The battle in “Home Alone” between 8-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) and two burglars known as the Wet Bandits has unfolded on screens around the world every Christmas since the film premiered in 1990.
And each year, for some viewers, the McCallisters’ grand home and lifestyle inspires its own tradition: wondering just how rich this family was.
The New York Times turned to economists and people involved with the film to find the answer.
The McCallisters are the 1%.
Early in the film, one of the burglars, Harry (Joe Pesci), tells his fellow Wet Bandit, Marv (Daniel Stern), that the McCallister home is their top target in a wealthy neighborhood.
“That’s the one, Marv; that’s the silver tuna,” Harry says, before speculating that the house contains a lot of “top-flight goods,” including VCRs, stereos, very fine jewelry and “odd marketable securities.”
The home is the best clue as to how much money the McCallisters have.
The silver tuna, or its exterior anyway, is a real-world, house at 671 Lincoln Ave. in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States, according to Realtor.com. It appears to have enough space for Kevin and his four siblings to each have their own rooms, but also can accommodate an army of visitors.
In 1990, the house was affordable only for the top 1% of Chicago household incomes, and that would still be the case today, according to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
The economists — Max Gillet, a senior research analyst; Cindy Hull, an assistant vice president and interim head of the financial markets group; and Thomas Walstrum, a senior business economist — made this determination after looking at data including household incomes in the Chicago metropolitan statistical area for 1990 and 2022, the house’s property value, prevailing mortgage rates at the time, and typical taxes and insurance.
Working with the assumption that the McCallisters did not spend more than 30% of their income on housing, the economists also determined the home would have been affordable to a household with an income of $305,000 in 1990 (about $665,000 in 2022).
In the middle of 2022, a similar house would cost about $2.4 million, based on the Zillow estimate for the “Home Alone” house. A home of that value would be affordable to a household with income of $730,000, which would be in the top 1% of Chicago-area households, the economists said.
How are they so rich?
“Home Alone” never explains what the parents do for work.
On the internet, where this question regularly pops up, some people have suggested Kate McCallister is a fashion designer, because the house has several mannequins inside, which later feature in one of Kevin’s attempts to trick the burglars into thinking he is not, in fact, home alone.
Todd Strasser, who wrote the official novelizations of “Home Alone” and two of its sequels, said in an interview that he was not closely supervised by the filmmakers. The guidance, he said, was essentially: “Here’s the script; do whatever you want.”
So in the book, he made Kevin’s mom a fashion designer, because of the mannequins, and Kevin’s dad a businessman, because it was “a safe bet,” he said.
He said it never occurred to him to explain in detail how the McCallisters had come by their money; he thought they were “upper middle class” but not “super rich.”
The family has other trappings of significant-but-not-stratospheric wealth: They wear nice clothes and hire multiple vans to take them to the airport, yes, but when Kate is trying to bribe an elderly couple to give up their tickets from Paris so she can get home, she offers jewelry and cash, but hints that her Rolex might be fake.
“I don’t know how much the McCallisters made, but it sure did a lot for my bank account,” Strasser said.
One fan theory posits that Peter McCallister is involved with organized crime. Under this theory, the McCallister home was specifically targeted as some sort of vendetta, and Kevin’s brutal violence against the burglars is the product of an upbringing exposed to criminal activity.
The Times could not rule out this theory.
Uncle Rob paid for the flights.
A commonly cited data point on the family’s wealth is their Christmas trip to Paris.
Flying 15 people to Paris is expensive, especially with the four adults flying first class, but Kevin’s parents don’t pay for the airplane tickets. Early in the film, Kate McCallister tells a police officer — who is actually Harry in disguise — that her husband’s brother paid for the flights.
That brother is Uncle Rob. He is a minor figure in the first film, but the few mentions he does get suggest that he is loaded. He pays for the tickets, and he has an apartment in Paris that has a clear view of the Eiffel Tower and can somehow house 15 of his family members. (The film’s sequel, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,” further suggests that Uncle Rob is wealthy, but this analysis is based only on the first film.)
A third brother, Uncle Frank (the mean one), lives in Ohio and travels with the family from Illinois to Paris. We do not learn anything about his income, but we do know he is cheap. At his brother’s house in Illinois, he avoids paying the $122.50 pizza bill. On the plane, dining in first class, he tells his wife to slip the crystal salt and pepper shakers in her purse.
This behavior could suggest that he is wealthy. Shoplifting was “significantly more common” among people with family incomes over $70,000, according to a 2008 article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Uncle Frank is also a typical adult character in the world of John Hughes, who wrote and produced “Home Alone,” said Robert Bulman, a sociology professor at Saint Mary’s College of California who studies the representation of teens and high schools in film.
He said that a common mark of a Hughes film is dramatic tension fueled by conflict between young people and adults, which almost always resolves in favor of the younger person.
He noted that in Hughes’ teen films — including “The Breakfast Club,” and “Pretty in Pink” — class tensions are also often prominent and drive the story forward.
“His stories usually favor the perspective of the working-class kid or the poor kid who is trying to gain access to a wealthier peer group, for instance,” Bulman said. “But in ‘Home Alone,’ it’s unmistakably a victory for Kevin as a child, but also Kevin as a rich kid defending his impressive fortress.”
The movie is not about the money.
Eve Cauley, the set decorator for “Home Alone,” was responsible for decor such as the furniture and wallpaper inside of the McCallister home, which was filmed on built sets in a local high school.
She said in an email that the home was not expensively furnished but had a deliberately “stately, upscale look.”
When the film was made, navy blue and dusty pink were popular interior design colors, Cauley said. But she was inspired by Norman Rockwell paintings and antique Christmas cards to use saturated reds, greens and golds in the family home.
Hughes told her that he wanted the house to have a “timeless look,” she said. “He told me he likes his films to look a bit nicer and cleaner than reality, since his purpose in making movies is to entertain the audience and uplift them,” she said.
Cauley also had some advice for people looking for an answer about the family’s income.
“To me, with respect, fans who argue about the parents’ income, or house cost, should, instead, simply enjoy the movie,” she said.
“After all, John Hughes and director Christopher Columbus created this heartwarming and comic film as entertainment for the audience, to uplift spirits for the holidays. It did, and still does, lift spirits.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.