When you were little, did you open your eyes on Christmas morning to find your presents waiting under a real tree or a fake one?
Out of a fear of burning the house to the ground (and an aversion to cleaning up sap-sticky piles of pine needles), my parents bought our artificial tree when I was too little to remember.
By the time I was 10, it was tattered and sparse, but unboxing and assembling it was a familiar and well-loved part of our Christmas tradition.
Even so, I was eager to get a real tree when I left home. The smell of fresh pine and the excitement of bringing a little bit of the outdoors inside was too good to skip — especially in Florida, where nature’s display of Christmas spirit leaves something to be desired.
But whether you cut down your own tree, faithfully unbox a fake one each year or just stick with the miniature, desktop variety, Penny-Hoarding minds want to know: What’s the most cost-effective kind of Christmas tree?
Could an Artificial Christmas Tree Help You Save Money?
Samantha Dunscombe/The Penny Hoarder
How much money do we spend on real trees versus fake ones?
The National Christmas Tree Association, which totally exists, reports that the average consumer spent $74.70 on their live tree in 2016, according to a poll.
That doesn’t necessarily line up with the average price of the trees, which, of course, depends on species, size and whether or not you cut it down yourself.
I know I’ve definitely spent upward of $60 on a real tree every year I’ve purchased one, and I don’t go for the excessively tall variety. My Florida residence probably drives the price up a bit, since Christmas-y trees like Douglas firs don’t grow here and have to be shipped in.
In addition, a real tree requires a tree stand, which you can apparently get for less than $5. (Most I’ve purchased on-site from the tree vendors are more on the order of $20.)
Although it won’t cost you money — unless you decide to pay your kids to do it — you might also find it relevant that you’ll need to get on your knees and water the thing.
And as it turns out, my mom was 100% right about avoiding the cleanup. Christmas trees drop a shocking number of needles, and they’re frustratingly vacuum-resistant.
Artificial trees can be quite expensive, too — especially if you get a fancy, pre-lit version. Some cost more than $500.
But you can also find plain-Jane versions for less than the NCTA’s numbers — though they might not seem very realistic.
Although artificial trees almost always cost more up front, they’re reusable for several seasons — in fact, some come standard with a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty.
So, what’s the best deal?
Real vs. Artificial Christmas Tree Showdown: What’s the Best Deal?
Mark Carper and Mikhail Matsonashivili/Getty Images
Let’s say you go mid-range and pick up an artificial tree for $150.
If you can use that sucker for 10 years, that’s just $15 per use — and you don’t have to worry about watering it or cleaning up a pile of needles.
Even if you can find a real tree for just $30 — unlikely, at least in my experience — you’d be paying double to deck the halls with a live pine over the course of the same 10 years.
And that’s before factoring in your tree stand, which you might even need to replace once or twice over that decade.
From a purely mathematical standpoint, it’s hard to argue that a live tree is a better deal.
But if saving the environment is as important to you as saving pennies, buying real trees might pay off in the long run.
Although you might worry that selling live firs contributes to deforestation, the majority of Christmas trees are farmed exclusively for their purpose. According to the USDA, no more than 1% or 2% of Christmas trees sold are wild.
And during the five to 12 years it takes those farmed trees to mature, they’re busy absorbing carbon dioxide, making more oxygen and providing homes to wildlife. They can also be recycled or composted when it comes time to take down the tinsel.
So while artificial trees’ reusable quality might make them seem like a greener choice, many pro-environment groups, like the Sierra Club, are proponents of real trees — especially because fake ones are often made with potentially harmful PVC, which sometimes includes lead as a stabilizer.
As this issue gains more traction, more companies are offering non-toxic artificial trees that might provide a good middle-ground option.
And, of course, you could always skip the problem altogether by choosing not to get a tree at all — or just decorating one you find outside, in nature, still firmly planted in the ground.
As for me, I’ll stick with real trees — extra expense, cleanup and all.
Samantha Dunscombe/The Penny Hoarder
After all, Christmas only comes once a year. Because I hoard pennies in most other cases, I can afford to splurge a little bit during the holidays.
And the scent of fresh-cut pine? Sorry — you can’t fake that.
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for VinePair, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.