Are Artificial Christmas Trees a Frugal Alternative?

A couple weekends ago we performed the annual rescue of our artificial Christmas tree.  As I hoisted the three sections of tree from our garage’s utility room I could not help but think of the money we had saved over buying a real tree.  And I wasn’t the only one!  My daughter recently wrote a persuasive piece for school arguing that artificial trees were more frugal in the long run.  I wonder where she gets it.

Artificial Christmas Trees Cost More Upfront

artificial christmas treeReaching the decision to shop for an artificial Christmas tree was tough for me.  I am a traditional kind of guy, and every year growing up my mom and I would venture to a Christmas tree farm to scout out real trees.  I loved the smell of real Christmas trees, and never thought I would grow up wanting anything else.

When my wife and I got married we continued the tradition of buying a real tree for the first five years of our marriage.  However, as trees became more and more expensive, and we found ourselves spending more and more time doing the annual Christmas tree lights untangling, we decided it was time to consider an artificial tree.  After a little comparative shopping, we found our artificial Christmas tree at Michaels craft store.  It cost about $200 five years ago.  The tree was actually more expensive, but we managed to find a good deal at Michaels, and used one of their store coupons to receive further discounts.

At the time we were spending about $75 for real trees.  We liked the full, Fraser Fir variety for their fullness and scent, though they were admittedly more expensive than other types.  Our artificial Christmas tree matched this same style (minus the smell), and came pre-lit, which saves me those painful hours of untangling lights each year.  At $75 per year, we were on pace to spend $325 over the next five years with live trees, so from a purely financial perspective an artificial tree has saved us over $100.  But there are other benefits:

Pros of an Artificial Tree

  • No needles to clean up.  Seriously, our vacuum used to smell like Christmas trees for weeks after sucking up all the needles dropped after taking the tree out.
  • No lights to untangle.  No further comments required.
  • Safer than real trees.  Artificial trees do not dry out, and do not require any water in their tree stand.
  • Easy cleanup after Christmas.  Simply unplug the tree, take down ornaments and store for next season.
  • No sap.  Anyone who has carried in a real tree can appreciate this one!

I’m interested to hear from you.  Which type of Christmas tree do you prefer, and why?

Photo courtesy of Vitamin C9000


  1. Fake tree, fake Christmas…j/k. All joking aside, I’ve gone back and forth on this before, but always settled on the real deal. I love the smell and it brings back the Christmas memories of my childhood. Plus, I don’t have to worry about storing the fake one year round.

    The jury is still out for me it is “greener” to have a fake or real tree. The fake one is made of plastic, which is never good for the environment, but the real deal involves the cutting of trees. On the flip side, the purchase of real Christmas trees encourages tree farms and the planting of more trees which is good for the enviornment. Either way, here’s to wishing everyone a Merry Chrsitmas!


  2. I have had the same mini fake christmas tree for 15 years since I was single in washington DC. It has paid for itself and I think its evironmental costs as well.

    However, this year since we now have toddlers we went to a christmas tree farm and cut down a tree for my mom. If this christmas tree didn’t exist, there would be fancy houses in its place. christmas tree farms are mostly pretty environmentally friendly. Also, if you don’t put the tinsle on, the trees do get recycled. It is a crime though to not recycle green trees. If anyone lives in a community where those go into landfill, change your community.

  3. I grew up with real but now I have fake. It costs less, there is less hassle, and you can have it up longer. All seems good to me. I get a pine scented candle to make up for the smell.

    This is the first year we have a prelit tree. I like it so far!

  4. I remember when my parents made the change to a fake tree, I was so upset. But it grew on me. My husband and I now have our own fake tree, even though it needs to replaced this year. I love it. No needles, no watering, no sap, no worrying about disposal. It is a lot cheaper too.

  5. We bought our artificial trees at rummage sales. $5 apiece and they’ve lasted 6 years. Great return on investment, re-usable, easier to clean up, easier on the allergies, and no dormant ladybugs waking up and invading your house. Artificial wins by miles.

    If you buy a real tree, make sure to buy a tree with the root bulb still attached so you can replant it after Christmas.

  6. FD – We opt for no tree at our house. Much more frugal all around – no tree, no lights, no higher utility bills, no ornaments, etc. Because of the environment I won’t support the artificial tree industry or the desire to cut down perfectly healthy trees.

    If I had my wish we would have a live tree to plant outside, but we haven’t always been in a place where we could. So we usually make treats that are edible for the local birds and wildlife and use them to decorate lots of trees outside.

