To add to America's recent financial woes (and less recent insanity), prom season is approaching. When did this high school event morph into a $500 or more budget item for many American families -- and why?

Even if the young man (and his family) carries the brunt of the surface expenses -- tickets, transportation, corsage, possibly dinner first -- it's often the young woman's family that spends the most time and money. Some of the time is exciting and fun. But shopping isn't fun when it strains budgets, when families are more anxious than festive, when people become obsessed with details. After all, this isn't a wedding, it's a high school prom.

Stories abound of mother-daughter teams going from store to store, bringing home half a dozen prom dresses for the final selection, returning the rest. Once the dress is finalized then come shoes, bag, lingerie, jewelry, often followed by tanning sessions, an appointment for hair and nails. The only thing usually skipped are the ladies in waiting -- although they're actually there too, the dateless, who bear the misery of either going to the prom with their girlfriends or missing the event entirely.

How to trim the budget without making your son or daughter feel less terrific than everyone wants them to on the big night? It depends on the student.

Fact: the easiest thing to find in top quality condition at thrift stores is dressy clothes. How many times does a woman wear a gown? Once, maybe twice. How many gowns are classics that stay in style season after season? Many.

I saw an adorable high school senior buy a teal blue, strapless prom gown at the hospital thrift store one spring. She also found a set of shoes, a bag and long gloves. Even at this over-priced thrift, the package ran less than $50. The hospital was the beneficiary and her dad was as well. What I enjoyed the most though was watching how much fun she -- and the women at the shop -- were having. She looked gorgeous and happy.

Not every young person is receptive to this kind of shopping but it's well worth an exploration. If you haven't shopped thrift before, the prom is an ideal time to start. It's also a great time to have your son or daughter have a voice in the choices about where money is spent. If buying the dress retail is top priority then maybe transportation is by parent rather than limousine or maybe hair and nails are done at home. It's all part of a process. Consider starting with a morning spent checking out a few thrift stores. You can always shop retail after that.


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