High School Graduation is a major milestone to be celebrated, especially after two years of academic performance amidst a pandemic. Our kids are resilient beings who have put in years of hard work, exam writing and fine social balance dotted with spurts of elation, tears, extra curricular schedules, mask mandates, online learning, uncertainty and senior skip days at the beach.
As the parent of a recent graduate, I can most likely relate to much of what you are going through. No matter whether your child has been academically successful or struggled every single day to pass those credit required courses, whether they were surrounded by a healthy group of social peers or cried through the heartaches and hard lessons of teenage-dom, I see you. Our parental paths are all as unique as fingerprints, yet parallel in so many ways we simply don’t share enough. But no matter the road map, they have reached this point of high school graduation, and that deserves an ovation. A long, standing one.
At the end of the chaotic roller coaster that is an attempt to raise respectable, society contributing human beings, is the pivotal event affectionately known as ‘Grad‘. And like any other major life event, it comes with alot of pre-planning, budgets and added expense. Oh, the unexpected expenses. And while I do understand that this day boils down to budget and personal choices, and that what graduation looks like varies greatly from city to city or even between schools or families, I want to share our personal experience to help you plan and budget for such a special day.
** My experience is based on several things: I have a teenage daughter who chose gown attire, and who graduated in 2021 during the height of the Covid pandemic. Graduation itself looked quite different for this class (and in SO many amazing ways) but many of the tips below are items we would have proceeded with regardless of the global situation.
GRADUATION CAP & GOWN PHOTOS
Professional photos at the school are traditional. In most cases the chosen studio sets onsite session dates early in the year, or you may be able to schedule your own studio sitting. Afterwards, you will receive the proofs offering a wide variety of poses and looks to choose from. You will see your child with cap on, cap off, smiling, serious, holding their soccer ball, flashing a faux diploma or my personal favorite, the ever awkward “gaze into the future“. You are emotionally invested in each and every frame of that beloved little face that used to play with playdough, hug you in public and actually eat the lunch you packed. An involved heart can be where it gets tricky and already inflated package costs quickly soar.
MY BUDGET TIP? A trusted photographer friend gave me great advice. In the end, you will not hang 16 different poses on the wall, nor will you give them all out to friends and family. Pick your top favorite few. If they offer a full resolution digital package, go with that and skip the expensive package print add ons. This way you can easily share on social media, as well as print exactly the sizes and quantity you need. Have them printed on pearl paper at a reputable local print shop. Another cost saving tip? Avoid expensive individual frames for family and friends and pick up the black cardboard holders. They are sleek and beautiful and much cheaper, especially if you are mailing them.
WHAT TO FACTOR IN:
- ACCESSORIES: For males, a dress shirt and tie are recommended. For females, a V-neck t-shirt is fine as it will not be visible. You may want to consider a necklace to sit in the space, but it is not necessary. We went with a simple but elegant rose gold pendant chain from Pandora.
- HAIR & MAKEUP: Many grads choose to do their own hair & makeup for their photos, which is a beautifully perfect and personal option. Note that it is recommended that hair is down to accommodate the cap. Also, ensure you are using moisturizer that is SPF free and makeup that is matte finish to avoid reflection and glare. We chose to have hair, makeup (adhesive lashes included) and acrylic nails done. For this, we worked with our favorite local glam squad, Kaitlin (Makeup) and Demi (Hair) from BLUSH Artistry.
- PHOTO ENHANCEMENTS: Yes, we love that perfect, little face that will forever be our baby. Those flyaway hairs the photographer didn’t mention, not so much. These can be photo edited out, but they will charge you an additional fee to do so.
THAT DREAMY GRAD DRESS
You step through the doors, check in for your appointment, take off your shoes and meet with a sales associate who explains the process. It is elegant displays of glitter and tulle as far as the eye can see, rack after rack of potential success, and you are set to narrow it down to your allotted four or five dazzling candidates. Styles chosen, including the traditional “just please try this one for me“, off to the dressing room you go, nodding your way through the parade of possibility fitted with chip clips.
All of a sudden, three appointments and four dresses in, they step out of the change room and the air around them suddenly becomes luminescent. From atop the fitting room pedestal, surrounded by full length mirrors and shiny angles they glow, and any confidence they may have lacked in their formative years suddenly shines through. In the midst of a day of airy chiffon and shimmering metallics, strapless sequin bodices and ballgowns with pockets, they have found “the one“.
