What’s The Deal With Prom?

Fair Warning: My students may hate me after this post. Yours may hate you if you share it.


I was talking to a student recently and the subject of prom came up. It’s a little early in the year to dust off the tux, but we have an out of town trip scheduled the same weekend as her prom, so she’s skipping the dance. She said she wasn’t really interested in prom anyway, but would have probably gone because a friend would have made her. That’s code for “I don’t really have a good reason to not go, so I’ll just go so my friends will stop bugging me about it.” I hate that about prom. I hate that it’s become something that must be done.

Sometimes, I think I feel like this just because I’m getting old and grouchy, but then I remember that I didn’t like prom when I was in high school, either. I could take or leave all the showiness, but what’s the substance? Why are we doing this? Honestly, despite being in a very serious relationship during my prom years (a relationship that is still going strong, I should add), the only reason I went to prom was because my mom made me. I should qualify that a little bit… I say she made me, but really I went because I didn’t have a good reason to not go, so I just went so she wouldn’t bug me about it. “You’ll regret it if you don’t go.”

For the record, I don’t regret going, but I wouldn’t have regretted not going either. Nothing happened to change anything for us. Nothing in our relationship was magically better because we went to prom. We got all dressed up and had dinner and stood around in a gym with a bunch of other well dressed people and locked my keys in the car (yeah, I was really smooth back then). We still laugh about the lemon chicken I made, but other than that… it was a non-event. We had much more meaningful dates walking to the park or hiking to a waterfall or just hanging out at Taco Bell.

Which leads me to question. What’s the ROI on prom? What are we getting back for all the expense, and is it really worth it? First, the return in a positive light: We are getting a fun night out for teens. That’s pretty much it, right? It’s fun. If there’s more, let me know. But guess what this fun night of music and dancing is costing…

Just in financial terms, according to numbers from a couple years ago, American families will spend $6.6 billion on prom. That’s $6,600,000,000! That’s insane! Why are we doing this?

Ok, wait… that’s a big number, but there are a lot of people going to prom, right? It’s not that ridiculous when you break it down per person. Right?

Again, according to numbers from recent years, the average American family sending a kid to prom will spend over $1100 for that night of fun. Tell me that’s not ridiculous. I live in a pretty cheap frugal part of the country, so our numbers are lower than that, but even in the least prom-spendy part of the nation (the midwest) families will spend an average of almost $800! Additionally, those of us in families whose income is $50,000 or less typically spend MORE on prom than wealthier counterparts.

How dumb are we?

Is it really THAT much fun?

I’ve got a couple more years to figure out what I’m going to do with prom in my household, but I guarantee we’ll be WELL below average in this department! Maybe we’ll get lucky and our kids won’t have any more interest in prom than we did! But I hate to bring up an issue like this without some kind of suggestions to make it better, so here are a couple things you can do to bring some sanity to prom season.

  • Open the dialogue early. Talk to your kids about prom way before prom season hits. What are their hopes for prom? Who do they want to go with and why? Do they even really want to go? Help them say no if they don’t want to go, but don’t know how to tell their friends they don’t care to go.
  • Set a budget and stick to it. Before the dress shopping begins, before the dinner reservations are talked about, decide how much you’ll spend. Don’t just track the costs, determine what you’re willing to spend. Sit down with your son or daughter and agree to an amount, then allow your child to be responsible for most of the cost. See what I did there? We parents need to stop being so stupid that we pay for everything for our kids. We’re robbing them out of decision making skills they’re going to need.
  • Set a curfew and stick to it. This is not a financial issue. Our kids grow up best when we’re clear about where we’ve set the guardrails and why we’ve set them there. Discuss this openly and even allow a little negotiation. If they want to push a 12:30 curfew to 3 AM, let them explain why. If you want them home at 12:05, give them a better reason than “The dance ends at 12:00.”
  • Plan an alternative. Get together with a few of your kids’ closest friends and plan a group vacation or worthy cause to champion. What could a dozen kids do with $10,000 to donate?! Here’s a thought: Get a group of friends together and give your youth minister $1100 for each kid and ask him to come up with something. I guarantee a more meaningful experience than a night of fun.

Ok, I haven’t even mentioned the sex & drinking & what actually passes for dancing, but I’m done, I’m done. I sound too much like Rev. Shaw Moore already. Hey, I don’t think we need to kill prom altogether. But we don’t need to be so stupid about it, either.

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