From tickets, flowers, and pictures to limo rental, food, and after-parties, average spending for prom night was estimated at nearly $1,000 last year, according to a Visa survey. The lion's share of the cost, not surprisingly, is allocated to attire. For girls determined to have a red carpet moment, the price tag could easily hit $400. Guys don't get off cheaply either -- tuxedo rentals commonly run $170 to $200 for a basic get-up. But a little savvy, some ingenuity, and a few discounts can keep the cost of prom attire well below $150.
The best places to start searching for budget-worthy prom attire are vintage and consignment shops. EBay is another source for vintage duds; dresses and tuxes from the 1950s through the 1980s often fetch prices in the double-digit range. Unique Vintage and Etsy sometimes showcase dresses from yesteryear, and Rusty Zipper sometimes offers the components of a tux that isn't made of light blue polyester. Even a parent or grandparent's closet might hold the perfect vintage piece at a price that can't be beat. Put the savings toward alterations.
PROM DRESS FUNDAMENTALS
Generally speaking, a long gown costs more than a snazzy short dress. Similarly, embellishment and a designer name boost prices substantially. Prom dresses produced in China may be cheap enough, but dresses sourced on the other side of the Pacific sometimes don't arrive in time for the big night, and the fit and quality may be questionable.
Tuxes are usually rented, because a good one costs at least $800 (and that's just for the jacket and pants). Rental prices largely depend on the fabric -- wool costs more than polyester -- and the tux rental package consists of many parts: jacket, pants, shirt, tie, cummerbund or vest, and shoes. Make sure to find out what's included before committing.
Girls who want to flaunt an individual style without overspending their prom budget might turn to an online retailer such as ModCloth. It offers a sweet selection of short styles and even some long gowns for less than $125, although at this price they sell out quickly. ModCloth almost always offers coupons and promo codes that add to the savings.
It can be hard to find a tux rental for less than $150. Some retailers, such as Men's Wearhouse, offer deals for customers who refer several friends in need of cheap tuxes for the prom -- a free rental, perhaps, or a $30-off coupon. These clothiers also let customers "build" a tux (i.e., choose the components) online, reserve the selection, and have a fitting at a nearby store.
Department stores such as Macy's and Nordstrom may not be particularly fashion-forward, but they carry a wide assortment of low-cost prom wear. David's Bridal also stocks a large selection of inexpensive gowns that don't stint on style or bling. The size selection may be limited for some items, especially those on sale or clearance; many frocks at David's Bridal come in large sizes.
COUPONS FOR LOCAL DEALS
Discounts on tuxes from smaller chains and locally owned stores pop up online. RetailMeNot lists $45-off coupon codes for Friar Tux, which operates many locations in southern California, and Valente's Men's Formalwear near Detroit is promoting a $99 rental through Groupon. Tuxes in many styles and sizes can be ordered directly from Groupon for $70 to $100, with free returns.
PRETTY AND CRAFTY
Those who remember the movie "Pretty in Pink" might recall that Molly Ringwald combined a horror and a hand-me-down into something that reflected her unique style. The film's costume designer found the components at a quinceañera shop and did some cutting and pasting to create that iconic pink dress. Handy girls and "Project Runway" wannabes can try to do the same or use an online dress design tool such as Dresses By Me.
ONLINE TUX RENTALS
Online tuxedo rental is becoming more prevalent, largely due to the convenience and modest price points. On most sites, customers select a style, report their measurements, and arrange for delivery. The Black Tux and Menguin rent wool tuxedos (jacket and pants) for less than $125. A whole package at the former goes for $150 and another $35 to $50 at Menguin lets you customize the look with different ties, shirts, cummerbunds, and suspenders. Be sure to start the process with time to spare, in case the suit doesn't fit and must be exchanged for a different size. Return shipping after the big night is free.
RENT THE DRESS
For girls, a desire for designer duds on a modest prom budget might mean renting an outfit rather than buying. Rent the Runway filters searches by price, color, size, and length. The site stocks oodles of red-carpet-worthy gowns and dresses that would retail for $300 to $600 but rent for less than $100. Rentals run for four days and a second size is sent free in case the first doesn't fit.