In the weeks leading up to her senior prom, Kathleen Chenevert tried on 20 dresses before she found the perfect gown. With the help of her mother and sister, the teen hunted down matching shoes and coordinating jewelry, arranged for a chauffeur, made dinner plans with friends and played with her hair to come up with just the right style.
When Chenevert and her friends took to the dance floor Saturday night at Holly Springs High School’s prom – among the first in the Triangle this year – the final tab came to a little more than $200.
That’s a bargain, considering prom expenses are expected to reach nearly $1,000 per household this year, according to new survey results released annually by Visa.
In today’s world of can-you-top-this prom proposals, dress prices that rival those of wedding gowns and limo service a common practice, the Cheneverts decided on a more budget-conscious path to prom.
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“I think it’s important the kids have fun ... but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money,” said Marie Chenevert, Kathleen’s mother. “Where I need to spend our big bucks as a family is getting them ready to stand on their own two feet.”
In Kathleen’s case, that has meant a school trip to France, a quality trombone for band and tuition to Appalachian State University, where she plans to enroll in the honors program.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable spending $1,000 on one night of partying with friends,” Marie Chenevert said.
The Cheneverts aren’t the only family watching what they spend. Even with this year’s average price of prom topping out at $978, according to the Visa survey, that’s a 14 percent drop from last year’s average prom price tag.
“I’ve likened it in the past to a social arms race,” said Visa’s Nat Sillin, who heads the company’s financial education programs. “Hopefully, folks are realizing you don’t have to spend like a celebrity to have a good time.”
How did the Cheneverts manage to keep prom costs so low while still making sure their daughter had a memorable evening?
Kathleen’s dress – a black strapless floor-length gown – was purchased at My Girlfriend’s Closet in Cary, a consignment shop that sells used clothing in a boutique setting. The Cheneverts paid $125 for the dress, which was later reimbursed by the grandparents as Kathleen’s 18th birthday gift.
Mother and daughter both left the shop happy.
Mom, who estimated the original cost of the dress at well over $200, said, “It’s of a nicer quality than we would be able to buy brand-new. It’s exquisite.”
Daughter: “It fits me very, very well. It’s also very simple and elegant, which is what I was looking for.”
Is there a stigma to buying used? Not according to Kathleen: “I’ve never had a problem with hand-me-down clothes. That’s never bothered me. It’s new to me.”
Chenevert’s hunt for shoes eventually led her to her closet, to a pair of 2-1/2-inch wedges originally purchased for band performances. “They’re so comfortable they’ll be easy to dance in,” Marie Chenevert said.
The hair and makeup were free, courtesy of Kathleen’s older sister. “It will be a fun girlfriend sister thing instead of spending a lot of money at the beauty parlor,” Marie Chenevert said.
For jewelry, mother and daughter picked out an earrings and necklace set that cost $15. A sparkly bracelet that Kathleen’s mom picked up for $10 will sub for a wrist corsage.
And instead of renting a limo, Kathleen and her friends will be chauffeured by parents – a huge savings given that prices for a limo rental start at about $600.
Where to shop
The demand for used prom dresses and accessories in the Triangle is significant, given the slow economic recovery and the post-recession retail reality that shoppers love their bargains.
Lois Cozart, the owner of My Girlfriend’s Closet, was fielding so many calls requesting formal dresses that she decided to transform one room of her Cary store into a prom shop this year. “People want a deal. They love it if they can get it a lot cheaper,” she said.
The room is well-stocked with an assortment of dresses, sizes 2 to 18W, shoes, purses and jewelry. Some of the items still have original price tags dangling from them.
Social media has helped get the word out. “We do Facebook for the moms and Instagram for the kids,” store manager Meagen Forzaglia said.
Teenage girls and their families aren’t the only ones on the look-out for prom savings.
This time of year, teen boys and their parents start coming into The Men’s Kloset, looking for tuxes, tuxedo shirts, ties and shoes.
Becky Larcher, a partner in the Cary consignment shop, said stock is limited, depending on what other customers have brought in to sell. But the store also keeps a wish list for customers, calling them when an item in their size comes in.
The clothing typically sells at 30 percent of retail, she said, so buying a tux on consignment can be cheaper than renting a tux for one night.
“We can’t put a super high price on it because it’s consignment,” Larcher said. “Some of the biggest ticket items we can’t even do 30 percent because it will be out of our customers’ price range.”
Larcher said prom attire is the perfect type of clothing to purchase used because it’s often worn only once.
“For prom, they can wear it again next year or reconsign it,” getting a partial refund on their initial investment, she said. “It’s economical. It’s practical.”