Closets hold many secrets. A floor length, slippery white satin halter dress with an overlay of white organza and tiny rectangles of flocked pink. The bolero jacket with hot pink marabou feathers sewn delicately along the cuffs and placket. A pattern of tiny pink roses strewn on the fabric of a satin, flounced dress edged in sweet pink lace. The bouffant skirt requires a special pink satin slip to achieve just the right southern belle a la Scarlet O'Hara motif. The prom dresses still hang neatly in a closet in my parents' house -- a time-warped shrine to emotionally charged high school memories. They cost maybe $50 each. A local lady in the small town sewed them.
We decorated the high school gym with miles of crepe paper and glitter-strewn, wall-size murals. Romantic themes such as "We may never pass this way again" and "Do you know where you're going to?" set the stage for over-amplified teenage hormones. Boys wore an old suit or a new suit, but never tuxedos. We all knew everyone was at the grand march to look at the dresses anyway, especially the ones that would cause dress whiplash as teen boys strained to take a look.
Everyone has a prom story. The springtime high school rite of passage carries good memories for some, nightmares for others. Still -- years later -- we often remember that dress, that date, that car, that joy or that disappointment. Prom encompasses more drama than a bad actress, American Idol and a presidential political campaign combined.
After being stood up for the biggest date of their young lives, young women have sued teenage boys in small claims court over the cost of a prom dress. That's how important the dress is during prom season.
The rite of passage can require a wallet full of cash or a suitcase full.
In some schools, it resembles a teenage version of the Oscars, with Beverly Hills 90210 costs to match. One private school in Uniondale, N.Y., cancelled prom one year, noting financial decadence, with students putting down $10,000 to rent a party house in the Hamptons and parents chartering boats for their teens' late night booze cruise.
In Minneapolis-St. Paul, several high schools host a prom day, inviting vendors such as florists and limousine companies to showcase their offerings, much like a bridal fair. And in Racine, Wisconsin, the community turns prom night into an annual town-wide celebration where teens are treated like movie stars, arriving at their party on everything from fire trucks to elephants -- all shown on a live telecast. The event is featured in a documentary film called "The World's Best Prom."
Estimates put the total amount spent on prom-related items at $4 billion in the United States. And author Nathan Dugan, who wrote the book, How Not To Be Your Child's ATM: Prodigal Sons and Material Girls, suggests that teens' prom spending may predict future savings habits.
Maybe that's what drives Debra Pankow, an assistant professor of child development and family science at North Dakota State University. Seven years ago, Pankow began thinking about what type of big consumer expenditure teens face. "Obviously, it's prom." She then began surveying high school students in North Dakota to develop a database of prom expenditures. It seems teens in the state spend an annual average of $600 on prom. Schools, too, shell out big bucks. Schools in the state spend from $500 to $10,000 on prom extravaganzas. Pankow and her team of graduate and undergraduate students are developing a system to conduct additional long-term tracking of the social and economic juggernaut of prom.
Pankow's research and her approach to using prom as a way to teach financial responsibility have drawn national attention. Her statistics and budget planning tools have been featured in a multitude of media -- MSN Money, Chicago Sun-Times, Cincinnati Enquirer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Telemundo, to name a few.
"What happens with most people, it might start with the dress. And then they might have to have the perfect shoes. And then it's the perfect jewelry. And then it's the hairdo. They might want to have a pre-prom hairdo just to make sure it looks how they want it to on the big night. And then they have to get tan. And then they have to have the tanning package and the tanning lotion. Then the manicure," Pankow says. Girls can need money for: a dress, boutonniere, shoes, purse, jewelry, shawl or wrap, undergarments, garter and grooming costs such as hair styling, manicure/pedicure, tanning, waxing, tweezing and makeup. Typical prom costs for boys can include: tuxedo, accessories, shoes, vests, ties, hair, prom tickets or dinner, corsage, photographs and transportation.
No wonder the retail industry loves prom. "It's just like holiday season on a smaller scale," Pankow says. People are going to spend a lot of money and there are a lot of different industries that are affected -- the floral industry and the clothing industry and the tux rental industry and the limo industry. There are a lot of people who are depending on prom business from the retail end."
Retailers send the message to teens that if they end up spending more than expected, that is okay, because it will be worth it. That type of phrase is like waving a red flag in front of Pankow, who also surveys college students about their high school prom experiences. "So many of them say 'I can't believe I spent this much money. It wasn't worth it.' There shouldn't be a school memory that isn't worth it. I don't think the amount of satisfaction and the amount of money they spend are related."
Through the budget planning tools Pankow developed, she is trying to pave the way for parents and students to talk about prom, making it a memorable experience, while ensuring that a large credit card bill doesn't become a prom souvenir. "I think it's just such a good opportunity for kids and their parents to talk about money. We don't always talk a lot about it and you have time to plan how much you're going to spend," Pankow says. "Ask teens, 'Do you really need this? Can you borrow this? Can you make this?' "
Pankow also admits her common sense prom-spending crusade can't be accomplished alone. "Americans kind of like to keep up with the Joneses and they don't want to say no and deprive their kids. I do think it takes a community -- meaning parents or students who go to a particular school -- to kind of take control of the whole atmosphere about their prom. That's the part that I'm hoping education and parents and communities can help kids deal with. If there's some really good memories to be had with prom -- and I think there are -- then all kids should be encouraged to go and money should not be the problem. If we're living in a culture that says you've got to spend all this money to be able to go to prom and have a good time, that's not good for our kids."
So how does a mother with two teenage daughters approach prom? "I always felt like -- I do this prom research -- and I am a tightwad at heart -- and I always believe in walking my talk," Pankow says. One year, one daughter wore a sister's bridesmaid dress to prom. Another year, she chose a dress from a community event offering pre-owned prom dresses. But even the stalwart Pankow started having some doubts. "I thought, well, I can't just be such a total tightwad and I don't want my kids to grow up with that as a role model. So I decided that really, I wanted my philosophy to be this budget idea for prom in high school." So Pankow told her daughter that whether she attends once or all four years of high school, she would offer $300 in total monetary support.
Pankow has her own priceless teenage memories of attending prom in Williston, N.D. "We came in through these curved stairs during the grand march. Our theme was 'Gone With the Wind.' The stairs collapsed after about the third couple." At another prom, the post-prom activity was even more eventful. "One of the major hotels on Main Street burned down. And that's what I remember. If I didn't have the pictures, I would not remember what I wore. I remember who I went with."
Whether parent or teen, it's difficult not to be sucked into the vortex that is prom. One day in a local department store, after prom season, with rack after rack of $200 dresses marked down to $34, I let my 13-year-old daughter try on a few. I mean, only the most powerful among us can walk by racks of gleaming, rhinestone-studded, sparkling, splendiferous dresses in every manmade flammable fabric available in a rainbow of colors. Trying on a fabulous dress allows one to enter the world of princess-make-believe where everyone does our bidding.
With a twinge of feminist guilt, I tried to make it into a teachable moment. "So, are these dresses any different than they were two months ago when they cost $200?" I asked her. "Nope," she replied. "Then, maybe spending $34 makes more sense than $200," I pointed out. "I get it, Mom," although her eyes were still sparkling from the fun of twirling around in them in the dressing room. I have, no doubt, opened a Pandora's box. If the time comes, I will be using Professor Pankow's lesson plan and budget worksheet for prom planning. You can find it at www.ag.ndsu.edu/money/prom.htm.