  7. Fake trees are also not as big of a fire hazard and better for the environment (the real tree has to be cut down and shipped to where ever you will drive to pick it up). They last for years, so on a per use basis, artificial trees are a frugal alternative.

    We had a fake tree when I was growing up. One year I remember my Mom wrapping the tree up (lights, decorations and all) and storing it in the basement. The next year she brought it up, unwrapped it and plugged it in – it was done.

  8. We went with an artificial tree this year…i feel that it saves money…

    however, we bought a tree that wasn’t pre-lit. Just think, if the lights go bad on the tree, you have to get a whole new tree. with a non-lit tree, it’s much easier to replace lights…

  9. FD,

    Well I have always had artificial trees. My father and I both have allergies and we can’t be in the same room as a real tree. I do appreciate people who have artificial trees because of that reason

    Not all artificial trees come with lights attached but I do agree with your other reasons. I am always like things that are reusable so I think you are right on.

    And not to get too hippyish but do we really need to cut down millions of trees for 3 weeks for an over consumerized holiday season. Just like many of us have gotten over the comercialism of Christmas I think we need to move beyond other “traditions” that don’t do our world any good.

  10. I grew up with artificial because my brother had allergies so when it came time to have my own tree, I also went with a pre-lit artificial. I love it. Although after 7 years of use, I’m back to untangling lights as one section’s pre-strung lights have burnt out. But that’s still just a single string of lights and one section, not a whole tree’s worth. Eventually I expect the other two sections to die and then I’ll liekly unstring the tree and re-string it in the same sections with new lights for a few more pre-lit years.

    I’ve never really had the real-tree experience, the few years we had one before my brother came along, I was too young to remember it. From what I know of it, it just seems like a lot of hassle and work when I can just open the closet and have the tree and all the decorations taken care of in an afternoon.

  11. I think synthetic trees are frugal and in some ways better for the environment. I love the smell of real trees, and it’s always fun to go “tree hunting” in the winter, but my boyfriend is allergic to them so our only option is synthetic. We’ll be able to re-use it each year, and won’t have to worry about making a mess getting the tree into and out of the house. Another alternative is to buy a tree and plant it on your property. It will provide shade and insulation, and add a little bit more to the air quality. Plus, you can remember Christmas memories whenever you look at that tree.

  12. We had fake trees growing up. I couldn’t wait to buy my own real tree. I love the whole process and having my house smell like tree all December feels like Christmas to me.

  13. I don’t like either option provided. I think decorating a living tree outdoors is both more frugal and more symbolically appropriate, as well as being more environmentally friendly. I take evergreens to be a symbol of life continuing through the cold, dark winter, so killing one to decorate the home seems silly, as does putting up a never-living artificial tree.

    Note that all of your pros of an artificial tree would really apply to a living outdoor tree as well.

  14. I’m sorry, I just can’t go there. I get a real tree for the same reason I eat butter instead of margarine, and bake my own bread instead of buying it. I’m prejudiced in favor of real things, as opposed to fake things. Cutting down the tree ourselves, the scent of it, and putting on the ornaments are central aspects of Christmas for me. I care more about the tree than I do about the gifts.

    Some years we get balled trees instead of cut ones so that we can plant them. Right now we don’t have room for another tree in the yard. The fact that we spend our money at a local tree farm helps make the once a year expense a little easier to swallow too. Then our township chips all the trees in January, and I can go help myself to the mulch for free.

  15. I’ve had a small plastic tree for 5 years now. In fact, my sister and I used to send it to the other person since neither of us wanted it. I quite happily put it up and just enjoy it for what it is these days. Makes a lot more sense.

  16. All of you with fake plastic trees, do you often pay more for organic produce?

    get it? real things cost more. processed, fake things cost less. priorities!

    My kids are never going to see me pull a tree out of a box

  17. I reluctantly agreed to an artificial tree when my fiance proposed the idea to me last year. Now I love it for all of the reasons listed above. We have cats too, and they leave the artificial tree alone (no water for them to try to drink). Plus, with a baby now, I feel better having a safer tree around. We use a candle warmer and a mistletoe candle to get the ‘Christmas’ smell, but when we buy a place of our own, we’ll put up a fresh wreath every year.

  18. I am a fairly recent convert to artificial trees and I’m relatively certain I will never go back to a real tree. Since leaving my parents’ home, I’ve only had two real trees and they were both very difficult to deal with–purchasing, making sure the tree got enough water, DISPOSAL. I love just pulling out the tree when it’s convenient for me and putting it away when it’s convenient.

