After a long cold slog, going door to door in costumes that were obscured by puffy jackets and fingerless gloves, my brothers, cousins, the neighborhood kids and I would tumble into the family room of my childhood home to begin what I consider to be the most consequential part of Halloween. 

It was time to barter. 

There are winners and losers in this life. And there are winners and losers on Halloween.

Each trader, their generic superhero costumes now strewn across the floor (long live Lightning Man), pours their trick or treat spoils out onto the carpet, carefully segregating their pile from the others. Sorting begins — chocolates are removed and categorized, hard and soft candies are grouped. 

Like true sugar hustlers, each person had their method.

Though on paper, everyone has the same amount of candy — equal ratios of salty, sour and sweet — the wealth is unequally distributed. Shane likes his Skittles, Ryan her M&M’s. Brendan will do anything for a BlowPop. With the reek of fear and envy in the air, the biggest bartering event of the year begins. 

The naive think bartering helps each person get what they want most. In fact, it’s a way for ruthless capitalists to hoard.

How can you get ahead in such a hostile environment?

As a seasoned veteran of the trading floor, I’ve compiled the most effective techniques to help the burgeoning negotiator come out on top. 

Securing the home-court advantage

Don’t let the bartering happen in your brother’s room, or out of sight of the parents. You want any conflict arbitration to take place on terms advantageous to you. To set the stage for a successful trade, you must maximize your environmental advantage. If things go south, you don’t want to end up roped, taped and thrown in a closet (speaking from personal experience).

Ideally, choose somewhere with moderate levels of ambient noise, and occasional distractions. That way, it’s easier to feign indifference when driving a hard bargain. “Oh! Sorry, I didn’t hear you. I was watching the sports program.” 

Two children furiously arm wrestling for M&M’s candy, digital art by DALL·E, 2022 | DALL·E 2022

Bartering like a winner 

Step 1: Establish trust

You should begin the negotiation by revealing your priorities. Explain the types of candies you are after. “But wait?” you may say. “Isn’t secrecy a negotiator’s greatest tool, apart from ruthlessness?” Yes. Congratulations. This was a test and you passed. Reveal NOTHING about your priorities. Let them believe you love Smarties. 

Step 2: Identify weakness

Know your audience. Tweens are sensitive and toddlers are irrational. Remember, on the barter floor, there are no friends; there are no family members. There are just Suckers and Dum-Dums. Determine the tells of your targets. Try waving various confectionery high above your head, as casually as possible. If this causes an involuntary gasp from the crowd, exploit that desperation. 

Make them pay.

Parents are great for a quick con. They bought too much candy but did not get the foot traffic they hoped for. Also, they usually care about things like “familial tranquility” and “generosity.” This makes them soft for the taking. The key is to make them think it was their idea to pass you that peanut butter cup (the one you had been not-so-subtly eyeing all night). It’s a win-win. 

Feel free to toss them a conciliatory Almond Joy — adults love that trash.

Step 3: Keep it light

Accompany every winning trade with statements of empathy, so they believe you are still human. Try something like: “Wow you really had me on the ropes, little sis!” or “Haha good thing this is just for fun, and not something more serious!”

This will avoid something like the Reese’s Pieces trade of 2007, where a large portion of my Generic Batperson mask was ceremoniously crammed into my mouth, and I was beaten with socks full of stale gummy bears.

Step 4: Nothing is off limits

Your father forgot your birthday two years ago? Your brother pushed you from the bunk bed during one of his night terrors? These are the jumping-off points that raise the stakes of the barter in your favor. Remind your loved ones of how poorly they’ve treated you in the past, and how deserving you are of the king-size Snickers. My friend Ralph gave me Influenza. I leveraged his guilt, churning that milk into butter — Butterfinger that is.

Advanced tactic: Deploy MESOs

MESOs are multiple equivalent simultaneous offers. The trick is to bamboozle your associates into giving you their gold out of sheer confusion. It has worked to pacify hard-line lobbyists, union leaders and my little brother during the KitKat acquisition of 2011.

Set a 10-second time limit on the deal. Throw six different options their way, without giving them any time to think. All of your offers should be insultingly low. Then toss out one final deal — a lesser of evils. If you feel like a criminal by the end, you’ve done it right.

Step 5: Those with mercy are without candy

There comes a time in every talented barterer’s life, when they look back at the trail of destruction and may be tempted to introspect. With all the candy in the world, and no one to share it with, you might ask yourself — was this worth it? 

The world may tell you “No. Your buddy absconded with your playground girlfriend, your mother is calling a pediatric therapist and your siblings are scheming up retaliatory punishments.”

Don’t listen to those voices. You don’t need them, you have candy. You have so much candy.

Protecting your assets

Unfortunately, humanity is not as civilized as we’d like to believe. When you take advantage of someone like your older cousin, who is a distinguished alum of juvenile detention, you must take steps to protect your ill-gotten gains.

There are a number of options here, none of them pretty. 

First, you can pay off a bully with your hard-won candy. You know the kid who’s in sixth grade and has a beard? He can be bought like a mercenary. But be careful! Ethan might turn on you and take everything — keep your head on a swivel.

Another option is to eat all 15 pounds of candy in one sitting. Make your enemies fear the chaos inside of you. It’s not about the candy, it’s about sending a message.

The last option is to hide. Pick a nice dry spot, and weather out the winter in solitude.

For me, wheeling and dealing was never about having the best sugar on the block. It was about the rush of a good trade. It was an attempt to satisfy my chronic thirst for power, a consequence of growing up as a middle child. 

To protect this sacred art remember — take no prisoners; share no sweetmeats. And have a magnificent Halloween.