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The High Price of High School Graduation

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Your child has slaved over the SATs, sweated the college admission process and navigated the ups and downs of a high school social life.

Now it's your turn—to open your wallet.

Graduating from high school has become a surprisingly costly process for families who want to commemorate the moment. Senior photo shoots, yearbooks, class rings, proms and caps and gowns have all become more elaborate and expensive. A family can easily spend thousands of dollars on graduation memorabilia—and that's before throwing a graduation party.

"I graduated a long time ago, and it was expensive then," said John Platts, CEO of Yearbook Life, a yearbook producer in Cooper City, Fla. Now, he said, "we all want more for our kids."

Often that starts with the senior photo shoot. These can range from extremely basic photography to multihour sessions, complete with makeup artist and props. And remember, the cost of the shoot itself may pale in comparison with the tab for the print order. In total, the photo and the prints can easily run well over $1,000.

Then there are yearbooks. Some schools produce a relatively small book with simple cover art that may include advertisements that help defray the costs. But others go for a larger format, with intricate artwork and sometimes even custom inserts for students willing to pay the extra freight.

"Some schools have quite amazing works of art" in or on their yearbook, said David Chivers, chief digital officer of Jostens, which produces class rings, yearbooks and other graduation items.

Platts said pricing on yearbooks varies, but "the big guys have really set the prices." He estimates that a straightforward yearbook can cost from $65 to "well over $100."

And like most things graduation, the options for class rings have proliferated.

The range of choices has "been an evolution over the last couple of decades, but in the last 10 years, it's gone really dramatically," Chivers said. "More and more consumers expect to be able to customize and personalize to their individual needs, including type of metal, color and cut of stone, the type of stone and side designs."

Jostens' most basic high school ring starts at $69.99, Chivers said, but with all the high-end options, "you could get into $1,000-plus."

The Prom is another big outlay. Visa has tracked spending on the event for several years and found that sending a teen to the prom now costs an average of $1,139.

There's also the cap and gown. Prices differ widely here, too: Some schools cover these costs, Chivers said. At others, students must rent or buy the outfit, as well as spring for tassels and other accessories indicating their achievements or affiliations.

These expenses can be quite significant, especially with college tuition looming. In a number of schools, Platts said, the prices have a way of shutting out students of limited means. For example, a high school with 3,000 students that he visited recently ordered just 700 yearbooks.

(Read More: CNBC: Seven Strategies for Paying for College In Tough Times)

But there are ways to keep a lid on costs: Caps and gowns can be rented inexpensively, photos can be straightforward and a host of websites offer tips on prom savings. Careful planning and creativity can make a big difference.

After all, as Chivers pointed out, "There is only one senior year in high school. Hopefully."

_By CNBC's Kelley Holland.

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