Which is frugal? Fake vs. fresh tree

An artificial tree that lasts for 6 to 10 years will cost less. But that shouldn't be your only consideration.

By Karen Datko Dec 7, 2012 3:37PM

Image: Ornament and money © Tetra Images, CorbisDid you know the first artificial Christmas tree was created in the 1930s by a U.S. maker of toilet bowl brushes? So says Earth911.com.


Blessedly, artificial trees have come a long way since then, and new sales figures bear that out. According to USA Today, "Early sales trends for the faux trees are up, according to Wal-Mart and Target, and at Home Depot, sales have jumped double-digits this season."


But are they a better value than a real Christmas tree? Let's figure this out:



A Nielsen survey for the American Christmas Tree Association (which includes artificial-tree purveyors) last year found that Americans planned to purchase 21.6 million real trees, at an average cost of $46, and 12.9 million artificial trees, with an average price of $78.


The association said, "The survey also found 11% of U.S. households who will display a real tree will also display an artificial tree, recognizing a growing trend toward celebrating Christmas with more than one Christmas tree." (Definitely not frugal.)


A Harris Interactive survey for the National Christmas Tree Association (the real-tree folks) produced somewhat different results for 2011: Americans purchased 30.8 million fresh trees, spending an average of just under $35. They bought 9.5 million fake trees, spending an average of $70.55. 


Of course, the price can vary greatly depending on the type and size of tree you buy and (for real trees) your location. For instance, at one tree lot in San Antonio, a price sampling by KSAT.com found a 6-foot Douglas fir for $41, a 6-foot grand fir for $51, and a same-sized noble fir for $4 more. A 10-foot noble cost $200. Slightly less expensive trees were available at home-improvement and grocery stores.


The cost of artificial trees can also vary widely, up to more than a thousand bucks. However, an artificial tree that lasts for six to 10 years is clearly the less expensive choice.


But real frugalists know that cost is not the only factor to consider when making a thoughtful decision to buy.  



The National Christmas Tree Association says that between 2000 and 2004, 45% of fires involving Christmas trees -- fake or real -- were caused by electrical failure or malfunction, and 24% started because the tree was too close to a heat source.


Note that a fake tree can catch fire, too. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says, "Look for the label: 'Fire Resistant.' Although this label does not mean that the tree will not catch fire, it does indicate that the tree is more resistant to catching fire."

What about lead in artificial trees? Says USA Today:

"In 2004, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Asheville concluded that an average artificial tree doesn't present a significant risk for exposure to lead. They did warn, however, that a significant health risk to young children is possible in worst-case scenarios."

Those generally involve older models of trees, says the research report.



Artificial trees are pre-lit and assemble with ease. However, the tips might need "fluffing." Says Cheapism.com, "The key to selecting the perfect specimen is to focus on the number of tips; the more tips the artificial tree has, the fuller and more realistic it will appear."


On the other hand, real trees are fluff-free. But they require an amazing amount of water to keep from drying out. The real-tree folks recommend (.pdf file) "at least 1 quart for each inch of stem diameter." You should check and replenish several times a day.


Note: For both fake and real, remember to unplug the lights before you leave home or go to bed.


Environmental concerns

While makers of fake Christmas trees will likely disagree, it's generally recognized that buying a fresh tree is better for the environment. Fresh trees are a renewable resource grown on tree farms and easily turned into mulch when their job is done.


Fake trees -- the majority of which are shipped from China -- aren't recycled because they're usually made with PVC, says The New York Times. The landfill is most often their final resting spot.


So, which is more frugal? The tree that fits your budget, your lifestyle and your values. If you're not happy with the tree you purchased, that's not money well-spent.


Which type of tree do you prefer and why?


More on MSN Money:


Dec 7, 2012 6:57PM
I put up a fake tree every year......the same fake, pre-lit  tree Ive owned for many, many years. It looks beautiful once it's all decorated.  I got it at an after  Xmas sale for about $20. I can't imagine spending $50-$60 on a new, real tree every year. 
Dec 8, 2012 3:04PM

Yes, the "real trees" are mostly grown on farms, using up land that was either good farmland or else land that once held a diversified forest. There is a lot of fuel spent tending the tree farm, and then more trucking trees to the cities each year. Compare that to making and trucking a fake tree once every 10 years--or even longer if it's a high-quality item.



Dec 7, 2012 5:07PM
We have neither any more, instead we donate that money to the local soup kitchen. If you need a tree and want to support the local tree farmers then get a real (dug) one in a pot and plant it after the holiday, if you have no place to plant it give it to someone who does. Cut it down and throw it away is a huge waste, with trees averaging $50 in our area I work too hard for my $$ for something that quickly becomes garbage.
Dec 8, 2012 3:13PM

BTW, really good artificial trees cost a lot more than the average they quote, but then you will want to keep it a lot longer. For many people, it may be the last tree they ever have to buy.


Full disclosure: I'm not involved in the Christmas tree business, one way or the other. I just recently dug into the pros and cons of these things.

Dec 7, 2012 7:39PM
This article was awful. It didn't give any viable information to which tree is actually more frugal. Sure, they spouted out some prices and fire hazards, along with a few random opinions, but that hardly justifies credibility as to why the price "shouldn't be (our) only consideration." The smell, look, or whether it ends up as mulch or in a ditch have nothing to do with frugality, and that's exactly what the article is about, right? (See title of article).
Being frugal is all about spending less dollar signs, and when it comes to spending less dollar signs, even in the long run (possibly even with burning down your furniture in a fire and the cost to replace said furniture) a fake tree is MUCH more cost effective-aka cheaper-than it's real cousin.

Case solved.

Dec 10, 2012 10:18AM
We're on the fourth year of our fake tree that cost $130.  We were getting  10' fir trees prior and those cost well over $50 in my area...I think we paid $75 the final year.  I'm alot "greener" than my wife who would veto any consideration of a fake tree in favor of aroma and tradition.  SHE was the one who bought the fake tree, citing no more lingering needle mess, tip-overs and a much smaller diameter(uses a few feet less space)..  Once you have a heavy 10' tree fall over an hour before you have a house full of company, you say "screw tradition". It really looks nice when decorated...and we bought un-lit and currently used LED's...very efficient.
the carbon expense of cutting/delivering/removing/burning trees is significant.

Dec 10, 2012 6:11PM
We have gotten a real tree every year since we are married. This year was the 21st tree we have had. Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the whole family takes a 1.5 hour trip to a tree farm where we go on a hay ride into the woods and then pick our"perfect tree" We cut it down ourselves. What a fun and great way to kick off the Christmas season. Our kids come too and we have quality family time. The benefits to a real tree to me outweigh the cons. You have a different tree every year, each tree has it's own personality. You can have a fat tree or a thin one , long needles or short. Nothing beats the smell of a real tree.  
Dec 12, 2012 9:43AM
For years we bought a "live" tree and planted it in our yard after the holidays but now we are out of room and the trees are 20-30 feet tall. Then we cut a tree from the forest for a few years, this became a "dead" tree that we burned in the woodstove after the holidays.  Now we have a "re-useable" tree, this is the best choice for us and it is the most "green" way to go.  I think you will all agree that a "green" Christmas tree is the best, and better to be a "fake" then "dead" (ask Donald Trump or Lance Armstrong).
Dec 10, 2012 4:46PM
I love a real tree, but they are a lot of work and you can't put trains under them. We switched to a fake about 7 years ago. I might get a small live tree for my basement, but will probably never get another live 7 footer.
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