How to Maximize Your Halloween Candy Haul: A New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: Jeff Turner)

A few weeks ago, we got an e-mail from a reader Vishal Dosanjh, who lives in St. Louis:

My daughter asked me this morning why the fancy neighborhoods are the best places to go trick-or-treating. It puzzled me for a moment and then realized it was an economic question. I gave her an answer about disposable income and societal expectations. Anyway I thought it might be up your alley, and I wonder if it’s even true. Do wealthy neighborhoods/people actually give out better candy? She’s 8 by the way.

We set out to answer Vishal’s question in our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast. It’s called “How to Maximize Your Halloween Candy Haul.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

After speaking to Vishal and his daughter, Sophia, we learned that their neighborhood isn’t very good for trick-or-treating: too many houses don’t participate and Vishal is worried about safety. So they wanted to find another St. Louis neighborhood that would be better.

Enter the economists.

In this episode, you’ll hear from John List, the University of Chicago economist who has been featured here many times (and in SuperFreakonomics), often for his excellent research into charitable giving.

You’ll also hear from Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow, the real-estate data empire. Zillow has built a trick-or-treating index that incorporates home value, housing density, walkability, and safety.

Unfortunately, that index did not include St. Louis — but Zillow was kind enough to run the numbers there for Vishal and Sophia, and came up with just the right neighborhood for their candy-hunting.

Hopefully we will let you know sometime soon how Sophia fared.

Audio Transcript

Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio.  It’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, co-author of the books and blog of the same name – it is “the hidden side of everything.”  Dubner, you’re in New York and I’m going to guess that, since you’re on the radio today, you’re warm and safe and dry from this storm, yes?


Stephen J. DUBNER: I and mine are fine. We got very lucky, but a lot of people are hurting in a lot of ways here, and there’s all kinds of chaos. Not surprisingly, the famous Village Halloween Parade tonight has been cancelled. It’ll probably be a pretty muted Halloween everywhere on the East Coast.  But we’re still hearing from other parts of the country, looking for answers.  A listener in St. Louis named Vishal Dosanjh wrote to us with a Halloween dilemma. He’s got an eight-year-daughter, Sophia, and she of course wants to go trick-or-treating. But the neighborhood where they live isn’t so great. Here, I’ll let dad explain:


Vishal DOSANJH “I’d say it’s on the higher end of a crime rate.  There’s not many people that are keeping their lights on on Halloween night.  There’s not many people who have Halloween decorations.


DUBNER: Now little Sophia made some observations based on Halloweens past.


Sophia Dupre DOSANJH “Yeah, some neighborhoods give out more candy.  I think it might be because maybe they have more money to buy candy.  Or something like that.”


RYSSDAL: Yeah, something like that.  That’s a pretty savvy eight-year old, man!  I don’t think my kid could figure that out. 


DUBNER: Exactly and Vishal, her dad, wanted to know, is little Sophia right? Do richer neighborhoods actually give out better candy on Halloween? So we turned to John List.  He’s a University of Chicago economist who’s done a lot of research on a related topic: door-to-door charitable giving. He’s looked at wealthy neighborhoods and less wealthy neighborhoods.  Here’s what he had to say:


John LIST: “One of the best ways to go is to look for a community that is public-spirited and look for the wealthier parts of that community, and then to approach that community for your candy gifts.”


RYSSDAL: All right, first of all, that takes all the charm out of it.  I mean, if you’ve got to take a spreadsheet out to go trick-or-treating, you’re doing something wrong.  But straight-up wealth is not what he’s talking about, right?  Don’t go immediately to the richest places in the richest places.


DUBNER: That’s right. There are other factors to consider. We also talked to the folks at Zillow, the online real-estate database, which created a “trick-or-treat index,” trying to identify the best trick-or-treating neighborhoods in the top 20 trick-or-treating American cities. Here’s Zillow’s chief economist, Stan Humphries,


Stan HUMPHRIES: “From an economic perspective, we thought about children as kind of goal-maximizing automatons -- which factors would you look at if you were trying to maximize your haul of candy on Halloween evening?


RYSSDAL: “Goal-maximizing automatons?”  I’m pretty sure I’m appalled, actually.  What does Zillow have to say about how it constructs this index?  What do they use besides home value, which is what they’re known for?


DUBNER: OK, so in addition to home value, they look at neighborhood density, a walkability score, and crime data. Unfortunately, St. Louis, home of Vishal Dosanjh and his daughter Sophia, didn’t make Zillow’s list of Top 20 cities.  But Zillow was good enough to run the numbers for us in St. Louis, and the neighborhood they and came up with is St. Louis Hills, which isn’t too far from where the Dosanjhes live. It’s got nice houses, close together, a good safety score. Here’s Rick Bonasch, who lives in St. Louis Hills. He says he and his wife spend about $300 on Halloween candy.


Rick BONASCH: “I mean we have 20 houses on each side of the block.  So every house is going to have somebody on their front porch giving out candy.”


RYSSDAL: All right, this is going to sound terrible, but what if you’re like me and you just turn off your lights and pretend you’re not home?


DUBNER: On that block, you will stick out like a sore thumb.  That’s actually the point -- John List points out that, while giving away candy on Halloween is such small stakes are, it looks a lot like the other giving he studies. What he’s found is that, while we give in some part simply to be generous – altruistic -- we give in larger part because we want to be seen as being generous:


LIST: “And what we find is that for every dollar given, roughly seventy cents of that dollar is due to social pressure, and thirty cents is due to altruism.”


RYSSDAL: That’s tough, man -- 70-30!  We’ve talked about this before, though.  It’s peer pressure, right?  It’s just really cynical.


