A prom without all the frills

Buddy, can you spare a tiara?

The deep recession is taking some of the sparkle out of prom, the high school dance that has become an extravagant rite of passage.

Out are $1,000 dresses and salon waxing treatments. In are consignment-store outfits and drugstore beauty kits. Kids are ditching rented limos for the family car, and even clambering aboard school buses in their formal wear -- hardly the dream coach that many had envisioned whisking them to their big night.

And like harried chief executives across the country facing poor sales, prom organizers are lowering ticket prices and whacking budgets. Goodbye ice sculptures, fancy centerpieces and swag giveaways.


Seniors at Adolfo Camarillo High School in Ventura County have staged no less than 10 fundraisers this school year to help cover the $50,000 tab for the May formal.

“It’s already so stressful having to worry about all the things you need for prom,” said Kati Munoz, 17, a senior who’s helping plan the event. “Now we also have to worry about money on top of that.”

Like the rest of her friends on the senior council, Munoz plans to don a cheaper dress than the $1,000 gown she had dreamed of. Instead of going to a salon, she’ll have her mother’s friend do her hair. She’ll also skip the tanning booth for the free but time-consuming chore of bronzing in the sun.

Munoz’s thrift is catching. Spending on the $4-billion-a-year prom industry could drop by as much as one-fifth this year, some event planners and marketers say, as the unemployment rate for adults and teenagers has hit levels not seen in a generation.

“Kids are more cost-conscious and dollar-savvy now because they just don’t have any money,” said Chris Hundley, owner of the Limousine Connection in North Hollywood, who said prom business was easily down by 25% across the limo industry. “The new world order is being low-key.”

Elders whose proms consisted of little more than crepe paper streamers and punch in the school gym might approve of the new austerity. But historians say the ritual is rooted in conspicuous consumption.

The very word prom is derived from the debutante balls of the late 1800s, when the single daughters of prominent families would promenade in their finery, according to University of Minnesota American studies professor Karal Ann Marling, author of “Debutante.”

The public-school masses eventually adopted a modest version of the formal, which grew more elaborate in the 1950s postwar boom. But prom really blew up in the go-go ‘80s, planners say, as students increasingly moved the event off campus to swanky hotels or outlandish locations such as movie studio lots.

Class fundraising for these galas has become a cottage industry unto itself. Students at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School have been hustling since they were in middle school, washing cars, delivering phone books and hawking custom tote bags and T-shirts.

One-third of the $30,000 they’ve raised will finance events such as the senior picnic and graduation festivities. The rest will go toward the $55,000 bill for their June shindig at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

Ticket revenue was supposed to cover the gap, but the sagging economy has depressed sales. Organizers knocked $10 off the $95 admission cost after students complained. But they had to scrap plans to hand out souvenir photos for the seniors, which would have cost $5,000.

As the date approaches, the cost-cutting has continued. Gone are the fancy foil-ink tickets, saving $700. Ditto for the $600 ice sculpture.

“This is now a luxury for us,” teacher and class advisor Derek Steinorth said. “We still have to make tough decisions.”

Prom-goers too are having a hard time balancing the books.

Girls spent a median of $750 in 2007, compared with $400 for boys, according to New York event-production firm Fame Media. But formalwear, flowers, fancy wheels and the like can reach $1,300, planning website PromSpot says.

“There are such high expectations that it keeps a lot of kids from enjoying what should be a highlight of their high school career,” said Debra Pankow, a family economics specialist at North Dakota State University.

Some schools are pulling the plug. Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsborough, Mass., canceled its junior prom this year because of anemic demand for tickets -- even after admission was reduced to $25 a head from $40. The region’s jobless rate hit 8.7% in February, up from 4.8% in February 2008.

Other students are willing to suffer a few dings to their grown-up image to get to the prom. Some teens in West Virginia and Illinois are shelling out less than $10 a head to ride to the dance on school buses.

Others aren’t leaving school grounds. Until last year, about 75% of schools held their dances off site, said Shep Moyle, chief executive of Indiana-based Shindigz Party Supplies, which has clients nationwide. He estimated that as many as half were hosting cheaper dances on campus this year.

The nonprofit Princess Project says it will provide an estimated 3,000 free dresses this year in California to teens who could not otherwise afford them. Girls have swamped the San Francisco giveaway events.

In Bellflower, volunteers for the local charity Diva’s “A Cup of Comfort” have already given away 50 dresses at two events.

Students at Adolfo Camarillo High School feared they’d need a bailout to cover the $50,000 tab for their prom at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. Instead they got busy peddling pizzas, sweat shirts and talent-show tickets.

“We had to fund-raise like crazy to offer the same ticket price as last year,” said class President Nicollette Bruce, 17.

Even so, some classmates are complaining about the $100 admission price.

Bruce can relate. Although her parents paid for her brothers’ prom expenses, they want her to foot half the bill from her part-time job at a music studio.

Class Vice President Jessica Park, 17, is skipping the grad night event at Disneyland because she can’t afford the $115 ticket.

Several of the girls had fantasized about buying prom dresses from the upscale California & Main store in nearby Ventura. Cash-strapped parents have informed them that the $500 gowns are now out of their league.

Mandisa Holmes, 17, wasn’t keen on her mother’s suggestion that she wear her older sister’s dress. So the teen took a cashier’s job at a local pizzeria to finance her gown.

“If I have to struggle to get the money to go,” she said, “then I’ll just have to make the most of it when I’m there.”




Cutting your prom budget


* Borrow or rent. Many tuxedo, prom and bridal wear shops offer rentals.

* Start early to compare prices and avoid rushing into an expensive, last-minute choice.

* Check sale racks at formalwear stores and browse designer outlets and online boutiques.

* Consider a custom-made dress or a classy suit instead of an off-the-rack tux or gown. Frothy, beaded and sequined dresses tend to be more expensive.


* Avoid anything too trendy, like extravagant chandelier earrings or snakeskin stilettos. Invest in something you can wear throughout college.

* For boutonnieres, try a rose from your garden.

* For corsages, locally grown, in-season blooms tend to be cheaper. Carnations are always an inexpensive option.


* Host a mani-pedi party and have friends do each other’s nails.

* Negotiate a group discount. Many salons will offer a 2-for-1 deal.

* A simple hairstyle is less pricey than a dramatic up do.


* Host a potluck or a catered meal at your home and split the cost.

* Opt for a smaller package of professional photos and upload candid shots from your own camera onto photo-sharing sites.

Sources: and Times research