The Must-Have Prom Shopping Tips For Every Budget

by Katie Hoffman

With May approaching fast, if you're a high school girl who's attending the last formal dance of your high school life, your prom board on Pinterest is probably overflowing with hairstyles, nail art and red carpet dress inspiration. A lot of us girls who attended now find ourselves looking back on the whirlwind of shopping and fittings to realize there are a lot of things we wish we'd known before going to prom.

Prom comes at a time in your life when a lot of things are about to change, so it's easy to go into full Promageddon mode, spending tons of money on an occasion that may not be as important to you five years from now as it is today. It's been seven years since I attended my school's "Better Days" prom, but hopefully you can benefit from the wisdom of a money-conscious twentysomething who wished she knew in 2008 what she knows today.

A lot has changed since my 2008 prom — like the over-the-top "promposals" that have become the invitation standard and the added pressure of taking Instagram-worthy pictures — but one thing that's unfortunately stayed the same is that prom is expensive, especially if your budget is limited to the earnings from your part-time job minus gas money.

When you start adding up the costs of the dress, those pricey tickets, and transportation, it amounts to a considerable expense by anyone's standards. Whether you're funding prom all on your own, sharing expenses with your date or getting a little help from the generous adults in your life, spending wisely will make prom preparation a lot less stressful for everyone. There are certain prom costs that are unavoidable, but being thoughtful about your purchases to avoid the regret of emptying your savings will spare you the unfortunate fate of tarnishing your prom memories with those icky, "That wasn't worth it," thoughts. As you begin to finalize your prom arrangements, keep these tips in mind:

1. The Cost Of A Dress Doesn't Always Equal Its Value

Shopping for an Instagrammable, best dressed-worthy dress is enough to make even the most cost-conscious shopper sacrifice her debit card. As one of the biggest prom expenses — as well as the most important — prom shoppers have a tendency to walk into the dress department looking for the dress with the highest price tag as if it’s a status symbol, like paying a fortune for a glitzy dress guarantees you a memorable prom. It’s a myth. You know how everyone says you’re only going to wear your prom dress once? Well, it’s true 99.679447 percent of the time, unless you actively plan to wear your prom dress again. If you ask me, the true value of a dress is in its versatility — the way it can complement and enhance your existing wardrobe. Sometimes the nontraditional prom outfits give you the most future outfit flexibility.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting that bright yellow dress with seven layers of tulle and clusters of rhinestones at the bodice, but just keep in mind that hefty $600 price tag is only buying you one night in that dress. No matter what you choose to wear, don’t justify an expensive dress with the, “It’s expensive because it’s so much better,” logic. No one’s ever going to know how much your dress cost except you and your bank account. Just because a dress is expensive doesn’t mean that it’s better or more beautiful than a classic, more affordable gown you might be able to wear again someday.

2. Beware The Siren Song Of Sparkly, Silver Pumps

Shoe shopping for prom is tricky, because you probably have a reputation for taking your shoes off at dances an hour after they start. Ladies, we need to de-stigmatize wearing flats or even flip-flops to prom, because spending money on a pair of pumps whose only merit is that they match your dress is crazy.

It might be tempting to buy shoes that are uncomfortable or too big just because they’re cute and come in the right color, but remember that you’re going to be dancing in these things. Shoe shopping too often leads to making those fashion mistakes that cost you money. Do you really want another pair of silver shoes with clear straps that are going to get stashed under your bed until you donate them? Don’t pay a lot for the wrong shoes, and don't buy those pumps just because they fit.

3. Get The Best Bra Money Can Buy

Forget the limo, if you’re going to spend a lot of money on something, spend it on your bra. Think of your boobs, your dress and your dance moves and pick a bra with the right straps and coverage to last all night. Unless you want to spend the evening adjusting yourself and checking for wardrobe malfunctions, do your homework. The faulty bra scenario is one of the few possible prom disasters that you can prevent. If you think you’ve found the right bra, read the reviews online so you know ahead of time if the adhesive part doesn’t last or the straps unhook easily. A bad bra can ruin prom and your life, so it’s worth spending a little more for the peace of mind only a sturdy bra can provide.

4. Beauty DIY Isn't A Bad Thing

How much you spend on beauty (including hair, makeup, nails) for prom really depends on your resources, but there are plenty of money-saving opportunities you might be ignoring. Before booking your appointment at the salon, have you considered weighing down the pros and cons of professional manicures vs. DIY nails? If you know someone who does hair or makeup, see if they might be willing to hook you up. There’s nothing wrong with doing your own hair, makeup and nails for prom, so don’t feel obligated to book an expensive four hour salon appointment when you can DIY your look. You are totally capable of making yourself look amazing at half the cost of what a fancy hairdresser/spa combo is going to charge you. On fleek can be cheap.

5. If That Tiara Isn't In Your Budget, Skip It

Prom wouldn’t be prom without a little bling, but use caution when buying a ton of costume jewelry just for prom. In high school, I was notorious for buying cubic zirconia bracelets and earrings, wearing them once and hoarding them in my jewelry box out of guilt for at least two years. I don’t think that’s common, but it’s still important to control your impulses when buying prom accessories.

Do you truly need a tiara that costs $20? Is that pair of chandelier earrings really what you need to complete your look? Jewelry and accessories may not cost a lot — $10 for earrings here, $19.99 for gloves there — but it adds up fast, and it’s easy to lose track of everything you’ve accumulated. Opt for pretty, grown-up jewelry, and make a list of things you absolutely need and stick to it. If it’s not in your budget, resist sparkly tiara temptation.

Images: Touchstone Pictures; Giphy