DUBNER: That’s exactly right. I do have a feeling that tonight, especially in the parts of the country where Sandy has hit hard like New York, that 70-30 split will be reversed. Because hardship often brings out the best in us. I have a feeling that tonight, the generosity – and the candy – will be flowing.  I hope so, at least.  My kids are getting ready to go.


RYSSDAL: If you live in New Jersey, by the way, Gov. Christie has postponed Halloween.  It’s now going to be November 5th, in case you’re keeping track.  Stephen Dubner – he’s back in a couple of weeks.  Freakonomics dot-com is the web site.  See ya, man.


DUBNER: Happy Halloween, Kai.


RYSSDAY: Yeah, bah humbug.

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  1. Nylund says:

    When I was young, my father would use Halloween as an excuse to meet the real “movers and shakers” of our city, driving far off to their secluded neighborhoods of great wealth so he could meet CEO’s and other powerful people with a valid social excuse. I hated it, mainly because it was terrible trick or treating. Most just turned off the lights and pretended not to be home, not wanting to be disturbed. The upside was that since so few people did come by, they never had candy. Why was that an upside? Because the rich folk who did bother answer the door would feel guilty and give me money instead. With that money I could buy my preferred brand of candy rather than relying on luck to get the kind of candy I wanted. And since the rich have a smaller marginal utility per dollar than I did, the amount they’d give would seem small to them, but insanely large to me. With a $1 a week allowance, the $15 I could haul in on Halloween seemed like a fortune.

    But mainly it sucked. There weren’t other kids around. Pressing buttons on the intercoms of gates isn’t as fun as ringing doorbells, and the ratio of people ignoring you to people actually answering was way too high. That, and the distances between houses was much larger. Drive, be ignored, drive, be ignored, drive, get $2, drive, be ignored. Walking house to house in less affluent areas was much more fun.

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  2. Jockamofeenane says:

    I cannot believe there isn’t an app for this yet, connected to GPS, which provides Halloween hotspots….obscene? Yes. Inevitable? Probs.

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  3. Mike B says:

    To maximize candy haul one needs to first find a high density of housing. This means you want older working class suburbs with smaller yards and long straight blocks so you can go up one side and down the other without too much wasteful navigating or crossing busy streets. You also want somewhere with a high proportion of people of working age, ideally with kids or at least kid friendly. Old folks don’t like to be disturbed and the very young are usually out partying. Cities or urban areas with apartments or multi-unit row houses because it is a huge hassle to get people to come to the door as their real doors are inside and up or down flights of stairs so it is best to stick to places with yards, which also ensures a sufficiently high income for good candy. Rich neighborhoods so often have better hauls, but they are often full of large houses, the elderly or the Ayn Rand types that dislike “mooching”.

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  4. frankenduf says:

    bag thievery

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  5. Joel B says:

    I feel the need to share this and it fits well with this episode: Years ago a young neighbor came over early in the day on Halloween to show our child her costume which was a hand-me-down. It was a superhero outfit that was different shades of purple and with a cape and a large “P” as the icon on its chest. Presumably it was a “Capt. Purple” costume or some such thing. She was a creative kid and in her efforts to revitalize this hand-me-down costume, she shouted out when we answered our door “I’m the PROCRASTINATOR!” Our child thought this was great and so did we. Then I suggested to them that she go Trick or Treating the next day, Nov 1st, in that costume. My theory was that people would appreciate her costume even more if she showed up a day late AND that they would likely reward her with their leftovers (which people are often thrilled to get rid of). The next day, our child went as her sidekick and in one square block they each filled a pillow case! I just wated to pass that recipe along for those who really want to rake it in.

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  6. Shane L says:

    I wonder if the kind of resident also matters. I’d imagine households which consist of young families, already engaged in the trick or treating culture, would probably be prepared and happy to contribute. But households of young single people who are not personally engaged in the culture might be less approachable?

    Likewise maybe communities of immigrant groups who aren’t as familiar with Halloween might be less likely to participate. (Or MORE likely! If they are making a special effort to join in the novelty and to integrate.)

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    • pawnman says:

      I’d guess on average, probably less likely to join in. My wife and I, on the other hand, grew up in a certain city in Ohio where Halloween is a HUGE spectacle, so we always had candy on hand and were ready for trick-or-treaters, even before our own child was born.

      One wonders…will you get better quality/quantity out of young households without kids, since they don’t have to pay for costumes, school treats, etc? Or, are people with kids more conditioned to spending the money on candy already?

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  7. Nil says:

    In my experience the wealthier neighborhood were always lousy for trick-or-treaing, primarily because everyone had the same idea to hit that neighborhood. So each house in that neighborhood had a few hundred kids coming to their door.

    It seems to me that there is an upper boundary on the amount of money that people are willing to spend giving away candy. Most regular homes seem to spend $20-$30 on candy, and a few will spend ~$50, however very few are willing to spend hundreds of dollars handing out candy. Thus when faced with hundreds of candy expecting kids they make the economic decision to go with the most cost effective items and strictly limit them to one per kid. So hitting the fancy neighborhood would often net single tootsie rolls, dum-dum suckers, or other low value candy per house. Plus many of the upper class households that to give something a little bigger seemed to be doing it as a tax writeoff. You’d get toothbrushes with names of local dentists, pens & pencils with business logos on them, and maybe some branded plastic trinkets. From a youth viewpoint all significantly less valuable than a candy bar.

    The ideal neighborhoods from my experience seemed to be ones with upscale to middle class seniors living independently. They all tend to be home and there are very few other kids to compete with. There is a higher risk of low value baked goods (aka popcorn balls), but also lots of full sized candy bars and money being handed out.

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  8. Former STL resident says:

    I lived in the Oakville area of St. Louis for 11 years and the subdivisions there would bring us massive hauls. All the houses so close together and connecting streets popping up all the time meant two hours out would bring a pillowcase of candy to sort through later.

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