Halloween's frightful tab, how to reign in costs

Halloween spending: The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend $7 billion on Halloween this year, 50 percent more than in 2005. How can families reign in costs?

John Rucosky/Tribune-Democrat/AP
Halloween spending: Dominic Croyle, 3, of South Fork, Pa., with his dog 'Taz' takes part in the annual Halloween parade in downtown Johnstown, Pa., Thurs., Oct. 24. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend $7 billion on Halloween this year.

The other day my 13-year-old, Jake, said, "Let's dress Katie up as a bat for Halloween."

"I'm not buying the dog a costume," I said.

Jake ignored me. "Katie, wanna be a pumpkin?" he asked the poodle.

Since when did we feel the need to make sure our canines celebrated All Hallow's Eve?

Perhaps it's inevitable now that Halloween is big business. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend $6.9 billion on Halloween this year. That's actually a decline from 2012, when we blew $8 billion, but it still represents an increase of more than 50 percent since 2005 and a major surge since 1995, when spending totaled $2.5 billion.

What's going on? Call it revenge of the grown-ups. An increasing number of baby boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials refuse to put Halloween aside once they hit adulthood.

The National Retail Federation says more money is spent on costumes for adults ($1.2 billion) than kids ($1 billion). According to a survey conducted by the financial literacy website Credit Donkey, 61 percent of respondents said they will attend at least one Halloween party. National thrift shop chain Value Village says almost 80 percent of moms and dads will put on costumes along with their children.

"When you look at other holidays, there is only one where the purpose is kicking back and having a good time. That's Halloween," said Mike Bernacchi, a professor of marketing at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Parties, parades, tricks, and treats

Halloween offers opportunities to celebrate, again and again – sort of a costumed version of the movie "Groundhog Day." The suburban New York town where I once lived is typical: Last week it hosted a scary evening with a jumping castle and "spooky walk." Then there was a weekend Halloween parade. This weekend, the mall nearby will offer "costume friendly" events. On Halloween, the elementary-school children will participate in yet another parade. All that occurs before trick-or-treating on Halloween night.

And, yes, the holiday has gone to the dogs. And cats. And hamsters, for all I know. The National Retail Federation says almost 7.9 percent of people plan to put pets in costume.

Businesses are obliging would-be revelers. Some sponsor "pop-up" haunted houses, and restaurants throw special dinners. Disney World offers Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (a $62 separate admission required), and New York's American Museum of Natural History hosts a "costumed sleepover" for kids and their caretakers for a mere $145 per person. A Miami cruise ship is offering a Studio 54 evening, complete with "gaming, dancing, dining and drinks." That's $39.95 per person, with cabins beginning at $75.

Even staying at home will set you back, given all the decorations and candy you need. Robert Sollars, a business consultant and Halloween enthusiast in Mesa, Arizona, estimated that he and his wife will spend at least $100 on candy – not that they have any misgivings about it.

"I'm going to dress up as a mean cat, and since I have a deep voice, I'll growl and hiss. My wife answers the door as a zombie queen or witch," he said. "The kids love coming to the house because we scare the hell out of them."

Spook and thrifty

Add up all the households like the Sollarses', and it's a $2.08 billion tab for sugary treats on Halloween.

Ouch. What can you do if you want to celebrate but don't want to suffer the financial equivalent of a sugar crash on Nov. 1? Here are some thoughts.

- Pick a number and stick with it. Determine in advance how much you can spend and don't exceed it, no matter how tempted you are to buy the creepy hanging LED clown for $40.

- Wait until the last minute, if you can. Andrea Woroch, a consumer expert, pointed out that since Halloween-themed stuff is all but useless on Nov. 1, many stores begin discounting it in advance of Oct. 31. "Candy brands put Halloween images on their packaging, so the day before, many drugstores and groceries mark them down up to 50 percent," she said.

Costumes are also marked down by about 30 percent in the days before Halloween, Woroch added, but that only works if you and your child are flexible. "If you wait till the day before, the lines are long and the merchandise is picked through."

- Hack the costume. Encourage your child to dress as something generic – a tourist, a businessman or a pirate, say – instead of the pricey brand-name comic character du jour. Most likely, you can pull a costume out of the closet.

- Recycle. Don't feel you can't wear last year's costume because posted pictures will reveal you reuse your old costumes. Odds are, no one is looking that closely, and if they are, do you really want to be friends with someone who would judge you for dressing up as a cat two years running?

- Stockpile. Nobody wants to eat year-old candy, but you could go out the day after Halloween and buy those spiderwebs and gravestone props for pennies on the dollar. I might even be able to find a costume Katie could afford then.

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