How to Maximize Your Halloween Candy Haul (Ep. 99)

(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 here.)

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.


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.



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

Mike B

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".



bag thievery

Joel B

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.



The econimics of this makes perfect sense. The creativity was pure fun! :-)

Shane L

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.)


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?


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.


Former STL resident

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.


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.


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?


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

caleb b

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.

kristine a

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.

Max (recently retired from trick-or-treating due to age)

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.


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.



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.



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?