This year's proms may retain their sheen of glitz and glam, but the truth is, teens are spending a lot less money on the traditional last big bash of the school year.
"Although times are not very favorable, going to prom for many students is a rite of passage," said Sandra Rodriguez, principal at San Bernardino High School.
Students, both individually and in committee groups, are seeking inexpensive alternatives on everything from clothes to transportation to dining to keep the tradition alive despite economic woes affecting many families.
AllStar Events & Venues in the Rancho Santa Margarita area of Orange County works with 45 high schools in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties to negotiate the best prices on prom details such aslocation, catering and music.
"We just came out of winter formals and the numbers for that were down," said Kenny Paul, owner of AllStar. About half the schools working with AllStar saw a drop in attendance, and most of those affected were in areas with a great deal of new homeownership such as in Lake Elsinore, Rancho Cucamonga and Temecula.
Riverside's John W. North High School saw a similar trend for its Midwinter Ball.
"We saw a marked decrease in attendance," said Rebecca Porter, activities director at North for 17 years. "We had 275 students this year and just about 500 last year. Tickets were only $25 ... we had fewer students attend this year than any of the previous years."
"We have approached our prom this year with great caution," Porter said. It is sponsored by the junior class, and in response to economic struggles this year, they are sponsoring a new fundraiser called "Threads." They are accepting donations of prom dresses, which are being sold at discount prices ($5-$10). Staff members also sometimes sponsor students by buying their prom tickets.
Tickets for prom generally cost about $40 to $60 depending on the location, much the same as in previous years, Paul said. But ticket price is usually only a small percentage of the total prom experience.
A gown can cost several hundred dollars, a limousine for the night may cost $500 or $600 and dinner can add about $20 or $30 per person, Porter said. Many students split these costs, but it can still add up to a $400 or $500 night.
North High senior Rachel Hale is sharing a limo with seven other students.
"It'll be $65 per person for the limo to pick us up, take us to dinner and prom and then back home again," Hale said. "I haven't gotten the dress yet, but dinner will be summer casual, so it'll cost about $20."
At the other end of the spectrum, North High student Katelin Wollner is borrowing her dress from a friend, and her group plans to carpool to dinner then prom, eating at Chipotle or somewhere similarly casual. With her $50 prom ticket and dinner, the total for the night will be around $60.
"I've seen some groups doing dinners at home before the dance, rather than eating out," Paul said. "Students are getting alternative transportation to limos, the boys are going with suits instead of tuxes ... event photographers are seeing a big drop. These are some of the things people feel they can pass on."
"One thing we're doing is for schools anticipating lower numbers, we're going back to venues where schools have already scheduled and getting them lower minimums," Paul said. "These schools are hurting from a budget standpoint themselves and don't have the extra money to subsidize a lot. The locations are working with the schools to meet their needs."
Individual students are looking for cheap alternatives to the clothing expense by shopping at outlets, thrift stores and sales racks for dresses, shoes and accessories.
Nichole Griffith, a senior at Murrieta Valley High School, found her prom dress on a clearance rack at Windsor, a women's apparel and accessory store in Corona, for $14.99. The dress is a shiny satin material with ornate beading along the v-neck front and strips of material over both shoulders and across the back.. Gold strappy shoes also bought on sale completed the look.
"With the economic times we are facing, teen prom shoppers are forced to buy cheaply," Griffith said. "I got my prom dress and shoes for a total of $17.16. The dress still had the original price tag of $149.90. My shoes cost $1 at a going-out-of-business sale."
North High teacher Rosalyn Anderson takes a group of students to the Jessica McClintock Outlet in Montclair each year for dresses. This year she took six students, three of whom found prom dress deals.
"I also ask friends to let me have any of their prom dresses hanging in closets collecting dust, and then I spread the word I have dresses available in my classroom for anyone interested."
"I paid $25 ... a lot of people don't have enough money and most of us are paying for our own dresses," said Cristal Flores, one of Anderson's students. "My boyfriend is borrowing a tuxedo from a friend."
Jessica McClintock Outlet manager Karina Ulloa has noticed business increasing this year.
"I've been working here for seven years and business had really gone down over the past couple years," Ulloa said. "But now it's picking up again. April and May are the busiest months with graduations and weddings."
"We have items from last season or two years ago. Or sometimes we get stuff from this season that was overstocked or has some small damages," Ulloa said. "They are 50 to 75 percent off the boutique prices, and then sometimes we have an additional discount sale.
Senior Lucia La Rosa found the most inexpensive gown -- $15 -- Anderson has seen in four years of outlet trips with students.
"No one has much money right now, so I think it was a good deal," La Rosa said. "For girls, the outlet is the best place I've heard of. The guys don't know what to do, they're going crazy."