Quinceaneras: A cherished, but costly, tradition

Marketplace Contributor Jan 18, 2013

Quinceaneras: A cherished, but costly, tradition

Marketplace Contributor Jan 18, 2013

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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