Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cheap thrills for Halloween

Last month, while paging through Better Homes and Gardens, I came on a statistic that absolutely gobsmacked me: Americans typically spend a total of 8 billion dollars each year on Halloween, making it second only to Christmas for the total shelled out on a holiday. Divided over 114 million American households, that works out to about 70 bucks per family. The National Retail Federation predicts that spending is likely to drop to about $7 billion this year due to the uncertain economic climate, but that's still more than $60 per family. What's it all going for?

A Bankrate article pointed me toward some answers to this question. Candy, it says, can run as much as $10 to $15 for a big bag, and the article claims you might need several bags if your neighborhood is a hotbed of Trick-or-Treating. However, that's just the tip of the iceberg: The article also puts the cost of "decor items" at $25 to $50, kids' costumes at $30 each, and adult costumes as high as $140. Dress up two adults and two kids, buy two bulk bags of candy, and shell out for store-bought decorations, and you could easily rack up a tab of over $400 for a one-night event.

On the other hand, there's no real need to spend nearly this much. Indeed, the fact that the average household spending for Halloween is well below this amount shows that, while some families may be shelling out big bucks for this holiday, others are spending much smaller bucks. Moreover, I suspect that these frugal families are probably getting a lot more fun out of the holiday with their DIY costumes and decorations. So, for anyone who's still scrounging around for some last-minute ideas for either treats or tricks, here's my quick list of suggestions for scaring up all the elements of a great Halloween celebration on the cheap.
  • Candy. While Bankrate estimates the cost of a big bag of M&Ms at $10 to $15, I've nearly always been able to score candy for much less during the pre-Halloween sales. Last year, according to my usual custom, I picked up two bags of mini Snickers and Three Musketeers bars for $4—and then we actually got only a handful of Trick-or-Treaters, so most of the booty ended up going to Brian's coworkers. But even if you live in a heavily haunted neighborhood, I think four bags for $8 would certainly be enough to feed the hungry masses. Bankrate also notes that many stores mark their candy down dramatically a few days before Halloween to get it off the shelves, so by procrastinating a bit you might be able to score an even better deal. Or you could take a crack at extreme couponing: the Krazy Coupon Lady site lists several sale-and-coupon combos that can get your final cost per bag down to as little as 45 cents.
  • Costumes. Store-bought costumes may run $30 to $60 a pop, but as I've noted before on this blog, I think homemade costumes are not only much cheaper but also a lot more fun. When you make your own costume, you can be pretty much anything you can imagine—as you can see from this recent post on Young House Love, which explains how bloggers John and Sheri fulfilled their 3-year-old daughter's request to dress up as "a fairy queen of the jellyfish." And if your family members don't happen to have any brilliant, bizarre ideas, there's no shortage of additional DIY costume ideas online. Bankrate and Spoonful have some creative ideas for both adults and kids (believe it or not, "jellyfish" is actually among them), while Real Simple offers some whimsical last-minute costume suggestions.
  • Decorations. This, even more than costumes, is an area in which I think buying ready-made takes all the fun out of it. Why would you ever want to miss out on the chance to go out as a family to the local farm stand, pick up a pumpkin for anywhere from $2 to $10, and carve it yourself? Plus, how could anything you buy at the store ever come anywhere close to the coolness of hand-carved pumpkins like these? (Okay, these are prize-winning pumpkins that generally took around five hours and a set of specialized tools to carve, but come on, even your basic jack-o-lantern with a real candle inside looks a lot cooler than a plastic one that costs 15 bucks.) Bankrate recommends spraying your carved pumpkin with WD-40 so it will last longer, but as Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) points out in her Tightwad Gazette books, you get even better value by carving the pumpkin the day before Halloween, bringing it back in the day after, and turning it into puree that you can enjoy in your Thanksgiving pies.
  • More decorations. Even if you're after something a little more elaborate than a simple Jack-o-Lantern, surely you can give freer rein to your creativity by building something from scratch than by buying off the shelf from Party City. Once again, there are plenty of sites online just teeming with ideas, from Martha Stewart's elaborate designs to BHG's kid-friendly projects. 
  • Party fare. Naturally, Martha Stewart also has some recipes for spooky treats (and creepy cocktails) to grace your Halloween get-together. But even simple classic homemade treats like popcorn balls and roasted pumpkin seeds are classics, and the ingredients for them are super cheap. Heck, if you're carving your own pumpkin, the seeds come free.
Here's hoping that these ideas will inspire one or two people out there to break out of the big box and try doing it themselves this Halloween—if not for the savings, then for the sheer fun of it. Happy Halloween!
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