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Families choose to splurge for prom

Surveys show that American families will be spending $1,000 on average for prom this year, up a third from last year.

Jeremy Hobson: If you've seen a lot of limos in your neighborhood lately, that's probably because it's prom season -- the time when high school students get to celebrate with a night they're told they'll always remember.

And this year, they'll probably remember the bill for a little longer than usual, as Bridget Bodnar reports.


Bridget Bodnar: It's prom season at the Mint Collection. High schoolers come and go. And everywhere, flouncy neon cocktail dresses, beaded minis, even a few feathery gowns.

Claudia Thompson was shopping with her daughter. Two years ago, the single mom was unemployed and relied on family members to help make ends meet. Claudia wants her daughter's senior prom to be a special night.

Claudia Thompson: If it had taken place back then, I think I would have worked at McDonald's if I had to, but would have given her the same as I'm giving her now.

Mom Claudia has already shelled out more than $700 on prom so far. That's just for tickets and a dress. She still needs to buy her daughter shoes, hair, makeup, flowers, transportation, dinner, pictures...

Claudia's got a long list and she's not alone. Visa estimates the average family will spend over $1,000 on prom this year. That's up a third from the year before.

Paula Rosenblum is with Retail Systems Research. She's not surprised by the extra spending.

Paula Rosenblum: We've gone through uncertain times for so long that a certain amount of frugality fatigue has set in. And consumers really would prefer to open up their wallets and enjoy themselves particularly on special life events like a prom.

Back at the boutique register, Tressa Matthews had just opened her wallet, spending $600 on her daughter's dress.

Tressa Matthews: It's unbelievable to me how much things are now and what the expectation is, yeah I guess just what the expectation is in terms of how much to be spent and what this night is for these kids, like it's a little, out of hand.

In fact, she spent $100 more than she had planned. But her daughter, Sage Gregory, had fallen in love with a long gold dress.

Sage Gregory: Like it wasn't like 'oh, I'm going to spend more' but it's also my senior prom so it's kind of more special.

Sage say she looks at it like she's helping the economy.

Gregory: Because I feel like you need to -- what's the word, no when you activate the economy? Stimulate the economy! That's what I think I'm doing.

The sales staff at the Mint Collection offered another reason the price of prom is up. Most of the dresses are made in China. Factories there are charging more for their labor this year. And designers are passing along the cost.

In Los Angeles, I'm Bridget Bodnar for Marketplace.

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After this report, we asked listeners to tell us how much they spent on their prom. Besides some eye popping numbers, we got one response showing the Visa survey reported in this story was reviewed by the editors at TODAY.com, who raised some questions about a small sample size. If you spent a lot – or a little – please comment.

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Mindless materialism - I remember my senior prom - we were a group of 25 high school seniors rafting on the Green River in Western Colorado as part of "Senior Seminar" - our prom consisted of singing - using some makeshift drums/flowers in our hair and a few of us wrapped in our sleeping bag "gowns" - of course this was 1970.

My daughter's junior year, she got a beautiful dress at a college garage sale for $1, found her shoes for $2 at a resale shop, paid $4 for a cute purse, and we made silk flower corsages for her and her date for about $12. His mom served a fancy meal (I supplied two courses) in their home, and the parents and grandparents ate in a different room before taking pictures. His uncle borrowed a fancy car, dressed up like a chauffeur, and drove them to prom. They loved it! The guy rented a tux for $90 and bought the tickets for $60, so it was a little pricier for him. But still, the evening cost less than $200 for the couple. Her senior year, we splurged and spent $50 on her dress. Everything else (meal, flowers, etc) was the same.

This is crazy. I just saw beautiful snapshots from my niece's prom last week. She and her friends shopped at Goodwill and found lovely dresses. Maybe regional? This story seems to be located in Los Angeles. Try the Midwest.

What an unbelievable waste of money and, again, more fuel for the stereotype women are unable, or unwilling, to take care of their money. Prom for men is nothing more than an opportunity for women to spend someone else's money...and lots of of it. For men, there is no "milestone event" more overrated than prom. Spend four figures and have less than 50/50 odds of getting laid.

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