INDIANAPOLIS -- Prom is the new wedding, and spending on the springtime high school dance is climbing within reach of celebrations of holy matrimony.
Mary Stirsman says she couldn't imagine buying her 17-year-old daughter Madison the $500 dress she found at an Indianapolis boutique on one recent shopping trip, because Stirsman only spent $800 on her own wedding dress. But a higher price tag is the new norm for an increasingly lavish event for which teens and their families are dropping loads of cash on one-of-a-kind dresses and tuxes, limos or party buses, hair, makeup, jewelry, flowers, dinner and dance tickets.
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This year, families with teens are expected to spend an average of $1,078 on prom, up from $807 last year, according to data from a survey released Friday by Visa that includes results based on a thousand telephone interviews conducted at the end of last month.
"This is social-arms-race spending. It's extreme," said Jason Alderman, director of Visa's financial education programs.
Spending has been driven to never-before-seen levels as teens are influenced by everything from celebrities and reality TV to the prevalence of social media, experts say.
Linda Korman, advertising director for Seventeen Prom and Teen Prom, says teen girls view prom as their "red-carpet moment" and are "heavily influenced" by celebrities who walk actual red carpets in designer gowns.
"It's a rite of passage, and there's a legacy of how you look at your prom," she said. "Girls want to dress to impress."
Maria Sanchez-Ferry of Las Vegas spent $400 on a sequined teal dress from a bridal store for her 17-year-old daughter, Reyna Sanchez, and another $120 on alterations. The prom is at the end of the month, and while she says the event is turning into the most costly of all the high school dances Reyna, a senior, has attended, she doesn't mind spending more.
"This is her senior prom, and I wanted it to be special," Sanchez-Ferry says.
A coming-of-age event
With more adults marrying later, in many ways, prom has replaced weddings, debutante balls and coming-out parties as the formal occasion of a young adult's life, says Kit Yarrow, a marketing and psychology professor who co-authored Gen BuY, a book on Gen Y buying behavior.
This is especially evident in the Northeast and South, which have a tradition of formal coming-of-age parties. Average spending by families with teens attending prom is considerably higher than in other parts of the country, with families in the South expected to spend about $1,047, while Northeastern families will spend an average of almost $2,000, according to the Visa survey. In the West and Midwest, families will spend an average of $744 and $696, respectively, the survey found.
The disparity in spending across the country, as well as the increase in overall spending, might be due, in part, to the degree to which parents are involved in their kids' social lives, Yarrow says.
"Especially in really affluent households, the parents, in a way, use their kids to proclaim their stature to other parents," she said. "They use their kids to communicate to the community who they are."
Making an impression
But kids themselves are also concerned with the impression they're communicating, and for teens who have grown up sharing their lives on Facebook and other social-media platforms, appearances have become even more important, say Yarrow and Alison Jatlow Levy, a retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon.
Girls' sources of style and inspiration have evolved with greater access to information through fashion blogs and other websites that put an emphasis on individuality, Levy says. "There's a general sense of people wanting to be differentiated," she said. "Going to a national chain and getting the same dress that 18 other girls have is not a chance for me to differentiate myself or express my individuality, which is such an important part of my social experience today."
Splurging on an expensive dress or getting your hair and nails done isn't just about personal expression; it's about getting attention, Yarrow says.
"The bar is higher for what it takes to get attention, and therefore, (teens) really need to have something exclusive, original, unique to them in order to get attention to from other people," Yarrow said, and that often comes with a higher price tag.
The "peer pressure to one up each other over and over," as Alderman says, seems to be affecting less affluent families the most. Parents in one of the lowest income brackets from the Visa survey reported planning to spend the most on prom. Those who make between $20,000 and $29,999 a year will spend more than $2,600, twice the national average, while families in high income brackets plan to spend between $700 and $1,000.
"Appearance is everything, and for prom, appearance really matters," Levy said. "You'll probably see people spending a little beyond their means to make the right impression. It's like your Cinderella night, so you pull out all the stops."