In Karin Klein's Southern California community, it's not unusual for families to drop close to $1,000 on a prom dress.
Klein's family has never been one to splurge in that way. As a parent, Klein was always uncomfortable with spending money on something that might only be used once. And her kids' awareness of fashion-related environmental and human rights concerns kept the family on an tight budget.
"There were always a lot of talks [with the kids] about where we place our values," Klein says.
Spending that much for prom might sound over the top, but it's not unheard of. American families are spending on average more than $600 on prom-related expenses according to a 2017 Yahoo Prom Across America survey. For many families struggling to pay rent and put food on the table, $600 isn't just a splurge, it's out of reach.
But prom night doesn't have to cost as much as a used car, and parents like Klein have found realistic ways to keep it affordable.
GIF from "Mean Girls."
Here is how the Klein family spent a fraction of the average prom-related costs in three big spending areas:
1. Attire and accessories
With two kids who wore dresses and one who wore a tux, the Kleins experimented with a variety of options for prom wear.
They purchased new: For her oldest daughter's first prom, Klein bought a slip dress, which she paid to have altered because it was too long. Klein then hand-made a shawl and bought her daughter shoes from a discount store.
Total cost: $160
They reused, borrowed from friends, and wore hand me downs: The next year, her daughter borrowed a dress from a friend and re-wore the shoes she had bought the prior year.
And having used her older sister's first prom dress as a play outfit as a child, Klein's younger daughter decided she wanted to wear that dress to her first prom. They paid to have it cleaned and pressed.
Total cost: Cleaning fees
The dress the Kleins bought new (left) and their eBay steal (right). Photos by Karin Klein, used with permission.
They bought on clearance and from auction websites: For cute shoes and accessories at a great price, the family headed to Payless.
Klein and her girls shopped around, but they didn't really like anything, and the dresses were very expensive. They turned to eBay and found a vintage slip gown for $7.
"I figured for that price it was worth gambling; it came cleaned and pressed, to my surprise, and fit her perfectly," Klein recalls. Her daughter still really loved her shoes from the previous year, so she wore those again.
Klein's youngest daughter liked that prom dress so much that she says that if she ever wants to marry, that ivory dress might do the trick.
Total cost for prom and potential wedding dress: $7
GIF from "Footloose."
When it came time for her son to attend prom, Klein decided to purchase a tux, dress shirt, tie, and vest on clearance instead of rent them because she figured it was a better investment. He ended up wearing that getup to four proms, and Klein has since loaned it to other kids in need of a tux for prom.
Total cost: $132 plus the joy of an investment paying off for other families.
Lastly, they committed to eliminating corsages and flowers to cut down on both on costs and waste.
In addition to ideas like borrowing, swapping, and thrifting, a number of organizations in communities across the country give away donated prom dresses to those who cannot afford them. Check out the Princess Project or Google "Cinderella project" and your location to find one of these locations in your area.
2. Hair and makeup
Klein's oldest wore her hair down and wore minimal makeup that she did herself for each of her proms.
GIF from "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion."
Klein says her younger daughter did her own make-up and hair but that the hair did not work out so great.
Klein, a writer, happened to be up on a reporting fellowship in an extremely remote area of arctic Alaska around prom time. She gave her husband and daughter instructions for a simple updo, and they managed to get her out the door looking good, but it fell out shortly after. Klein says she was pretty unhappy about it.
"She's not one to make a fuss about things, but it was definitely a disappointment to her," she says. "She hadn't asked to have her hair done professionally, but it was one of those times when a mom wishes she'd been home for her daughter."
After the hair fiasco of the previous year, her daughter asked if she could have her hair put up professionally the following year. Klein obliged.
Total cost: $0 and $65
3. Transportation, food, and post-prom
Klein's daughters sometimes had rides from significant others who could drive or they shared the cost of a party bus with friends. They swung through In-N-Out Burger for dinner.
In Klein's community, a lot of parents rent hotel rooms for their teens for the night, but her family was not comfortable with that for a lot of reasons, so they skipped out.
Total cost: $0-$50
Outside of the actual prom ticket, the Kleins had years where they spent nothing on prom.
Their most expensive year cost around $280, which is significantly below the American average for the night. The cost of the prom ticket at their school was $70.
In fact, most schools and communities are doing their part to help make sure the night is accessible to everyone.
School administrators are directing families to resources like community dress give-aways and often assist lower-income families with obtaining prom tickets, too. (This school partnered with a non-profit; kids wrote essays in exchange for everything they need for prom.)
The fact is, prom can be affordable. One fun night doesn't have to (and shouldn't) break the bank. As the Kleins have discovered, a creative spirit, knowing where to look for deals, and a commitment to the fun of it all makes all the difference.