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. Marky says:

    Sadly, my two teens returned last evening with grocery sacks full of candy. This has been the case for the past 5-6 years.

    I think their secret is that our neighborhood has a high proportion of upper-middle income empty-nest Baby Boomers. I think they still remember the throngs of kids visiting from their full-nest days and continue to buy large quantities of candy (mostly candy bars, which kids seem to think of as the gold standard). The truth is that there are few young families still present in the area. The neighbors are so happy to get a kid at the door that they tend to give whole handfuls of candy to each. Later in the evening, it almost gets embarassing, in that many give out even more – likely to avoid blowing up their glucose meters(or waistlines).

    If quantity and quality are your goals, I would look for transitional neighborhoods like mine. Your dentist will love you.

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    • James says:

      Yeah, I didn’t get a single trick-or-treater this year, down from two last year. Now I’m stuck with a big bowl of candy, which presents another economic dilemma: do I buy cheap stuff in the expectation that it will be given away, or go for high quality in case I have to eat most or all of it myself?

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      • k says:

        Sounds like you need to go for high quality, unless this was an unusually bad weather year.

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      • anonymous says:

        I never know from year to year how many we’ll get. It could be 60 degrees, a full moon, and we’ll get a handful. It could be sleeting or snowing and we’ll get dozens! I will confess: I buy my favorite candy just in case, and some lollipops or tootsie rolls. The little kids get a couple of the cheapies, because they don’t care, it’s all good (and their parents are going to grab the good stuff anyway). The older kids get the name brand mini-bars, as I don’t want my yard TP’d! The next day, the leftover candy is (well, most of it! ) taken to the work place and left in the lunch room, to hopefully disappear bit by bit. The cheapie candy I just toss out, otherwise it might sit around until the next Halloween!

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  2. caleb b says:

    Growing up, I idolized the houses that gave away full-sized candy bars.

    As an adult, I give full-size candy bars. The joy and awe on the kids’ faces when they see the bowl is worth the cash I drop, which is only around $80 for 108 bars.

    So for me, $20-$30 worth of mini-candy gives me less utility than $80 worth of big candy. In fact, I’d much rather run out of big candy and spend the same amount, then ever give out minis. If however, EVERYBODY gave out big candy, well then I wouldn’t mind looking cheap and giving out minis. So I will hand it to John List, he’s got me nailed.

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  3. kristine a says:

    I wonder if what we learned during garage sale season applies:

    up on the “hill” people are generally more well off. my friend is a regular garage sale goer and says she NEVER goes up on the hill. She said in general a lot of them are house rich but garage-sale-item poor. So a lot of older people with knick knacks and old wreaths and decades old, original furniture. She said she always goes to middle income and lower. She said she’s getter her highest quality items at mobile homes.

    back to candy: high density neighborhoods nicely manicured yards with families from elem-college age have worked bet for us.

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  4. Max (recently retired from trick-or-treating due to age) says:

    Wealthier neighborhoods have larger houses and possibly larger yards so there is a greater distance between doors in the wealthier neighborhoods. There is a payoff decision that kids make though because of this. Is the payoff of possibly better quality candy in the wealthier neighborhood (king size) worth the opportunity cost of a larger bulk of candy? From personal experience, usually no. The rich can be stingy with their candy. Another aspect to think about is that the wealthy people with the large houses will generally host parties (so they will answer the door). People that live in smaller houses could be going to those parties and thus just leave a bowl or bucket of candy on the porch; aka the holy grail of trick-or-treaters.

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  5. k says:

    After canvassing for several charities for over 20 years, I have found the older neighbourhoods with small houses to be the most generous by far. Judging from my experience, brand new neighbourhoods with large houses must be too busy paying off their huge mortgages. Maybe old time values play a part too.

    With 3 kids 19 and up, I have found the same generosity pattern over the years for Halloween treats, the older neighbourhoods with small houses being the most giving to the community.

    Also I have found that giving a choice between pencils, non-Halloween stickers, gently used toys no longer needed, OR candy results in the happiest kids.

    Giving only non-candy items felt good for us AND made many kids truly happy, but a few (2 or 3) broken pencils in our yard led us to giving a choice. Candy with nuts/peanut butter, but not chips, may slow down the blood sugar rise as well. Everybody, even nut allergy kids, can be happy then!

    Plus, when my kids were young, I could usually trade their candy for something else they desired, sometimes after they had eaten their very favorites.

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  6. Joe says:

    Finally caught up to this episode on the podcast, and thought I’d my experience from this year on a different, but related, Halloween topic.

    My kids and their cousins, ages 6,8,9, and 11, gave up on trick or treating after about an hour, with small hauls of candy. Their mothers found this to be extremely strange e as these kids are prime trick-or-treating age and really love candy.

    My theory is that the kids know that, no matter how much candy they bring home, their moms are only going to allow them to have a few pieces (the rest will be sent to work with the dads or otherwise given away). So, once the kids had as much good candy as their moms will let them have, they figured that they would just be wasting their time by trick or treating any more.


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    • anonymous says:

      I find this kind of sad. If the kids were smart, they should find a place to HIDE most of their stash. Think ahead next year, kids. A 5 lb. coffee can hidden in a garden shed?

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  7. Alexis Buono says:

    A major part that goes into the idea of giving away candy on Halloween is incentives. If one is thinking like an economist, the incentives of giving away candy versus not giving away candy play a huge rule depending on what neighborhood a family is from. For instance, Rick Bonish who is from St. Louis, mentions how he spends around $300.00 on Halloween candy every year. His neighborhood has 20 houses on each side of the block, and if one person doesn’t have on their lights on the night of Halloween, everyone will notice. Considering mostly everyone in Rick’s neighborhood passes out candy, the benefit of passing it out versus not passing candy out is larger. Another ideal from an economist is value is subjective. Since the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a little kid might see huge houses and think a lot of candy. Vishal’s daughter, who also lives in St. Louis, was only 8 years old and she understood the idea that maybe the nicer houses have more money to spend on candy. This also explains how Halloween candy could be considered a normal good because families with a higher income might spend more money on it. In an economist’s mind, in addition to house value, the walkability, neighborhood density, and crime information are all factored into who gives out the best candy. One last idea is there are always tradeoffs. A family who doesn’t want to give away candy could easily turn off their lights and not answer the door. The tradeoff to not giving away candy is having the neighbors around that house have a different view of those people. An economic gain is the money that they saved from not buying candy.

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