The annual military ball is a tradition as old as the services themselves. We can’t speculate about the logistics, locale, or ticket price of that first Marine Corps birthday ball in 1776 due to a couple of centuries of inflation — and because the first “formal” (read: expensive) ball wasn’t held until 1925, but we hope there was a smash cake. What we can do is tune into the noise about the alleged growing expense of military balls across the services in recent years. Are they really getting more expensive, or do people just have a platform to publicly voice complaints now (a tip of the cover to you, Facebook)? How much does the ball really cost a service member with a spouse and a couple of kids? And, finally, how can we weave these expenses into an already-strained holiday budget?
Army, Coast Guard, and Air Force, you’re free to skip to the next section — appreciate your summer founding. Marine Corps and Navy, settle in, and, Space Force, take notice and plan accordingly.
Both the Navy and Marine Corps balls land in what is understood as the holiday season — that much-anticipated time of year between October and December when familial expenses rise (if you don’t think Halloween is all that expensive, stay tuned) and schedules fill to the brim.
Let’s break down what the holidays cost, by month for the average American family:
In 2017, a LendEDU survey of 1,000 participants concluded that the average American spends $169.81 on Halloween, and if we’re factoring in the cavities that surface a few months later, this number would be higher. With $37.70 going toward decorations, $61.80 toward candy, and a whopping $70.81 toward costumes (which probably has you laughing to yourself if you have more than one function to attend or more than one child), this number is most likely a baseline for families with young children. Throw in Trunk-or-Treat and admission fees to any local Halloween carnivals, and you’re getting dangerously close to $200.
LendEDU reported in 2018 that Thanksgiving costs were creeping up, too, between travel and groceries. The average family is expected to spend $175.65. If you’re re-reading that last line wondering what the actual…expletive, we’re kindred grocery-shopping spirits — most families would be thrilled to spend that much on a regular Thursday trip to the grocery store, but on Thanksgiving? The operative word is average — military families are anything but. On top of the expense of feeding our own families and guests, military families know tacking on unit potlucks makes that number skyrocket. You’re also going to need to up that amount if you want to use ingredients that come from the produce section, not from a can and if you cook double than what you need so you can savor the leftovers for a week.
December is the superstar of holiday expenses. In 2017, the average American planned to spend $708.81 on Christmas. But, you know how that expectation plays out — deck the halls with busted budgets, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.
Keep in mind that these are estimates — families have different traditions and beliefs that can steer or curb spending. But, also understand that these estimates are family-centric. Add in the mandatory fun — not even talking about the ball yet — and it gets even more interesting. So, in the interest of empathy and data, it’s not hard to understand why military spouses are feeling the strain and conjuring up Facebook threads full of heated comments from two camps, those who say, “Embrace the suck. It’s tradition,” and those who have had just about enough of the annual Cinderella lifestyle.
Whether you more closely relate your service’s ball to tax season or your birthday, it comes around every year. It’s never a surprise, and neither is the expense — at least in the sense that there will be an expense; the price point isn’t often so easily predicted. Making a lot of assumptions, let’s whip up a mock ball budget:
- Gown: $100
- Alterations (Because, who do they make these dresses for?): $40
- Dry cleaning: $35
- Shoes and accessories: $50 (assuming they aren’t all new)
- Tickets (per couple) $100 (more to come on this — let’s just call $100 a placeholder for now)
- Babysitter for six hours: $60-$120 depending on the number of kids and the local going rate
- Cash bar: At least $15
This conservative total of roughly $400 just accounts for the bare bones. If neither you, nor your spouse volunteers to be the DD, then you’re also looking at cab fare, at least one way, or the expense of a hotel room plus the rate of an overnight babysitter if you aren’t lucky enough to have grandma in driving distance. And — dang it — we forgot about the photos.
You’ll notice we didn’t even scratch the surface of service-member expenses. These don’t occur every year, but when they do, a brand-spanking-new evening dress uniform is going to make that $100 evening gown splurge of yours look foolish — we’re talking thousands of dollars. When your service member doesn’t have a new uniform to purchase, there are medals and ribbons to mount and potential for any of that bling to need replacing — mostly because they haven’t seen it since last year.
Just for fun, the annual ball is ever-so-slightly different from branch to branch and unit to unit, and the venue and catering tend to drive the price. Then there’s always the possibility you’ll have a planet-aligning year and be expected to attend multiple balls.
We talked to some spouses who paid nothing for tickets because the expense was covered thanks to pre-ball fundraising or a volunteer-heavy planning committee. When there is a dollar amount attached to attendance, it’s common for ticket prices to reflect pay grade because asking an E2 to cough up the same $65 ticket price as an O5 would be unfair, if not irrational. Although, there is no promise that the powers that be at your duty station have gotten the memo that pay is scaled in the military. If that’s the case, it may be time to get involved.
What Works, What Doesn’t
Speaking of getting involved, we have options if we aren’t happy with military ball costs.
- Work it into the annual budget long before tickets go on sale.
- Reduce, reuse, and recycle. It’s not just for paper and plastic. Invest in a dress or two you can wear more than once and rotate. You can also participate in dress swaps or employ the same swap concept with friends who wear the same size. If you’re tired of the same, old dress, rent one this year. Yeah, you don’t get to keep it, but it will keep ball costs at a more manageable level.
- Volunteer to help. Depending on the situation on your installation, this may be just contacting your unit’s spouses’ club, or it may be reaching out to the base-wide event coordinating authority. Either way, volunteer participation at any level can shave expenses, and every little bit helps. Volunteering may look like setting up on the day of the ball — centerpiece-making party — or it may be a year of fundraising to offset costs (who doesn’t love a bake sale or carwash).
- Voice your concerns. When the people making the decisions don’t know there’s a problem, nothing will change next year. Leave those ICE comments, write emails, make phone calls. Bringing legitimate concerns about pricing to the attention of those making the decisions is the only real way to stop the prices from continuing their ascent.
- Adjust expectations. Voicing concerns isn’t always a guarantee for change — no shocker for this crowd. If you’re committed to attending each year, you may just have to accept (however begrudgingly) that it’s an inevitable expense. If you’re doing all you can to pitch in and provide feedback, that might just be it. And, on the topic of “all you can do,” understand that participating in the other inevitable ball-season event, the pre-ball price complaint posts on Facebook, can get that stress off your chest and make you feel a little better. You may even find that your ideas are pretty popular. But, those decision makers we mentioned — they aren’t scrolling through Facebook looking for feedback there. Your Facebook comment isn’t going to change the world. If you want to impact the pricing for next year, speak to the source (respectfully, mind you).
And that’s that. You make us crazy, and inflict pain on our wallets, military balls, but darn it, if we don’t get goosebumps every dang year during the ceremony. The holidays are a little pricier with the addition of the Navy and Marine Corps balls. August isn’t just back-to-school month for Coastie families. And the dog days of summer have the Army and Air Force shelling out cash to dress up in the heat. If the trend continues, the cost to attend the first birthday ball for the U.S. Space Force will be out of this world (pun absolutely intended — #ohyeswedid).
Photo Credits: Eastern Sky Photography, NC