boston,” I said, thinking about the now shuttered 100 year old venerable institution for bargain buys.

Granted, there ARE fabulous FREE opportunities that have been publicized to make prom accessible for all, such as the prom regalia via The Princess Project (SF and SD regionally) which now open doors to everyone with a school ID rather than being “for girls who cannot otherwise afford” (thus reducing any stigma) but my middleclass thoughts of displacing someone who might need it *more* kept us away.

I’ve also written about Project Green Prom (and their resources/ideation including a pop-up store in Marin with an eco-anti-consumption slant from Teens Turning Green in prior years) and I know DoSomething has their Prom For All events, and Boys and Girls Clubs have their own events to preclude low income families from over extending, making gowns and prom costs more accessible, but none of these alternatives grabbed headlines the way the Visa survey’s $1078 national average snapped eyes wide shut with incredulity, fueling the parental ‘this is what’s wrong with our country’ watercooler clucking that’s been pervasive throughout April and May (coming soon to your workplace: June graduation gift chatter, student debt convos and bleak job forecasting)

By her ‘second prom’ we were seasoned in our scavenger hunt and hit the jackpot at ‘The Great Mall of Milpitas’ way on the other side of the bay, home to a massive array of stores with viable options, including prom outlet GroupUSA which became a massive ‘focus group’ in terms of access to a living lab of teens from all over the Bay area conversing about body image, sizes, texting each other with photos for feedback and whipping out smartphones to capture “Facebook ready” poses in a manner almost surreal.

I’ll save that data for another story at another time, as I could go into an entirely separate post about the ratcheted up rituals creating ‘prom stress’ from the ‘creativeness of the ask’ to the build-up of expectations via hit shows on TV, to the ‘fat talk’ in the dressing rooms and the well-meaning but harsh gown critiques by parents tanking self-esteem on a measurable scale. Suffice it to stay, this is the start of a mental mindset created by all those runway ‘size zeros’ and I’m thankful NEDA media educators (pdf tipsheet here)  and and other body image pros are paying close attention to “bodysnarking” dynamics in terms of whether social media is fueling the fire, and it’s high time parents should sit up and pay attention to their own verbiage too…

I wish everyone would mind their tongues and reframe with tact; an entire book of tips on ‘How to say it to Girls’ from Nancy Gruver’s book would be worth a look, along with Fit vs Fiction’s body image workshops (see ongoing guest series here) I ended up dragging in gowns like a dress valet with the pat phrase, “just try this version, it’s an outlet, sizes vary” to various girls squeezing themselves into a number not remotely close to their body type. (and yes, some were strangers turned newfound friends, things get cozy in prom dressing rooms for hours)

But since this is about prom costs and media/financial literacy, I’ll stay on topic and reiterate “just the facts” from my own prom findings, again, about HALF the ‘spending figures’ in the media, gleaned from a simple query on my Facebook and Twitter social media accounts, yielding a sample slice of about 96 anonymous, willing participants, mostly west coast So/No Cal. (This mini-sample below is just anecdotal to show ‘range’ within Visa’s 75K+ income bracket; it’s appx 20 respondents from the same public school on the peninsula; a tight demographic/finite representation all still ‘thrifty’ in mindset, even at the peak of ‘spend’ level, and well under the survey ‘average’)

Lowest/Frugal Finds (For Tips/Tactics See 31 Ways to Slash Prom Costs) 

Respondent One (full disclosure: my teen!) Total $167 (inc taxes/tips)

$65 long dress (inc tax, at left from Loehmann’s) $50 for party bus to SF destination ($25 paid by parents, $25 by teen) $11 boutonniere (Safeway) $26 /+$5 tip; hair/makeup by local beauty school (otherwise she’d ‘get a friend to help’) borrowed silver sandals (she’d paid $30 for uncomfy rhinestone heels at winter formal only to kick off after photos and deal with a sticky gross dance floor, so she went straight to flats for prom) $10 official photos (small pack; $20 total/split w/prom date) Jewelry, borrowed from yours truly, no handbag, did her own nails ($55 advance ticket was paid by date so not reflected in fee above: jumps to $80 for late rate—- if she’d paid tix: $222; no food at prom; flavored water served, minimal décor as venue was the draw)

