Thursday, March 29, 2012

Over $1,600 for One Teen Date?

Would you pay $807 for your teenager to spend one evening at a high school prom? No? According to this WSJ article, that’s the amount the average American “family with a high-school student spent … on prom last year, including clothing, transportation, tickets and pictures.”

I wonder if this price tag includes the costs of asking someone to the dance and responding to the invitation. In the area where I live, these simple courtesies have evolved into elaborate and often expensive rituals where teens seek to be more creative and exotic than anyone else.

I also wonder if the cost of the day date was included. Many youth in my area make an entire day out of going to the prom. They start by going out for breakfast in the morning. Then they engage in a variety of activities, which, like the invitation routines, seem designed to compete to be the most extravagant. Some youth go on to have all-night video and gaming parties (and even parent-sponsored drinking parties) after the dance so that the date consumes a full 24 hours.

Even if these extra-prom costs are included, $807 is a lot of money. That’s $1,614 per couple. We’re talking about 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds. For one evening. We didn’t spend that much on our entire wedding celebration, including the wedding breakfast for two dozen people, flowers, formals, cake, and the reception for several hundred people.

Some parents have no problem shelling out beaucoup bucks for their little mister or little miss to enjoy a luxurious evening with their high school pals. But each new pretentious enhancement to this annual American rite raises the bar for other participants or would-be participants. This can’t help but price an increasing number of students out of the celebration.

The parents of students at one high school in our area rebelled against the tendency for prom to become ever more grandiose. For a number of years that school has prohibited tuxedoes, formal gowns, limousines, and the like at prom. And it hasn’t caused the world to end.

The WSJ article cited mainly focuses on the modesty of the girls’ gowns. The author discusses some schools’ attempts to stanch the tide of revealing and risqué evening wear that more than a few parents encourage and support. Some parents apparently believe that their daughter ought to show as much skin as possible when attending prom.

I’ve always thought it odd that most young men attending prom wear a tuxedo. They end up putting on more clothing than they’ve ever worn to a school event, while some young women put on less clothing than they’ve ever worn to a school event (including gym classes and swim meets). Moreover, they dress to enhance sex appeal, looking like they’re about to put on a show at a high-end strip club.

Some in my area chalk up the concern about immodest prom gowns to Utah prudishness. But the WSJ article demonstrates that this is a nationwide concern. A few schools have given up on trying to maintain a basic level of propriety at prom and have simply stopped sponsoring the event altogether.

I have no problem with high school students holding formal dances. The idea is to have a shared somewhat refined experience before leaving the odd microculture that exists in high school. But if I had my way, these dances would be far less extravagant than they have become. Refinement is ennobling. Gaudy decadence is not.

To be blunt, $1,614 for one date for a pair of teenagers is bizarrely profligate. And that’s just the average. Some people spent a lot more than that last year.

Maybe this is just a symptom of a deeper societal issue: the idea that we can make ourselves happy by living bigger and spending more. We’ve done it broadly on the individual and public levels. We continue racking up debt to have what we want. But more is never enough. Flaunting what we’ve got never satisfies. Meanwhile we keep trying to ignore the impending consequences of our mounting debt.

Come to think of it, what are we actually teaching our high schoolers through glitzy proms?


book_pusher said...

When I was in high school, we spent a little on Prom, but the goal for me and my friends was to get the most enjoyment for the least cost. When my little brother went to Prom six years later, he was shocked to discover the expense his friends were making for Prom--especially the money his date 'required' him to spend for her happiness. I was so proud of him when he said, "No way!" and found another group to attend with.
As for the kids that demand $800 for a Prom date, how many of them would actually pay that much if it was their own hard-earned money?

John Teal said...

You mention this may be a nationwide thing. I'm sad to report it is spilling over from your shores to mine. Here in the UK prom is a reasonably new idea. Probably started due to movie representations of your proms. In the few years local schools have been holding them, the experiences you refer to are becoming our norm. Limos, dresses and expense.
In some cases you would thing that the parents of girls were planning a wedding not attendance of a dance. Perhaps with a decline in weddings prom is the new big excuse for Mum to dress up her daughter at a coming of age event?

We also have the same insane desire to spend as much on a dress with the least amount of material as possible !