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Going to prom on a tighter budget

Prom dancers

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TESS VIGELAND: If you're out on the town for dinner this weekend and you run into a group of teenagers, dressed to the nines, and all a-twitter -- in the old-fashioned sense of the word -- chances are good they're heading to the prom.

But the recession is making even this traditionally carefree group think more sensibly about the big night.

Andrea Gardner chatted with some Burbank High School seniors about their plans.


Andrea Gardner: This feels like a different year.

Group: Yeah, it does. Yes.

Amada Martinez: That's for sure.

Cassandra Almaraz: Last year at this time, people weren't watching every dollar they spent, like they are now.

Martinez: You know, people suffering and losing their jobs. It shows.

That's Amada Martinez and Cassandra Alamaraz. In the past few years, kids like them at Burbank High School threw lavish Sweet 16 parties and talked their parents into designer handbags they couldn't afford.

This year, money is tight. Parents can't pay for prom outright. More students have after-school jobs. Jacklyn Ontiveros and Lara Saikaly say they're chipping in their paychecks and looking for deals.

Jacklyn Ontiveros: I went to, like, a discount store. It's the same brand dress. I guess it is out-of-style or whatever. But I think it is fine.

Lara Saiklay: My dress, I basically ordered online. It's $97. I got the shorter dress because it was less expensive than all the other long ones. One of my friends, she had to borrow a dress from another friend of ours. Her parents are laid off too, and they can't really pay for much.

For the guys who bought their tickets, the big expense is the tux. It runs around 120 bucks to rent.

Then there's the limo. It runs $400. If you can afford it, it's just you and your date in the backseat. This year, most kids are splitting it with the largest group possible.

Senior Anthony Sanna says he's jealous of his friend's prom last year.

Anthony Sanna: Full on-board with a Hummer limo and the most expensive tux they could find. But now that my friends have gone to college and now it's my turn, I'm starting to really feel the impact of not being able to go full-on overboard. As much as I want to, I can't really.

Ordinarily, these kids say they might spend 500 bucks total on prom. Now they're trying to bring the bill in around $300. There's a lot more "do it yourself" in the picture.

Almaraz: Self tan, spray tan. Or, if they have a friend that knows a friend that can do their nails for a cheaper price. I mean, that's how it is.

Ontiveros: My friends and I aren't even taking limos. We are going to drive ourselves.

Martinez: I'm doing all my friends' makeups, and we're all kinda trading stuff back and forth.

If they wanted to borrow money for the dream night, a local credit union is offering $500 "prom loans". No one in this group wanted the debt. They said they'd rather be frugal.

But that frugal mentality only goes so far. These are teenagers after all. There are certain things they won't give up. Like the after-party, where students pool their money to rent a private beach house or hotel room. That adds about $100 to the tab.

Gardner: What percentage of your friends do you think are doing one of these hotels or beach house things?

Group: All of them, a lot of them, all of them. Either Palm Springs, hotel, or beach house.

Here is their rationale: Do prom on the cheap -- after all, it only lasts three hours. Then, there might be money left over for a celebration that lasts all weekend.

In Los Angeles, I'm Andrea Gardner for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Andrea Gardner is a journalism professor and writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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