The high school prom has become a big business that can eat a big hole in the family budget.

In a study conducted by Visa Inc., the average prom-going teen spent almost $1,000 on the event in 2014 and 2015. Costs include attire, limousine or car rentals, tickets, flowers, pictures, food, accommodations, the “promposal” and an after party, to name a few.

Danny Phomvilay, 17, a senior at Richmond High School, is saving some costs by not renting a car or limo, but he’s still forking over about $650, including a new suit and the $85 that prom tickets cost for those who didn’t buy them early in the year at $65 a pop.

As for the costs, Phomvilay said, “it’s frustrating. But I saved a lot so that I can have a nice prom. This is like a last goodbye for seniors.”

Richmond High School seniors Leonardo Anguiano, left, and Leslie Vega arrived in a limousine for the Richmond High prom at the Rotunda building in Oakland on Friday. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

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Ivan Hernandez, 17, another senior at Richmond, had similar thoughts.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said, explaining that a suit, tickets and the cost of sharing a car rental to take him and friends to the prom venue — the Rotunda Building in Oakland — will cost him a few hundred bucks.

Kelley Sheen, a senior at Branham High School in Campbell, attended her senior prom recently.

“It was fun, but I definitely feel like people hype up prom more than they should,” said Sheen, who had attended the prom in past years. Tickets for that prom started at $90 for those who bought early and increased in the weeks leading up to the event, she said. That covered dinner and the dance at the Tech Museum in San Jose.

Sheen said she saved money by wearing a dress she had already worn to another dance and carpooled with friends to the event. But she saw others who “went all out.”

“Another friend I know rented a party bus and everyone chipped in, and someone last year rented a Porsche,” Sheen said.


But the costs can start way before the actual event. Promposals are elaborate invitations to prom that have gained traction on the web in the past few years, with teens plotting big events to ask their date to prom and often publicizing it through YouTube or other social media channels.

Some promposals have involved buying expensive gifts. Others have enlisted celebrities or public figures (one teen got presidential candidate Ted Cruz to read a promposal script). Visa included promposal spending in its 2015 study, finding that families across the country spent an average of $324 on promposals.

In the western U.S., teens or their families spent an average of $596 on prom night and $342 on the promposal for a total of $937, according to the study.

Retailers are capitalizing on that trend. Men’s Wearhouse established “National Promposal Day” (March 11), urging high school students to share their elaborate proposals on social media channels. The retailer, which rents tuxedos and suits for the event, collaborated with Snapchat’s advertising program, SnapAds, to create a prom-themed game.

Then there is the prom dress. No one wants to have the same one, and teens are careful to make sure that doesn’t happen. Teens at Richmond High created an Instagram feed that students can contribute to let others know which dress they are picking. Others in the Bay Area have Facebook groups or pages with the same purpose.


Trudy’s, a bridal and formalwear store in Campbell, had even created a registry in the past few years so as to not sell the same dress to girls attending the same prom. It dropped the practice this year as more girls turned to social media to create their own monitoring system and competition from online retail heated up, said store owner Steven Blechman.

Blechman said prom began turning into the elaborate event it is today in the past 15 years. He said Trudy’s, which has been around for more than 40 years and does most of its business in the bridal department, starts to see girls shopping for their spring proms in November and December.

Preparing for prom is a big deal inside the store, Blechman said. He has in-store consultants work with teens and their families, in hopes that the prom dress experience will inspire future visits to the store for bridal and other events.

“It’s the first time these girls are dressing up for something so special,” he said.

Hayward teen Shami Oshun found a way around the expense of a dress. She made her own dress for less than $15.

But others without her sewing skills could pay quite a bit more. The median price teens spend on prom dresses at Trudy’s, for example, is between about $375 and $475, although high-end pieces can go up to $800, Blechman said.

While the dress or suit is a big cost, it’s often the little things that add up to make prom costs so high, said Sheen, the Branham High senior. That can include things like dinner (if the school doesn’t serve it), accessories, or the costs for an after party, for which teens rent hotel rooms or other venues. Sometimes those require buying another dress or outfit, Sheen said.


“It’s a big financial burden, and as we progress, prom becomes more of a big deal,” said Victoria Candland, the chairwoman of marketing for the Princess Project, which provides prom dresses and accessories for teens who can’t afford to buy them in the Bay Area and Southern California. “People have parties and dinners, and it becomes a big financial burden for families.”

Fortunately for those teens, the Princess Project steps in to help. This year in Silicon Valley, it collected 3,500 donated dresses and had 800 volunteers involved to help over 1,000 teens. In San Francisco, it collected another 2,500 dresses.

“This is a big deal in their lives,” Candland said. “It’s not a necessity, but it’s a big deal. They want to feel beautiful and not miss out.”

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