Call me a Halloween fiend. After long admiring one block in a neighboring town where 20 houses stage an all-out horror fest, I've got this creeping need to replicate it in my frontyard. What I've found, however, is that scaring the wits out of little trick-or-treaters is expensive.

Christmas used to be the holiday where people became filled with bloodlust to outdo their neighbors in yard decorations. Yet as haunted house and hayride tours grow in popularity, a jack-o'-lantern and scarecrow no longer seem sufficient to set the mood for the witching hour. Halloween is the new holiday for decorating to excess, where frontyards rival sets of Broadway plays, complete with mood lighting, sound effects, fog machines, and animatronics.

But beware. If you're not careful, it won't be the bogeyman that gets you -- it'll be your busted budget that plays tricks on your wallet.

Profitable for them, expensive for us
According to the National Retail Federation, Halloween ranks sixth for retail profits, behind Christmas, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, Easter, and Father's Day. That makes the holiday especially appealing this year, as retailers try to put a dreary third quarter behind them.

Yet just as that jolly old elf has come to overshadow the religious meanings surrounding Christmas, Halloween -- with its spooks, goblins, vampires, and, um, "goth cheerleaders" -- has come closer to its pagan roots of the festival of the dead and the English tradition of "souling," singing songs door-to-door for cakes and money on the eve of All Souls Day. Some 64% of consumers celebrate, with 73% handing out candy, 34% dressing up in costumes, and 17% visiting haunted houses.

Whatever its roots, decorating for Halloween is an expensive proposition, and in some areas, the pressure to keep up with the Joneses -- and the Frankensteins, Draculas, and other denizens of the crypt -- is quite intense.

Stories from the trenches
I've gotta admit it: On my block, I'm the Joneses. My yard features a big treasure chest fashioned into a booty locker, replete with trinkets and gold coins. A pirate skeleton guards the treasure as a bubbling cauldron in the back emits a low mist of fog. A few tiki torches salvaged from summer's backyard parties, a witch keeping watch from the eaves of the house, and a large spider's web spanning the front porch complete this year's scene. Total cost: $200 and one evening's work.

Now, I'll happily admit that I go a little overboard. But there are ways to keep up with the Joneses without blowing your entire holiday decorating budget. You just have to start small.

Mushrooms in the night
But it takes some discipline. Each year, Halloween "superstores" sprout up all over the place. They primarily sell costumes, but outdoor props are a growing part of their business. Yet with life-size animated figures costing several hundred dollars apiece, you can't dig up an entire graveyard overnight.

Here are some ideas for keeping decoration spending under control:

  • Dedicate a small area, such as your front steps, as your staging area, rather than shooting to transform your entire yard.
  • Buy just one big item to add to your collection each year.
  • Simple decorations can work just as well as complicated and expensive ones -- for example, some old clothes stuffed with hay evoke a classic Halloween feel.
  • A few carved pumpkins -- even painted ones -- provide as much fun as more elaborate settings, particularly if the activity is done as a family.

Dead and buried
Halloween is fun, and listening to the laughter of trick-or-treaters is enough fun without having to spend big bucks. But if you want to splurge a little, start small, add to your collection, and count on casting a spell over the kids over time. They'll appreciate it just as much -- and the credit card bills won't be reaching out for you like a cold hand from the grave next month.