Beanie Babies: How They Went From Retirement Plan to Paperweights

Like a fuzzy, cute Ponzi scheme, the Beanie Baby promise of untapped riches was a lie. Here's why Beanie Baby values were such a disappointment.

Published August 16, 2023
shopkeeper with beanies

A major milestone of growing up is learning that not everything you were told as a kid is true. You don’t have to wait an hour before hopping in the swimming pool, sleeping with the window open won't give you a cold, and Beanie Babies aren’t going to put your kids through college. Looking back, Beaniemania felt like a fever dream. And if you or your parents stockpiled Beanie Babies all those years ago hoping it’d be a one-way-ticket to a new tax bracket, we’re sorry to break it to you. Beanie Babies aren’t really worth anything. 

Ty Warner’s Snake Oil Genius Started It All

Ty Warner, a native Chicagoan, has the type of backstory people write about in scripts. A college dropout with a laundry list of random careers, Warner eventually catapulted to wealth and fame when he created Beanie Babies. He debuted these colorful animal-inspired pellet-stuffed toys at the 1993 World Toy Fair in NYC and soon after, a “Beanie bubble” emerged.

The Beanie Bubble Explains Why Beanie Babies Aren't Worth Much

The Beanie bubble, as explored in Zac Bissonnette’s book The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute, plays off of the economic term that describes when something skyrockets in market value in a relatively brief time span. Within a decade, Beanie Babies had transcended kids’ toys and collectibles into an actual investment. Where real assets like precious metals and gemstones have a long-established market value, Beanie Babies had no such history. So, the higher the values rose, the more likely they were to come crashing down.

After all, every bubble bursts.

@bmotheprince Beanie Babies Bayyybeeee #comedy #millennial original sound - Brian Moller | B Mo the Prince

Why Beanie Babies and Not Something Else?

It is curious that something without a high-culture connection (such as art) would immediately jump into pop culture as an investment. But there are a few things special about Beanie Babies and their marketing that worked people into a frenzy.

You Could Only Get Them at Certain Places

Ty Warner might have been bad at doing his taxes (cough tax evasion cough), but he did know how to stir up demand for something as inconsequential as a plush toy. He only sold these colorful Beanie Babies in limited batches to small gift stores (at least, at the start). 

So, there was the thrill of hunting down the missing plushes from each release. And a limited quantity created the illusion of demand; smaller batches mean it takes far fewer people buying them to ‘buy out’ the stock. In a way, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The illusion of demand creates the massive demand that pushed little kids (or actually their parents) to amass huge collections in the name of college funds.

A Beanie Baby Could Be Retired Any Day

To up the ante, Ty Warner didn’t let his stock linger for too long. After a varied period, different Beanie Babies would be ‘retired,’ and you wouldn’t be able to buy them again. So, every time Ty released a new batch, people went ham trying to buy up as many as they could.

You can see how this just fed into the heightened demand, making more and more people get infected with Beaniemania (perhaps more cowbell would've cured it).

The Toys Were Diverse, but Followed a Stock Model

These toys also mimicked some important aspects of other established collectibles like Pokemon trading cards or Hummel figurines. They had a universal identifying tag which elevated them from being just a stuffed animal to something a bit better.

Similarly, they followed a stock model but had a lot of variations within that model. All these Beanie Babies were about the same size, designed similarly, were filled with pellets, and made from a particular fabric. This made collecting them less complicated; you didn’t need to know much about Beanie Babies to understand what you needed to look for.

Beaniemania Comes to a Screeching Halt

Unfortunately, most Beanie Babies aren’t worth much today. There’s the occasional Beanie Baby that sells for a few thousand dollars at auction thanks to an avid collector really needing to fill the holes in their collection.

Why is that? You can chalk up two major things as to why Beanie Babies aren’t worth a fortune 20+ years later. First, there are just too many of them. Second, the value was never real in the first place.

There Are Too Many of Them

Being rare is a big factor in making something worth money, and Beanie Babies are more commonplace than the common cold. In every single thrift store or consignment shop, you can find piles and piles full of Beanie Babies. This is why the ones that do well at auction today tend to have manufacturing mistakes—because that makes them truly one of a kind.

@sepiper09 Please don’t ask me how many i have lol it’s over 500 #millennial #tybeaniebabies #collection #toys Oh No - Kreepa

There Was Nothing to Back Up the Claims

The Beanie bubble was a case of people buying into the idea of something rather than the reality of it. Beanie Babies were never rare, they weren’t made of valuable materials, and you don’t need a skilled artisan to create them. There’s nothing in the Beanie Baby conceit that makes them valuable decades later, except for promises coming out of people’s mouths.

Want to Learn More About Beaniemania?

If you love a cultural deep dive, the 2021 documentary Beanie Mania takes you on a wild ride. Or, if fictional depictions that play loose and fast with the truth are more your speed, try out The Beanie Bubble on Apple TV+.

Beaniemania Isn’t as Special as You Think

At the end of the day, the Beaniemania phenomenon is definitely fascinating, but it was a cultural moment instead of an investment plan. Just a few years ago, people were converting their life savings into cryptocurrency like Dogecoin, and today it’s not worth nearly the inflated price it once was. So, don’t beat yourself up over being duped by the false promises that Beanie Babies would be worth something one day. We were too.

Beanie Babies: How They Went From Retirement Plan to Paperweights