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Families go into debt to keep the quinceañera tradition alive

Fifteen-year-old girls return to their limousine after a photo shoot at Mexico's Angel of Independence monument on June 23, 2012 in Mexico City, Mexico.
Fifteen-year-old girls return to their limousine after a photo shoot at Mexico's Angel of Independence monument on June 23, 2012 in Mexico City, Mexico.
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Even on a crowded dance floor, where everyone’s pretending to ride an invisible pony, it only takes a few seconds to spot the birthday girl. Cassandra Austin is practically floating on a frothy cloud of yellow tulle and sparkling sequence. She’s the quinceañera. 

"When I saw the dress, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I look like Belle from Beauty and the Beast,'" said Austin.

This party, at the Green River Golf Course in Corona, California is all for her 15th birthday. Similar to the Bat Mitzah, a debutante ball, or a Sweet 16 party, the quinceañera is a rite of passage from girlhood to, well, young lady-hood. 

That transition includes a formal dinner, a waltz, a DJ, a photo booth, a cupcake table, a candy spread, and a light set up worthy of Studio 54. What did it all cost? 

"I think seriously with all the decorations and everything, I would say between $13,000-15,000," said Cassandra's mom, Marcela Austin. "Yeah … I would say at least $15,000.

She says their original budget was set at $9,000, though Cassandra’s dad had a different number in mind.

"Ideally I was thinking $5,000. I was hoping $5,000," said Cassandra's dad Fernando. Even though they could afford it, their combined income exceeds $130,000 a year, the final bill still caused bit of strife in the family.  

And the struggle over what’s the right amount of money to spend on a coming of age party is common as an informal survey of the guests reveals:

Laura: "I think my parents spent about, anywhere from $8,000-10,000. And we’re from a family of five."
Cynthia: "15 years ago, maybe more. I’m aging myself."
Laura: "It was very difficult for my parents because my dad was the only one working."
Letty: "Oh mine? $15,000, I clearly remember."
Patty: "Mine was in Mexico cause my parents wanted to save."
Cynthia: "Can you actually believe that my parents spent more on my quinceañera than on my college education? You talk about college and they’re like, uh, community college.

Financial adviser Louis Barajas has helped Latino families plan for the one-night events for decades.  

"One of the things that I love to do is when I’m guiding a family, is, I sit down and I’ll take a look at what I call 'life defining moments,'" said Barajas. "So I don’t put all the focus on a quinceañera."

He says these can be anything from getting a first car, going to college, a wedding, and maybe buying a first home. And when you look at these in perspective, he says, suddenly a quinceañera doesn’t seem as important anymore. And usually, that helps keep parents within budget. 

When you don’t do that, Barajas says, you get the horror stories. Wives taking their wedding rings to pawn shops and never going back for them, or families refinancing their homes.

"Here’s the worst case scenario: taking money from their 401k, and again, they don’t have a lot of money in their retirement plan, but they borrow money from the 401k to use the money for the quinceañera and they can’t afford to pay it back," said Barajas. "Eventually it ends up being penalized and they have to pay taxes on it." 

Cassandra’s parents, Marcela and Fernando, did go over budget. Though they didn’t cash out their retirement accounts they did put $6,000 on the family credit card. The debate in their house was particularly drawn out because the quinceañera tradition only comes from one side of the family. 

Marcela is Mexican-American and had her own quinceañera in the mid-'80s. Fernando is African-American, and he thought the splendor of it was indulgent.  

"And I’m like, are you kidding me? In my mind, you know, I’m like there is no way that we’re going to do this. It’s too much, way too much," said Fernando Austin. 

"We don’t really have this in the black culture. We didn’t do that," said Sally, Cassandra's grandmother. "We might have done a 16th birthday party but not anything like this."

She and her husband Chauncy still aren’t convinced it’s a worthwhile expense. 

"When I came here and they were going through the plans, I said, this is going to get a little on the expensive side. First thing I said, I don’t have any money," said Chauncy.

Despite their misgivings, they admit it’s a beautiful party and their granddaughter does look like a Disney princess in the $150 poofy dress they paid for. At the end of the night Marcela, Fernando and Cassandra pose for a family picture. Fernando says it’s perfect. 

"What I would say to people who think we’re crazy, I think it’s just like, like I‘ve always said from the beginning: it was just tradition, whether it was going to be a backyard party, or a party like this. It’s just tradition. You have to have a quinceañera." said Marcela