I spent the evening of my senior prom with my knight in shining armor. Literally. A couple of friends and I opted out of our prom to have dinner at Medieval Times. Total cost per person? Around fifty dollars.

A big reason why we decided to skip the prom was we knew attendance entailed major costs.  And in the ten years that have passed since my senior year, the costs have become even steeper. These days, prom has become more than an exciting event in a high school student’s life: it’s now a whole industry, a money-making enterprise for everyone except the parents footing the bill.

According to a new Visa poll, the average amount of money a household expends on prom-related costs is a whopping $1,139 dollars. That figure is up five percent from a year ago. Where does all this money go? Well, prom expenses now stretch far beyond a ticket and a dress.  Many students opt for limousine rentals, which can run several hundred dollars. Then there is professionally-done hair and nails, corsages and boutonnieres, and photography.  It quickly adds up. 

But prom spending may not just be for prom night alone anymore. The latest phenomenon is so-called “prom-posals,” in which one student asks another to be his or her date in a fashion worthy of an elaborate marriage proposal. And these can be quite costly as well. According to Fiscal Times, one company is actually charging $600 for a plane to fly with a prom invitation banner. I can’t blame the companies offering such services: if there wasn’t a market for it, it would not be offered.

But why? Why are students spending significant time, money, and effort on an event that really ought to be a time of fun and enjoyment with friends? Two words: peer pressure. And it’s not just pressure from fellow students at the same high school. With the rise of YouTube videos showing intricate and involved ways of “prom-posing,” expectations are going up as well. Many teenagers expect prom to be just like the movies.

Of course, the prom isn’t for everyone: a 2010 CBS News survey found that more than four in ten Americans did not go to their prom. However, there are some important gender and generational divides worth noting.  More women than men say they attended their prom—and the margin is not small. Sixty-four percent of women say they went to their prom, compared to 49 percent of men. Additionally, prom attendance seems to have been increasing over time: about half of those between the ages of 45 and 64 attended their prom, while about six in ten of 18-to-29-year-olds did so.

Young women, for whom prom’s allure seems particularly strong, should take a step back and consider what they are investing in. I’m not “anti-prom”: I know plenty of men and women who attended their prom (or several proms) and had a fantastic time, but many young people who attend their proms seem to do so because they are afraid of “missing out” on what is supposed to be a seminal high school experience, not because they truly want to go.  Young men and women today shouldn’t give into a prom culture that fosters one-upmanship and narcissism. If you want to go to prom, great! But remember that doing your own nails or driving yourself there shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the festivities.

This lesson will carry over to other relationship.  Weddings, even engagements and proposals, have become a lavish industry, which too often seems about creating great pictures to share of Facebook and other social media, not on celebrating a lasting commitment and relationship.  Young people should question this early and, particularly when they are investing their time and finances, make sure they invest in their real priorities, not in meeting the expectations of others. 

And trust me, if prom isn’t your thing, you can have just as much fun watching a joust instead. I know from experience. 

Jennifer Marsico, of Wychoff, NJ, is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum (www.iwf.org).