They are saying YES, to the graduation dress.
We found Teen B’s dream dress at at Prom Affair. The moment she tried it on, there simply was NO other dress for her. Other fantastic experiences and options in the Edmonton area include Gemini, Mina’s West Ed Mall, The Dress Lounge and Annabelle Prom.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
GO IN OPEN MINDED. If I can give you one piece of advice about grad, this is it. Your child is on the edge of adulthood. At this point they have begun to define themselves as the amazing, unique individual they are, so let them express and embrace this. If they have spent months perusing the latest trends or have a dedicated Pinterest page and know exactly what they want, wonderful! Just know that chances are, what they end up with, will be nothing like they, or you, envisioned and that what they need is your support and positivity. Encourage them to try styles they may not have considered to find what style or color best suits and flatters their uniqueness. Take the moment to celebrate what makes them feel confident and beautiful, inside AND out. And most importantly, remember that this is THEIR moment to shine.
- BUDGET: The cost of formal grad dresses can vary from several hundred to several thousand, even within a single store, so avoid disappointment, frustration and a dis-heartened graduate by discussing in advance what works for your budget. Also, consider all the additional items you may need to factor in to the amount (outlined below)
- SHOP EARLY: Graduation dress shopping begins quite early in the year, with rumblings of excitement and successful purchases often starting in September. Ultimately, you do not need to begin this early to snag that perfect look, but there are many who choose to embrace the journey early and those smaller rumbles can turn into a complete frenzy over the course of just a week thanks to the online world. Fall is also a great time to take advantage of any deals on last years gowns prior to the trunk shows and fashion releases of the upcoming season.
- AVOID DOUBLE UPS: Thanks to social media this one is actually simplified. Many schools have a page dedicated to posting already purchased gowns to avoid every graduates most dreaded situation.
- BOOK AHEAD: Booking appointments in advance accomplishes more than just a guaranteed spot when you walk in the door. Having an agenda of stops brings life to the day and enhances that feeling of importance and personalized pampering. Avoid disappointment , especially if shopping in pairs or groups, by planning the day in advance.
- SHOP AROUND: If you are fortunate to have competitive options where you live, utilize them. Different boutiques and shops offer not only a variety of designers and styles, but a diverse array of shopping experiences. Also, you may get lucky enough to find your dress at more than one store, which can mean nailing down a look that will require less alterations if it is truer to size, as well as possibly getting a better deal.
- TIPPING: One unexpected factor of grad dress shopping is tipping the sales associate who helped with your experience. This is normally optional, but be aware some stores do choose to ask this as you pay your deposit or in full.
- SHOES: As with the dress, keep it in line with what they want and what works. Many grads have never worn heels and if your gown is floor length, they may not even be seen. Remember that this is an incredibly long day, so ensure your grad is comfortable. (We DID buy the fancy shoes. Teen B wore them to cross the stage at convocation, and was otherwise barefoot or in flip flops) So if you are on a budget, this can be a great area to be realistic and save.
- JEWELRY: Rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets…. the list goes on. So before you commit to a bunch of expensive add-ons, really know what will work with the lines and style of your grad look. Also, consider what works for them on a personal level. Teen B opted for the stunning red gown, and not a single piece of bling aside from her rose gold nose ring. If your child is into bling and it is in the budget, rock it out. If not, don’t force it and save your money. Let your child be authentically themselves.
- ALTERATIONS: There are the lucky few who try on a dress and it fits like a glove. For the rest of the world, alterations will be required. For us, because of the nature of changes required and the details of this specific dress, we spent an additional $180 with a local, reputable tailor. Having the dress fit like it was designed just for her was worth every penny. ** Speak to the tailor about timeline but plan to take your gown in around March, well before wedding season.
As a parent, your child is always going to be this perfectly flawed creature that you love unconditionally. In our home, we practice a focus on the importance of inner beauty, love and acceptance of ourselves and those around us. In her everyday life, Teen B leans towards a very natural look. She is a kind, outgoing, down to earth ray of light that lives for jeans and tshirts, fishing and NFL Sundays. However, for grad she made the decision to embrace the glamour to compliment her overall look, choosing her own palette and hairstyle, working with her glam squad, and without my interference. However your child chooses to approach grad, ensure they can be themselves, because confidence and comfort will be what makes them shine.
