Prom is the strangest and most fetishized American high school ritual: our popular culture displays its variation in films from Mean Girls to Carrie, and everyone can remember their prom (whether they attended or not). Spending a significant amount of money on prom is also not seen as out of the question, between the limo, outfits, dinner beforehand, and of course, the tickets themselves. Our national obsession with prom might account for the out of control spending on this event among lower income Americans recently reported by a Visa survey.
In the last three years, spending on prom has skyrocketed: cost is up 33% since last year. As one parent quoted in a Yahoo! article said, “Parents want to give their kids everything, and businesses are — logically — taking advantage of this in many areas.”
It seems that this is particularly true for parents who make the least of American parents. Yahoo! reports that, “families in the $20,000 to $29,000 income bracket are doling out the most — $2,635 for prom — about three times as much as a family that makes more than $75,000.” What explains this incredible gap in spending? Why are those with the least amount of money spending the most on an event — as culturally resonant as it is — that only lasts one night?
There’s no clear way of determining what is contributing to this high rate of spending for low income Americans. But it seems that, in a time where young people face higher rates of unemployment, have fewer job opportunities, and generally face “downward mobility” greater than their parents,' perhaps families are trying to make up for decreased economic success with the celebration of a single night, one that most teenagers can get excited about.
This could also be part of “keeping up appearances,” a practice that researcher Kathy Hamilton found in her study of low-income people, and how they utilize spending to disguise their income. Prom is a high profile event in which low-income people could engage in spending practices to dispel stigma or concern about their finances. It also, in the greater scheme of spending, is a way to spend money and make their children happy in a time when other more viable expenditures like college, housing, or even a car, might be inaccessible due to cost.
Ultimately, prom spending continues to rise disproportionately among those who make very little. Whether it’s a viable expenditure or not, it resonates with young Americans (and not so young Americans) around the country, and gives teenagers with few options a chance to live large for a night: no matter the cost.