Save on your Christmas tree with these suggestions

Faux or Real Fir?

by Shaunna Privratsky

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No, that isn't a misspelled title. I'm talking about trees, of the Christmas variety. The debate rages on, sometimes splitting families. Some have to have a real tree, others swear by artificial. There are advantages and disadvantages to both varieties, none more apparent than in your budget.

When I was growing up in Montana, it was easy to buy a $5 permit and chop down our own Christmas tree. It was usually lopsided, with lots of "bare" spots, but it was a treasured tradition. Now the annual hunt for the perfect tree usually takes place on city parking lots instead of a forest.

Tree farms are a big business, with trees being cut as early as mid-October. Retailers count on the freezing temperatures of the Midwest to keep their trees in good shape. Trees are groomed to the ideal shape and generally conform.

Our family still clings to old tradition. Every year we pick a day and drive around, searching for a great tree. The problem, and it is a growing one, is the price. Last year the cheapest tree we found was $50, and it was a sad little thing, with a twisted trunk and a sheared off top.

I found one a step up that was marked $85. I managed to talk the owner into taking $70 because of an obvious bare spot. Even with my "bargain," it almost killed me to pay that much for something we would have to throw away in a few short weeks.

The major appeal of real Christmas trees is the fresh smell. Also, I believe it harkens back to the days when real trees were the norm. There is definitely a comforting, nostalgic feeling attached to a real tree. Plus, any "imperfections" just means that it is more endearing. Taken to the extreme, this brings out the "Charlie Brown Christmas tree" syndrome.

Which leads me to the artificial or faux Christmas tree. Today's models are more "real" looking than ever. Most come pre-lit to avoid all the hassles with tangled strings of lights. They are perfection personified. The best kind have easy store features, like fold down branches and color-coded segments to make it easy to reassemble even if you lose the instructions.

You can get tiny trees, great towering mammoths, fat ones, skinny ones, ones that come in decidedly unnatural colors and ones made of shiny metal. Some trees are designed to look "natural" and some are upside down trees. These are great conversation starters and take up virtually no floor space.

Artificial trees come with a big price tag. A typical six-foot, pre-lit tree runs $139 at Wal-Mart. If you use it year after year, you will definitely recoup your investment. However, that is a hefty price tag to pay all at once.

Another disadvantage to faux trees is storage. Larger models demand ample room. After a few years, they start to look "tired." Lights burn out and leave gaps in the strings. It can be a struggle to get all the branches in the right place.

Now that we have the pros and cons out in the open, let's see if there is anything we can do about it. The biggest question is price. Everyone should establish a budget well before the holidays. If it involves a major ticket item like a new artificial tree, you will have more time to save. If you plan on buying a real tree, scout around for the best deal. Sometimes you can "cut your own" at tree farms in your area. Don't forget to factor in the price of gas to and from the destination.

Watch for ads for used trees. Thrift stores are another great place to find gently used trees. They take up lots of space, so they are generally priced to move quickly. If you are a regular customer, the store might even take your phone number and call you when a donation comes in. It doesn't hurt to ask.

Later is generally better. No matter which style you prefer, the longer you wait, the better deal you will get. Retailers of real trees want to sell every last one, so will offer better and better discounts. The selection goes down with the price, though.

If you can wait until after the holidays, you can pick up artificial trees at huge savings. Two years ago, I finally broke down and purchased a darling, four-foot faux tree when it hit 90% off. It looks very elegant with all gold decorations in our family room.

The decision between faux and real fir is a very personal one. You can go either way and still save if you follow these hints. Or you can do what we do, and have one of each. Whichever you decide, Christmas trees make a wonderful centerpiece for the Christmas celebration.

Shaunna Privratsky became an expert in personal finance out of necessity. Between writing, reading and gardening, she is always on the lookout for bargains. Please sign up for the free newsletters at The Discount Diva. You can also visit Shaunna on Google+.

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