HAIR & MAKEUP: For a fresh cut and color to ensure her roots and hair health were on pointe, there was no one but our favorite bombshell, Kristine, at Concrete Blonde. For hair and makeup the day of grad, we once again chose the gurus at BLUSH ARTISTRY who had done her cap & gown look (see above). Demi and Kaitlin made her a jaw dropping beauty in under an hour!!! Working as a pair in a single professional space makes for the ultimate dream team. Again, if they choose an elegant up-do style for convocation day, ensure it will work with a graduation cap.
LASHES: For her special day she chose to have a gorgeous set of lash extensions applied. Teen B went with a set of eye-popping Volume lashes by Posh Lash Lounge. She had them applied the day prior and they were flawless.
NAILS: Clean, healthy nails is a nice touch for such a big day. We went with a beautiful set of acrylics by Binh’s Nails.
GLOWING SKIN: In our case, Teen B is quite fair and so we opted to give her a safe, healthy glow. Several days prior to her big day, the lovely team at BLUSH (shocking) did a spray tan that really made her dress and makeup pop. Book this in advance with a reputable business that specializes in high-end, professional spray services.
CORSAGE: This is something Teen B opted out of wearing, however, many grads choose to have one. Speak to a florist in advance to have one created to compliment their look.
CAPTURING THE MOMENT
HIRING A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER
This was one area that is completely optional, but we seriously splurged. Hiring a professional photographer whose work that lined up with the vision we had was definitely an added luxury expense, but worth every penny. We chose to have professional photos done not just because we had so much invested into Teen B’s stunning graduation look, but because we saw this day as a once in a lifetime moment and we wanted to capture it.
I am so fortunate to call the creative genius behind the lens of Kyra Jasman Photography my friend. When it came to lining up this day, it did not come without hiccups and schedule changes, but the end result was pure magic. Her light and airy style paired perfectly with the lines and contrasts of the dress and the Garden. But the success was in the details. Her level of expertise and passion was in the moments of fixing Teen B’s dress between shots, catching the slant of the light and the tiniest details, but most importantly, it was her her focus and dedication to capturing the candid, genuine girl Teen B is.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
- Pre-screen your choices and look at their previous work to ensure that what you envision lines up with their style of photography. Discuss the venue and the look you have in mind prior to hiring them.
- Price them out. Photographers prices vary as much as their level of quality and experience. Typically, you get what you pay for.
- Choose if you will be doing photos the day of graduation, or if this will be a completely separate day. The bonus of grad day is that chances are you have already scheduled hair and makeup. Downside can be that you will need several additional hours to accomplish this amidst an already incredibly hectic day, so truly factor in when a professional shoot will work and plan accordingly.
- Book well in advance. Grad also lines up with the beginning of wedding season, so ensure your photographer has availability. Also factor in lining up the availability of a venue that requires pre-booking.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
There are plenty of traditional and beautiful free backdrops to have your photos done. In Edmonton, these include spaces such as the River Valley or the Alberta Legislature grounds. But if you are looking for something a little more personal and unique, you need to consider that many locations will require pre-booking and will charge you to do photos.
When it came to a dreamy backdrop that would make Teen B’s Grad dress really pop, we knew that the landscape, stonework and geometry of the stunning Aga Khan Garden at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden would be a perfect fit. We also utilized the Kurimoto Japanese Garden for a more natural look.
WHAT TO FACTOR IN:
- If your ideal shoot location is on private grounds such as a hotel, city attraction or garden, call well in advance and inquire about potential costs involved and whether booking is required in advance.
- Booking prices can vary greatly depending on the day of the week (weekends are often much more costly). And the size of your party (just your grad vs the entire family) can also greatly affect the cost.
There are very few moments as a parent that compare to seeing your child clad in graduation cap and gown, hearing their name being called and watching them cross the stage to receive their diploma. It is a moment of emotional overload as you feel waves of relief, excitement and pride, mixed with the anxiety of your child stepping onto their own path and facing the future.
