Quinceaneras: A cherished, but costly, tradition

Many Latino families spend thousands of dollars to celebrate their daughters' "coming of age" on their 15th birthday. The bill can run into thousands of dollars.

Even on a crowded dance floor, where everyone's pretending to ride an invisible pony, it only takes a few seconds to spot the birthday girl. Cassandra Austin is practically floating on a frothy cloud of yellow tulle and sparkling sequins.

"When I saw the dress, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I look like Belle from 'Beauty and the Beast,'" says Cassandra.

This party, at the Green River Golf Course in Corona is a quinceanera -- a 15th birthday celebration for Latinos. This is similar to a debutante ball or a Bar Mitzah. It's a rite of passage from girlhood to...well, young lady-hood. That transition includes a formal dinner, a waltz, a DJ, a photo booth, a cupcake table, a candy spread, and a light set up worthy of Studio 54. What did it all cost? Here's Cassandra's mom, Marcela:

"Seriously with all the decorations and everything, I would say between $13,000-15,000," says Marcela. "At least $15,000."

$15,000? For a party of about 100 guests? Marcela says the original budget was set at $9,000. Though Cassandra's dad had a different number in mind.

"Ideally I was thinking $5,000. I was hoping," says Fernando.

Even though they could afford it -- their combined income exceeds $130,000 a year -- the final bill still caused bit of strife in the family. The struggle over what's the right amount of money to spend on a coming-of-age party is common -- as an informal survey of the guests reveals. Here's Laura and Cynthia.

"I think my parents spent about, anywhere from $8,000-10,000. And we're from a family of five," says Laura. "It was very difficult for my parents because my dad was the only one working."

"Fifteen years ago, maybe more. I'm aging myself," says Cynthia. "Can you actually believe that my parents spent more on my quinceanera than on my college education? You talk about college and they're like, uh, community college."

Louis Barajas has helped Latino families plan for the one-night events for decades. As a financial adviser he has a go-to move.

"One of the things that I love to do is when I'm guiding a family, is, I sit down and I'll take a look at what I call 'life defining moments.' So I don't put all the focus on a quinceanera," says Barajas.

These can be anything from getting a first car, getting married, or maybe buying a first home. And when you look at these in perspective, he says, suddenly a quinceanera doesn't seem as important anymore. And usually, that helps keep parents within budget. When you don't do that, Barajas says, you get the horror stories. Wives taking their wedding rings to pawn shops and never going back for them, refinancing a home, or...

"Here's the worst case scenario: taking money from their 401(k) and again, they don't have a lot of money in their retirement plan, but they borrow money from the 401(k) to use the money for the quinceanera and they can't afford to pay it back. Eventually it ends up being penalized and they have to pay taxes on it," says Barajas.

Cassandra's parents, Marcela and Fernando, did go over budget. Though they didn't cash out their retirement accounts they did put $6,000 on the family credit card. The debate in their house was particularly drawn out because the quinceanera tradition only comes from one side of the family. Marcela is Mexican-American and had her own quinceanera in the mid-'80s. Fernando, is African-American, and he thought the splendor of it was indulgent.

"And I'm like, are you kidding me? In my mind, you know, I'm like there is no way that we're going to do this. It's too much, way too much," he says.

Fernando's mom, Sally, agrees.

"We don't really have this in the black culture. We didn't do that. We might have done a 16th birthday party, but not anything like this," she says.

Sally and her husband, Chauncey, still aren't convinced it's a worthwhile expense.

"When I came here and they were going through the plans, I said, this is going to get a little on the expensive side. First thing I said, I don't have any money," says Chanucey.

Despite their misgivings, they admit it's a beautiful party and their granddaughter does look like a Disney princess -- in the $150 poofy dress they paid for. At the end of the night Cassandra and her parents pose for a family photo. A perfect shot says her mom on a perfect night. And to heck with the expense.

"What I would say to people who think we're crazy? Like I've always said from the beginning: regardless whether it was going to be a backyard party, or a party like this. It's just tradition. You have to have a quinceanera," says Marcela.

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What is the conection between quinceaneras and "hyper-fertile young women" in the Jan 19th comment? That implication smacks of racism, as does the"state subsidized babies" comment.

However I do agree with the writer that money spent on quinceaneras could be better channeled elsewhere. Quinceaneras may be part of one's culture, but a lavish, show-off party is far from the quienceaneras's religious origins. A family should not use "culture" as an excuse to throw a debt-ridden party.

As a latina, I know that this is one issue that must be struggled with in our community. Too often it's the mother pushing the daughter to have the party she didn't, or the young girl trying to out-do her friends' quienceaneras, regardless of the family's finances.
The responsibility rests with us. We need to overcome this tradition of debt and seriously think of better investments for our children's futures than an indulgent one-night affair.

Biased about the parties, I am all for them if the people throwing it have the money to spend on it. But loans, refinancing, pawning and borrowing is just an idiotic decision. These events should be budgeted based on the families possibilities not on pretentious beliefs.

I am full mexican and had a quinceanera, it is one of the best memories of my life. I originally did not want one, I just wanted to trip to Cancun with 5 of my friends; but my parents convinced me. Luckily, my parents were very well off at the moment and my father spent over $60,000. My brother's did not want my father to spend more than $5,000 on it, I thank God for having such a wonderful Dad that gave me the party of my dreams, but if he would have not had the possibilities I would have never insisted on refinancing a house, or borrowing money in any sort.

Although it is a beautiful Mexican tradition it is also something that should be earned by the young ladies behavior, grades and family relationships. It is not something that should be given to young ladies who are failing classes or just bad all around.


Spending $15,000 on a one-night party would make Paris Hilton blush! While I respect and appreciate the tradition, the notion of spending this kind of money (or even 1/10 that amount) on something so frivolous is stupid and kind of pathetic.

As an outsider a Quinceanera also seems like a license to go start a family -- at 15! These hyper-fertile young women don't need any more encouragement to have any more state-subsidized babies.

Go ahead and do your party. But why not do it on the cheap (e.g. $500) and put the difference ($14,500) towards that girl's college education?

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