2012 Prom Rituals of note: Breathalyzer test administered at prom entry, ‘party bus’ favored over ‘limo’ due to size inclusiveness; location scouting for ‘pretty yard’ as backdrops for pre-prom digital photo opps (parents invited to take photos/nosh on finger food/pizza) post-prom after party at same place; girls’ sleepover) date’s surprise “ask” was accompanied by a support team of peers

(Of note: —her “second” prom at her new school on the peninsula was appx $100 more, $265 w/a SEP dress due to ‘Facebook photos overlap’ higher priced $65 tix which included more elaborate food/décor and she paid the bid, etc.

Security check was made over a breathalyzer ritual upon entry, and I noted a much more ‘appearance driven’ showcase dynamic from a cliques/tribes observational standpoint; closer location meant no bus, though she reported seeing more limos and they used family car)

Lowest Respondent 2 (male, attended w/date) Total: $196 (lucky to use his dad’s tux, full tux ran $120-150)

$10 flowers for ‘the ask’ (hoopla w/posters/signage/surprises and ‘stress’) $48 for vest, bow tie and shiny shoes, $28 corsage, $55 X2 tix= $110, In & Out Burger on way back (in other regions, dinner might be included in the prom ticket, or separate fees of $60+ for two have been bandied about for a couple, per my social media feedback findings)

Highest Costs Among Respondents STILL Attempting Frugality:

Highest cost respondent 3 (female, attended w/date)  Total: $544

$220 long dress, ($55 advance ticket paid by date same as above) $50 bus, $80 mani/pedi/acrylics, $35 spray tan, $45 shoes, $20 handbag, $25 ‘sticky boobs’ (clear gel bra) $39 hair/makeup at beauty school, $12 jewelry on sale, boutonniere $8 (special friend contact)  photos $10 (split w/date)

2012 Rituals of note: Parents paid for dress, teen (working) paid all ancillary costs beyond the dress; ask was in class, public, nervousness ensued (also told stories of another classmate spending ‘$400 for a dress only’ and “it’s not even Senior prom” (trend note: Sr. year fetes carry more weight, in fact in an interview with Suzette Valle in Coronado, San Diego, she reports the Junior prom girls wear ‘short dresses’ while the Seniors wear long ones as a self-selected identifier of honor, both classes attend one dance, w/sit-down dinner included, and higher fees at appx $75pp for advance tix—so the higher the ticket cost, the more food/dinner was bound to be included)

Highest cost respondent 2 (male, attended w/date) Total: $425

$150 tux rental w/vest, shoes, works; $80 X 2 prom tix/late rate=$160, party bus $50pp, corsage $35, flowers/signage/card/candy for build up of “ask” $30

In sum, whether you swap out savings on short vs long gowns, shoes vs accessories, or skin/care beauty regimens (like the very popular department stores offering product minimums to rate free makeup sessions over the counter, like MAC’s “Special Occasion Make-up” $50 toward products) for DIY mode, it’s noteworthy to share that every single respondent I surveyed was WELL UNDER HALF the cost cited in the media, and nowhere near the $1078 trumpeted ad infinitum.

Visa and GfKRoper Omnitel, I’ll await your call.

Meanwhile here are a few related reads to gear up for graduation fanfare, because we all know…that’s next in the media mix.

This infographic is Pretty in Pink, but as Miss uses in their social media Twitter campaign, I’m using the hashtag: #NotBuyingIt.

Visual credits: Keep up graphic/Joshua Blankenship 

Related Reading on Prom, by Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

Media HypeFest: Is Prom the New Wedding?

Kids, Media & Intimacy: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Project Green Prom Update, Shaping Youth-Teens Turning Green

Project Green Prom: Sustainability (Green Graduations, Party Planning & Beyond)

Related Reading on Prom 2012 of Interest

Students Trying to Cut Prom Spending (Chicago Tribune: note, the only media story I saw that fit my data!)

