Prom for a high school senior is no longer just a dance. It is an event that some say can rival a wedding in cost.
With the dress or tuxedo, shoes and other accessories, hair and makeup, a limo, dinner before prom and post-prom activities, the costs can quickly roll into four figures, which is aggravating some parents of the young prima donnas. After discovering the dress she wanted was sold out, Carleshia Kidwell, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District's Ward 3, got a dress custom-made for $323 and spent another $150 on the shoes. She and her date may rent a car to drive to prom together on June 1, and they plan to split a hotel suite, she said. She didn't know how much either would cost since her parents are picking up the tab. Mattie Mickum, who graduated last year from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, plans to go with Will Hedberg, a Whitman senior, to his prom May 10. Even though it will be her fourth prom, she still spent $250 on a dress and $150 on shoes.
Wilson junior Kristina Johnson got a job at a frozen yogurt shop three weeks ago just to pay for prom. Though her date is buying her $75 ticket, she has to pay for the dress -- expected to cost nearly $250 -- shoes, jewelry, hair styling, dinner and a hotel room.
But at the other end of the spectrum, Sheri Verdonk limited her daughter, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, to $150 for the dress. "If the dress had been $155, I would have a problem with that."
Verdonk said she could not imagine spending hundreds on a prom. "It's bad enough that you spend that kind of money on the college application process, but then you turn around and spend that kind of money on a prom? No."
Nationally, the costs of sending a student to the prom has grown to an average $1,139 per family this year, according to a recent study by Visa. In the Northeast, the average is $1,528 per family.
"Parents coming out of the recession really did have to educate their kids on how to live on a budget," said Marshal Cohen, chief fashion industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. "This is really now about reward. This is the biggest day in their kid's life so far."
Since people are getting married later in life than they did two decades ago, proms have become the new weddings, said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University who has studied prom spending. Some families turn prom into a weekend-long event. They spend a day getting ready before the couples gather in the afternoon for pictures, and the night ends with breakfast the next morning.
Facebook and other social media also create pressure for students to compete for most impressive prom experience, Yarrow added. Students are "living not just for the moment, but living for how people will respond."
This trend sends the message that money determines how much fun they have -- the wrong message, said Bethesda-resident Wendy Silver, who gives away prom dresses for free to anyone who wants them through the organization "Once Upon a Prom."
"They shouldn't be allowed to treat this like it's a circus show. It's not their wedding. It's not their coronation," she said. "It can be done minimally, and certainly, no, the price you pay to go to prom doesn't define the fun."
But when it came her own daughter's prom at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School last year, Silver admitted that she shelled out nearly $800.