  19. We have a fake tree. It was $50 6 years ago. Yeah, we saved a LOT. We do plan on getting a new one after Christmas (they’re so cheap then), but this one had a great run.

  20. I love my fake tree, which cost $175 at an after-Christmas sale 10 years ago. It’s 10 ft tall and not pre-lit. I just put on one level of branches arrange the lights and then add the next layer – very easy and it gives more depth and dimension to the tree. I also cut boughs from the trees on our property and make my own garland and wreaths. I get all the smell and atmosphere without killing a tree 🙂

  21. I doubt I’ll ever have a fake tree for Christmas. The real tree, despite the annual cost, is an important part of our Christmas tradition. I love the smell and don’t even mind the few tines that fall off. Ive never had any fire issues with trees in the past either. I am PRO- REAL TREES for Christmas 🙂

  22. I bought a real tree for my first apartment. It was fun and exciting for a few days, then it got old, finally annoying. Needles started falling, I had to water it constantly, and it was difficult to dispose of it properly. My last two apartments didn’t have a tree at all.

    I’m going the traditional route when I buy a home and buy myself a synthetic tree. My parents owned their for at least 25 years and saved a ton with their decision. If I want the smell of fresh pine I’ll either go out hiking or go out by my neighbor’s front yard. 🙂

  23. I am an artificial tree lover:
    1)I despise the idea of being out in the cold and picking a tree out
    2)I love the idea of just pulling out the tree and setting it up when I’m in the mood
    3)I know I will have enough decorations for the tree
    4)I know how it will look each year -pretty much.

  24. I prefer the smell of a real tree – however, due to the wood stove and the dryness in the house, I have an artificial tree. It cost $10 at a garage sale – and it’s working well now.

    It wasn’t a matter of cost, as here in Oregon, the U-cuts/permit cuts have trees from $5 up. It was just a matter of fire safety. The woodstove is my primary heat, and nowhere in the front room would a real tree be further than 15 ft from the woodstove.

  25. Since I am allergic to the sap I went to using a fake tree a couple years ago. However, I do have the kids (or myself using gloves) hang up a real wreath so that I can still get that Christmas smell!!

  26. It’s artificial for us. A five foot tree was $30 three years ago. It is perfect for a couple with no kids living at home and a VERY curious, sniffy, dog. I think people should do what they’re most comfortable with.

  27. No family = No tree. Seems like the tree is yet another hidden cost to getting married and having kids since a big Christmas celebration with all sorts of ornaments and decorations becomes an obligation, with this humongous glittery thing being the center of it all. Just the thought of keeping track of and having to store that much junk year after year makes me feel nauseous.

  28. My husband and I have always bought live trees, but we’ve been going back and forth about buying an artificial one for the past seven years.

    Since we’re pretty strapped this year (like everybody else), my husband’s challenge is to find the cheapest tree possible. But it has to be beautiful. He loves a challenge!

  29. We bought an artificial tree years ago, when real trees were running $75 here.

    We still buy a real wreath and garland from the Boy Scouts though – all the fun of the smell, less needles, and half the price of a tree.

    Our tree is prelit but we’re looking at one of those $50 solar LED sets. Its a bit expensive at first but over time, the electricity savings would be substantial.

  30. I love our little artificial tree… although, it is getting so old now, it DOES lose needles!

    I agree with your points about the pros of Christmas trees, and would like to add my own:

    1) I’ve never heard of an artificial tree starting on fire.

    2) Dogs don’t usually lift their legs on fake trees.

  31. Hey Frugal Dad, a couple weeks ago I had a post asking readers which they use, as my artificial tree needed to be replaced. I researched my options, which are few in my frugal world, and then a friend offered to let us hike through the woods and select our tree … what fun it was. However … next year I’ll be at the same crossroads. Knowing this one year in advance is a great opportunity to save $10/mo. for the next year and buy a fantastic artificial tree.

  32. Growing up we had a Charlie Brown Christmas tree every year. We lived in a small town and my dad was very into airplanes. He’d go out to the airport and cut down trees that were getting too big at the ends of the runways. Some years, we had our choice of ugly trees. For the tree huggers they were trees that had to come down anyway. Trees are our renewable resources and tree farms provide income which helps our economy. We support our local tree farmers, around here you can get a nice tree for $10-$15. We also cut them on our own property as there are frequently trees that need to be thinned so that the others can grow better. We have had artificial trees because of my asthma, but, I prefer a real tree and just deal with the occasional wheezes.