Michigan Teen Makes Prom Dress Out of Starburst Wrappers (eco-focus, fun!)

Pro Golfer Scores Prom Date Using Facebook and Pinterest Contest (use of social media/innovation) 

YPulse Youth Advisory Board: Prom Comes of Age, How a Night to Remember Has Evolved

What the…Sexy Prom Dresses? (Pt 1 Powered by Girl A Teen Point of View)

What Prom Pressure? (Pt 2 Powered by Girl A Teen Point of View)

New Jersey Teen Organizes Prom Dress Drive

Teens’ No Tanning Pledge for Prom to Raise Awareness For Skin Cancer





  1. PROMS? If you think this rite of passage is costly, you should do a story on Bar/Bat Mitzvahs!

  2. Excellent post, Amy! It was so refreshing chatting with you.

    There’s so much information here to digest. This post also puts the reality many families face trying to keep their teens grounded in these hyper media-influenced times, back on track.

    I really appreciate having a parent like you out there discussing these important issues affecting today’s teenagers…and their parent’s pocketbook!

  3. @Heidi, glad it helps a tad, I’m planning a ‘part two’ to chat about some of the ‘then and now’ realities as well to deconstruct the media focus too…lots of attention on the ‘dress code’ issues but have found kids ‘self-rein’ sorting out much of it on their own…

    @Frank…YES. You are absolutely right…The Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and Quinceañera stories and debutante balls are all ‘rite of passage’ rituals/cultural fetes that often have costs out the wazoo in parent indulgence mode.

    Big difference w/proms are obviously the very “institution” factor of “school” and all the ancillary ‘rules/regs/attempts to tamp down/rein in’ on the control front (from costs to behavior to liability, etc) so it gets gonzo in diff ways in diff regions for diff issues… 😉

    @Suzette thank YOU for the chat, and for also bringing parents’ voices into the mix to humanize the experience, because I tell ya, if I were to ‘believe’ everything the media pundits and Google search engines are serving me, I’d think parents had totally turned into a herd mentality of ‘sheeple’ just passively baaaaa-ing (and buying) their way through raising kids. sigh. Gawd I hope not.

    Appreciate the bright light of hope that there IS some sanity out there. 😉


    Today Show blurb (albeit as an aside/correx which is buried in search, only to be unearthed rendering my ‘gut check’ completely spot on with a media literacy fist pumping ‘YES!!!’

    Ck it out via Today Show Moms comments (albeit 22 pages deep into Google search for accuracy check…)

    “A closer examination of the data by shows that the widely reported Visa survey, conducted by GfK Roper, has some serious flaws. For starters, the survey results “based on 1,000 telephone interviews” actually ruled out 741 of those interviews because they had no teenage children, and 85 were eliminated from the results because they were “not sure” how much they were spending. The Visa survey also ignored the responses of 55 people who said they planned on spending nothing for their teen’s prom.

    That left just 119 survey respondents — not nearly enough to draw conclusions about the average spending of all American parents. And 61 percent of those people said they would be spending $500 or less on prom.

    So how did Visa come up with the eye-popping figures on average spending? It’s possible a few respondents skewed the results by saying they were spending $5,000 (the survey’s maximum value). Roper and Visa did not respond to questions about why the average excluded those who said they are spending nothing.

    TODAY Moms regrets the error, and we wanted to set the record straight. So if your teens have been telling you that everyone is spending a boat-load of money on a high school dance, now you can tell them: No, they’re really not.”

    No wonder they’re not returning my dang phone calls. Geeeeeeeez. I am just jaw-dropped at the journalism ‘pick up and run with it’ methodology sans critical thinking…because now we have about two dozen+ pages of inaccuracy before ever discovering even a smidge of a teeny weeny blurb of fact…this is how ‘propaganda’ gets to be part of the cultural dialog…I say we MUST start surveying the surveyors BEFORE not after we report on them.

    A part two is forthcoming…(soooooo disappointed in journo/media lack of follow up too…sigh.)

Speak Your Mind