FARGO - Before graduation, area teens have to say "yes to the dress" while parents hope the rising costs of prom won't break the bank or deplete their college fund.
"Back in 2011 when my daughter attended her first prom, I was absolutely floored by the prices," says Audra Mehl about her oldest daughter Morganne's prom shopping experience.
This year, Mehl's daughters Sophia and Karrly, both 16, will attend their first prom. "Morganne's prom dress her senior year in 2012 cost more than my wedding gown in 2013 when I married Karrly's dad, Matthew Mehl," she says.
For teens today, the status quo is an almost $1,000 investment.
"My prom dress my senior year of high school was almost $1,000," says 19-year-old Brooke Henry. "To get my hair and makeup done and then buy jewelry and shoes, it ended up around $1,200 in total."
Henry says her parents didn't really set a budget for her during her junior and senior year at Dunseith (N.D.) High School.
"My dad just said to get whatever I felt like I really wanted to wear," she says.
Now a freshman at North Dakota State University, Henry says she doesn't regret spending that amount of money on prom.
"No one had the same dress as me, and it was so fun," she says.
To most, prom is a major milestone so parents often find it difficult to set a budget.
"I love the tradition of prom," Mehl says. "I think it is truly one of the first introductions into adulthood for our children."
Because of the lessons learned with her first daughter, Mehl says she has set guidelines for her other daughters this year.
"I was better prepared budget-wise and knew that if they both found a $600 dress, that would be an insane amount of money. So we set the expectation early that they would have to save 50 percent of their dress cost. The amount they saved would determine their prom dress budget," she says. "If they saved $250, then their budget was $500. If they had saved $20, their budget would have been $40! I put them in charge."
Both Sophie and Karrly successfully budgeted, saved and purchased their dream dresses (with help from their parents) for a total of $550 each.
"When all is said and done, each girl will have spent an additional $200 on shoes, jewelry, hair and getting their nails done," Mehl says. "I agreed to absorb the costs for the 'add ons' if they paid for half of their dresses. So total spent will be $1500 for both girls."
Right dress, right price
Jenny Jaszkowiak, owner of Wedding Elegance in Fargo, says some customers return to her store two or three times before purchasing "the one" and committing to its costs.
But despite the hefty price tag of some dresses, there's always a way to find a beautiful dress within budget.
"Our price points range from $99 to $599. There's a misconception about bridal stores; (people) think they're expensive, but this isn't the case," she says. "We have some short formals for $25. If that's what you are into, you can get really a decent priced dress."
Some, like Henry, haven chosen to buy a dress online to save money. Henry says she only spent about $150 her freshman and sophomore year when she shopped online.
"Shopping in stores is a better experience than shopping online," Henry says. "Having the store clerks compliment you is so much better than getting it through the mail."
With the increased popularity of buy-and-sell groups on Facebook and other sites, Henry says finding or trying to resell a dress is common for prom goers.
"Since I paid so much my senior year I wanted to resell the dress and give some of that money back to my dad. I've posted it on Facebook for about half of what I paid, but have since marked it down to $350," she says.
As for the other three prom dresses she accumulated, Henry will keep two while giving the third dress to a girl who isn't able to afford a new one.
Mehl agrees that finding secondhand dresses - whether borrowing or buying - can lead to that Cinderella look and feeling.
"My favorite prom dress was my junior year (in 1989), and my dress was actually one I borrowed that was sewn by my friend for her prom the prior year," she says. "Homemade and borrowed - it was a great night and hardly cost a penny!"
Mehl says despite needing to be mindful of prom's rising costs, she's excited for her daughters.
"The prom experience may require some creativity financially, but the focus is not about the cost - it is about the experience," she says.
Staying on budget, on trend
Jaszkowiak shares insights from her more than 20 years of formal wear experience to help teens stay on budget and on trend.
• Details equal higher price. Jaszkowiak says dresses with heavy beading or crystals will retail at a higher price. "But in the last year or two, sequins and beading on dresses aren't as popular," she says. Instead try a two-piece dress with a beaded or lace top and high-waisted skirt.
• Organza or lace dresses may be more expensive. Chiffon dresses, especially, or those made with rayon will often be priced lower than dresses with organza, lace or velvet. Jaszkowiak points out that layers of fabrics also add to cost. Colorwise look for jewel tones like amethyst, emerald or ruby.
• Consider uniqueness. Often, boutiques will order just one (or two) of a particular dress style and pattern combination. Because of this, Jaszkowiak says shop early if you can and opt for shopping on weekday when stores won't as busy. "We're usually able to help a person one-on-one during a weeknight," she says. When you purchase a dress at a bridal boutique, Jaszkowiak says the store will "register it" by writing your name, school and dress style, so no one at the school will have your same dress.
• For tuxedos or suits, consider buying instead of renting. When her son went to prom his senior year, Jaszkowiak says she purchased a suit for him that he wore "at least 25 times while he was in college." She also says suits or tuxedos are equally appropriate for prom - it just depends on the person's taste.