  33. Artificial for me since two years ago when my twins were two years old. NO WAY was I trudging out in the freezng cold with two toddlers to get a tree. I had years when I loved tree shopping (could be that it became an event, dinner out at a favorite Italian place, wine to go with decorating the tree) but with kids, I like the convenience of the artificial…I can put it up earlier to enjoy it with them for their December birthdays. It is definitely more frugal but more importantly, takes a bit of stress out of an already stressful month for me.

  34. We always use artficial trees. I hate the idea of growing a tree just so you can cut it down and decorate for a month and then toss it. What a waste! I’m not a “tree activist.” I just think they should be enjoyed growing outside. The whole fresh tree industry seems frivolous to me. How much time, energy, and other resources are spent on growing these trees and transporting them to parking lots to be sold.

  35. My husband has suggested getting an artificial Christmas tree several times, but so far we have always purchased a real tree. Personally, I don’t care for the look of fake trees – they just look fake, unless you spend tons of money, and I’m not really interested in doing that.
    Also, when we purchase a real tree, we are supporting local business. If we were to purchase a fake tree, most likely, we would end up supporting a large chain company. When possible, I try to support our local businesses.

  36. Real trees have a definite environmental benefit over fake ones. The materials that go into fake trees are not environmentally friendly, and are known to off-gas in the home, which is very unhealthy for your family. Plus, as real trees are growing, there’s a CO2 benefit, and they can be mulched/composted after the season is over.

    Buying a tree with the root ball in tact is generally more expensive, but then the cost is going into something that will be included in your landscape. Some people even dig that tree up to bring back inside the following year, although that’s a lot of effort.

    Another greener option is to buy a vintage aluminum tree from ebay or an antique store. Kitschy, shiny, no new materials used in production, can be used year after year, and aluminum can be recycled. So if you’re looking for a way to pay once and not have to buy a tree every year, this is a better way to go.

    We’re actually going tree-free this year. I’d rather spend the money on a nice meal, and with a new dog, I feel like the tree might be a disaster waiting to happen.

  37. I haven’t bought our tree yet this year, but we typically spend $15 for a douglas fir. I’ve seen them advertised as low as $8 this year. If I got a permit to cut any type of tree I like from the national forest it would cost me $5 (though wild trees don’t have the “christmas tree” shape).

    I’m not making the switch anytime soon to plastic. I’ll probably start making the trip to the tree farm to cut my own next year when my son is old enough to walk.

  38. I grew up with real trees, which may have something to do with why I opted for a fake tree once I bought a house. I remember the real trees being terribly expensive and my mother having to finagle a siphoning system for the water reservoir. The needles got everywhere, and the one year my husband and I had a real tree, it let out a pool of sap that dried hard.

    Plus, I can’t see killing a whole fir tree for a few weeks of holiday atmosphere.

  39. I always have a hard time with artificial trees. I bought a beautiful pre-lit tree last year and it seems that after being smashed into a box for a year it just does not look very good. I can’t seem to get the branches to spread out like they should and the tree looks kind of smashed. What is the secret to getting the tree to fluff out and look like it did before? Does anyone have any tips for me? It is a little late for this year but I will save the tips for next year. Thanks and Merry Christmas.

  40. Lydia: Ours looks great, and there’s no secret… it just took a good long time to arrange everything. I’d spread out the branches, then step back and look. Adjust some more… you get the picture. It wasn’t fun, per se, but it was satisfying to see our faux tree looking so nice after a while!

  41. I have literally never lived in a house with a real Christmas tree in my life. However, after doing some research (I challenge you to do the same) we are switching to the all-natural version for 2009.

    Here are the top reasons we are switching:

    1) 90% of fake trees are manufactured in China. Real trees are grown in the U.S. and a lot are from local farms.

    2) Fake trees can be replanted (with a root ball) or chipped into all-natural mulch. No plastic that will be around the next 500 years.

    3) Most fake trees are made of a type of plastic known as PVC. This is a known source of lead.

    We have 2 children in the house – lead poisoning is a real threat. Have you ever seen the warning labels on fake trees (and lights)? “This product contains chemicals, including lead, known to the State of California to cause birth defects or reproductive harm. Wash hands after use”.

    How many people let their kids help them decorate? Do you then make them wash their hands? Because the kids will definitely stick those hands in their mouths/noses/eyes at some point and ingest lead. NOT GOOD!

    Hope the real ones are as good as people say!!

  42. My family always has a live Christmas Tree. Since our kids are grown and living away from home we have been using a wonderful onlinestore which has fantastic customer service and beautiful table top live Christmas Trees which may be planted after Xmas. They specialize in gift shipping anywhere in the United States.