Prom is still the big ticket despite slow economy

  • Article by: PATRICE RELERFORD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2008 - 12:07 AM

With the Big Dance season in full swing, one thing is clear: Few skimp despite a slower economy.

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A $15,000 prom during an economic downturn might seem extravagant.

That didn't stop Litchfield students and their families from renting the theme park at Mall of America recently for about 200 excited teenagers. It was twice the cost of last year's prom, when wallets were fatter and times were better.

People may be driving less, shopping for more discounts and eating more meals at home, but almost no one is skimping on prom, industry experts said. The teen rite of passage appears to be recession-proof.

"I probably spent between $250 and $300" on a dress, prom ticket, manicure, hair styling and other preparations, said Litchfield High junior Kalli Swanson. "It was worth it."

In the metro area, high schools such as Richfield, St. Paul Central and Farmington won't be asking promgoers to put down more than $80 each like Litchfield did. But schools said there hasn't been any cost cutting, either.

"We're not feeling any ill effects" from the economic downturn, said Jim Hardin of Knights Formal Wear. "Prom is a big event in a young person's life. They usually beg, borrow or steal to come up with money to have a nice night."

Prom is such a big deal that universities study it. North Dakota State University family economics specialist Debra Pankow conducted a survey about prom in 2006. Pankow, who works to improve financial literacy in North Dakota schools, said students with multiple income sources such as after-school jobs are more likely to be the big spenders.

"We've got lots of industries that love prom, from flowers to limos, formal dress [stores], hair stylists and even tanning salons," she said. "I don't think the [word] recession is even in [many teens'] vocabularies."

Litchfield's rental of the theme park was a first for Mall of America. The school's big night lasted from about 7 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. last Saturday, MOA officials said.

To make it happen, parents and local businesses pitched in with fundraisers and donations. Community and school leaders offered to provide discrete assistance to anyone who couldn't afford a ticket or needed other assistance. No one asked, said Siri Damerow, a Litchfield High teacher and prom organizer. Students took a charter bus to MOA.

"This is a great way to go," said Litchfield Assistant Principal Mike Sundin. "You keep everyone together [the whole night] and no one is drinking."

Students at Richfield, Farmington and St. Paul Central high schools will hold their proms at a local banquet hall or at school this weekend and later this month. All three schools said cost hasn't been a big issue. Tickets for the proms range from $15 to $40.

"I would bank my money on [the fact] that it's not affecting their spending at all," said Promspot.com and The Knot Inc. spokeswoman Melissa Bauer about the more than $6 billion industry.

The New York City-based wedding and prom media giant said prom spending resembles wedding spending in that teens view it as their "one big night." It's not uncommon for teen boys to spend money on limos and come up with creative ways such as billboards to ask a girl to accompany them to the big dance.

Farmington High holds its prom at the school to keep prices down, said Aaron Tinklenberg, a school district spokesman. Even so, Farmington's prom is no shoddy affair. Students and staff put tons of effort into decorations. Afterward, prom attendees disperse for dinner at local restaurants and return to school for the dance.

"It's one last hoorah, then you're done," said Richfield High senior Katy Cooper about the end-of the-year dance. "I'm looking forward to it."

Cooper, 18, said she's wearing a "big poofy yellow dress" she received for free from Ever After Gowns a few weeks ago. The nonprofit gave 150 Richfield girls free evening gowns. Girls at St. Paul Central also received free dresses from a local nonprofit.

Cooper estimated she would spend more than $100 of her own money next weekend. She could spend between $60 to $70 on her hairstyle, makeup and nails alone.

But teen girls aren't alone in racking up big expenses.

Richfield High seniors Elliot Novak, 18, and Diahn Zeon, 17, won free tuxedo rentals from Men's Wearhouse at Southdale Center in Edina during a school drawing. While the free rental will help with their budgets, both still plan to pick up the $45 to $60 tab for their dates' meals, buy prom tickets for themselves and their dates and pay for photos. They said they'll get through the night without going too much over budget.

A few days after Litchfield's prom, Michelle Yordi, 17, reflected on her experience and its impact on her wallet. Yordi spent about $230 on her hair, makeup, nails, prom ticket and tanning. Her mother and grandmother paid for her dress. The purple halter-style dress with beads cost $370.

When Yordi added up her prom night tab, she admitted the night was expensive but said she had a great time, and her after-school job helped cover the expenses.

"I liked taking pictures with everyone and getting to see how everyone looked in their dresses!" Yordi said via e-mail three days after the prom. "I thought it was really fun having after-prom at MOA and getting to ride the rides."

Patrice Relerford * 612-673-4395

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