Cost of Christmas: Are Live Trees or Artificial the Better Deal?

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Cost of Christmas: Are Live Trees or Artificial the Better Deal? Christmas is just a couple weeks away, and consumers are heading out to snap up Christmas trees so Santa knows where to put the gifts. So, what'll it be? Live or artificial?

It's not just a matter of aesthetic preference or family tradition: Cost is certainly a factor during these tough economic times.

Industry trade groups have provided plenty of fodder for consumers to consider when weighing the costs of a live versus an artificial tree.

The American Christmas Tree Association says artificial trees cost an average of $100 and can save consumers 70% over a 10-year period, the average life span of an artificial tree.


Source: American Christmas Tree Association

But the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents only the live Christmas tree industry, says bah humbug to such figures.

In its list of the 10 Biggest Myths About Christmas Trees, the organization cites two in particular that pertain to the live vs. faux debate:
MYTH #4: It's better to use a fake tree because you can reuse it each year.
BUSTED: That's a very short-sighted perspective. According to research, most fake trees are only used 6 to 9 years before they're disposed. Even if you would use one for 20 years or more, it will eventually be thrown away and end up in a landfill. And unlike Real Trees, which are biodegradable and recyclable, fake trees are always a burden to the environment.

MYTH #6: Real Trees cost too much.
BUSTED: Like anything else, you can find a wide range of prices, and spend what you want to spend. It all depends on what you're looking for in a tree. Prices vary by many variables including: location of retail lot, where the tree was harvested, species, size, grade, who's selling it and even sometimes day of the week. The bottom line is, you can spend $15 to over $200 on a tree in many places.

My favorite part is when fake tree people try to use this as a selling point. "You can get your investment in a fake tree back in as little as three years...blah, blah." That's called "funny math" where I'm from. If I spend $20 on a Christmas tree from a farm each year and you spend $300 on a fake tree, you'd have to use it for 15 years (way past the average) before I will have spent the same amount as you.
Holiday Math

Perhaps the best step to take on pricing an artificial tree versus a live tree is to take an ultra-conservative approach.
Start with the estimated six-year life span of an artificial tree, based on the low end of the range given by the National Christmas Tree Association. Multiply that by a range of $20 to $50 to purchase a live tree. Over a six-year period, a live tree would cost $120 to $300, similar to a price of a relatively decent artificial tree.

In other words, it's pretty much a wash, financially.

Of course, the cold hard numbers don't make the decision any easier for some. "I don't know if Christmas tree buying is that rational. It can be irrational. It's more about the special time with the family and the emotional fabric of getting together and feeling good," says Stew Leonard Jr., owner of the Stew Leonard's grocery chain, one of the nation's largest Christmas tree retailers.

Other Costs to Consider

A couple considerations Christmas tree consumers may take into account is whether they already have sunk an investment in lights and a stand for a live tree, or whether they're willing to bear additional costs to switch out of an artificial tree.

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Some artificial trees come with lights already attached and all have a stand, while live trees require the purchase of lights and a stand. On average, it costs $5 per foot to decorate a tree in lights, according to Leonard, while tree stands can go from as low as $7 to as high as $100 or so.

Trendiness is another consideration. Artificial tree owners can choose from a wide selection of colors outside of traditional Christmas tree green, like the popular pink, white or silver, Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association, said in an email interview. Buyers, however, would likely be locked into that color for at least several years given the typical lifespan of an artificial tree.

So where will Santa put your gifts this year? Weigh in below on the artificial vs. real tree debate.

Motley Fool contributor Dawn Kawamoto does not own stock in any live or artificial Christmas tree grower, manufacturer, or retailer. She is, however, heavily invested in the spirit of Christmas.
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