Graduation during Covid is where our experience was much different than that of other years, or even other schools. Convocation is typically held in conjunction with “prom” as a one day affair, but some schools now choose to host the events separately. One day affairs have the advantage of a single packaging of flair and excitement. It’s a sea of dresses and suits followed by a lengthy ceremony of name announcing and stage crossing. Parents catch up with eachother, tears are shed, families file into massive halls lined with tables and grads dance (and party) the night away.
This is where our journey was incredibly different and unique. Due to Covid restrictions, major hurdles were faced, and changes had to be decided way in advance. There would be no hall gathering to view hundreds of kids cross the stage, no dinner, no dance, not even a “safe grad”. But in letting go of tradition and expectation, what we were gifted with was an incredibly intimate experience, and moving forward, I hope some of the changes are adopted long term. Convocation was spread over 3 full days to accommodate each and every one of the nearly 400 graduates. Each grad enjoyed a private three minute long ceremony, in which up to 10 family members and friends were allowed to be front and center. The principal endured long days with a smile and purpose, handing out diplomas and personally connecting with each and every one of his students crossing the stage. It was non-traditional and it was absolutely perfect.
COSTS TO FACTOR IN:
- CAP & GOWN FEE: Traditionally schools rent these items to graduates. Due to the pandemic, Teen B’s graduating class was given the set as a keepsake gift.
- GRADUATION FEE: The cost will vary, but each graduate in our case paid a $75 fee to offset the cost of the ceremony.
- SEPERATE CONVOCATION ATTIRE: Depending on how your graduation plays out, your grad may choose to wear something much less formal under their cap and gown for convocation.
- DINNER/DANCE: There has been a decline over the years to host these dinner and dance events due to the added expense and dwindling attendance as some events saw costs soar to over $150/plate. Some schools continue to honor this tradition, so check with your individual school for details.
- LIMO/PARTY BUS RENTAL: This is definitely a luxury expense, but a popular choice for graduating friends in non-restricted years. Typically this cost is shared among those attending.
- THE LITTLE EXTRAS: There are an endless array of “little extras” to consider. These can include exterior vehicle décor, yard signs, helium balloons, and even decorations for their cap to personalize it (many schools encourage it!) Box stores such as Michaels and Party City can be great for these types of items. If you are looking for a personalized yard sign, check well in advance with a local print or marketing company.
GRADUATION FAMILY MOMENTS
Grad continued to gift us with memorable moments throughout the week, both planned and unexpected (because no good grad ends without an impromptu party and a few stitches, right? True story). We survived another year of navigating Covid, online learning portions, class quarantines and restrictions. And I wouldn’t trade that intimate ceremony, or the small, private gathering that evening in our backyard with family and friends , charcuterie, a smash cake and champagne popping, for anything. It was authentically us and it was authentically her. It was a collection of a million little moments that made for a perfect graduation memory.
A FEW FINAL GRADUATION IDEAS:
- Champagne: The perfect choice was popping a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Rose. **Teen B was the legal drinking age of 18 at the time of graduation. Please drink responsibly.
- Sweet Treats: We went with beautiful grad themed cupcakes and a chocolate “smash cake” that held a surprise gift card. This was done by Sweet T’s Treats
- For a personalized gift for Teen B we went with concert tickets as well as a gift card for her very first tattoo. This is something very special she has been planning for a long time and we figured this was the perfect time to help her achieve it with a GC to Black Gold Tattoo.
- Another great gift idea would be the gift of an experience, such as we did with Teen B’s 18th birthday at the Moose Hotel & Suites in Banff!
- We finished the day with a very special moment, and a great gift idea. I spent months putting together a slideshow that was 45 minutes long and included photos and video from baby to grad done to choice songs, as well as surprise well wishes and congratulations photos and video from friends and family. This was a labor of love that only cost me time and the subscription cost to an applicable programming site. It was everything and I would highly recommend this for anyone looking to gift the entire family with something incredibly special.
The day of graduation was a blur of love and happiness, hectic pace and happy tears. No matter the attire, what your budget is, how they got there or how you choose to celebrate it, graduation is a huge accomplishment worthy of recognition. But it is also more than a single day. It is a year of lead up, of preparation and planning, exams and anticipation. It can feel daunting and overwhelming and out of control expense wise, but with proper preparation comes the payoff of an exceptional day. And while it is a blip in time, make it a blip that counts. I wish all the upcoming grads and their families and friends, a safe and healthy adventure ahead.