For some, the ideal holiday decoration might be a faux marijuana Christmas tree from Walmart. For others, nothing beats a beautiful natural tree adorned with ornaments, tinsel and as many sparkly lights as you can wrap around the branches. But if you’ve noticed that real spruces, firs and pine trees seem to be getting pricier every year, it’s not your imagination: The average price of Christmas trees rose 5% to 10% this year, Douglas Hundley, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, said in a phone interview.
Indeed, real trees are not only getting more expensive, but they are also in shorter supply than usual this year. Why? It takes seven to 10 years to grow a tree, and that means that this year’s harvest was planted during the recession — when growers were planting fewer trees. Alas, tight supply can push prices even higher, Hundley noted.
That doesn’t mean you have to opt for a scentless — or environmentally unfriendly — artificial tree though. (While it might seem more wasteful to kill a real tree, you would actually have to reuse your plastic tree for more than 20 years for it to be “greener” than a real one, according to environmental consultants studying the topic, interviewed by the New York Times. Plus, most store-bought artificial trees contain plastic softeners known as phthalates, which the National Toxicology Program has stated is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”)
Luckily there are smart ways to save money decorating, whether or not you’re among the 95 million households who plan to display a Christmas tree this year. A few clever tricks can make the holidays bright without you spending a fortune, and make your home feel festive — and outside the box.
After all, having a merry Christmas isn’t about how much money you shell out, it’s about making it meaningful for you and your loved ones. Here are three big ways to save on your tree and/or decorations — without making it look like the Grinch stole your holiday cheer.
1. Snag a smart discount on a tree — or grab some branches and get extra festive
If you’re among the 18 million households for whom nothing but a real tree will do, but are on a budget, don’t despair. Maybe you think heading to a tree farm and cutting your own tree will save money. But that’s unlikely to be the case, Hundley said, as the privilege of walking through a Christmas tree farm comes at a premium: “It might be another $5 or $10 dollars” for the tree, Hundley said, although if you stop by the farm you might also get some hot chocolate or a sleigh ride through the woods.
The average Frasier fir this year sells for $50 for a 6- to 7-foot tree. Big box stores like Target and Home Depot tend to have the lowest prices, but you can also save by shopping in less expensive neighborhoods. A $135 tree in a pricier New York City neighborhood like Soho, for example, could go for as little as $35 in less affluent Harlem neighborhoods, the Times reported.
Another way to get around paying full price includes buying your tree at the last minute — the average price of trees in 2016 actually fell to below $40 by Dec. 24 in 2016, versus around $65 around Thanksgiving — or even early Christmas morning, when vendors are practically giving them away.
Finally, remember: You can skip buying a tree entirely and instead purchase (or get for free if you’re lucky) the leftover branches tree sellers cut off of larger trees to fit the trunk into the tree stand.
From there, you’ve got all sorts of options. Set them on the mantle and decorate with ribbons and ornaments, or try wrapping them around the banister or even a small ladder like this:
2. Make a “tree” out of books, lights, paper or other non-traditional materials
If you’re not set on a real tree, and aren’t keen on the standard artificial ones, you can still make a “tree” of your own using nontraditional materials.
Let your imagination run wild with this, but the best way to save (both money and the environment) is by using materials you already have. When you think beyond a living, breathing tree your options are virtually endless, as anything from cardboard to crepe paper can be crafted to look like a tree.
Love books? Try a literary tree like this:
Or you could find a pretty way to attach lights to a board that you could mount on or lean against your wall, like this:
Another neat approach is to attach sheets of paper to the wall in the shape of a Christmas tree — using anything from plain brown paper to newspaper to brightly colored paper from a crafts store. Then you can include the lyrics to your favorite carols, or a meaningful message, on the paper:
3. Save money on Christmas decorations — whether you get a tree or not
It may be tempting to drop up to $50 on a one-of-a-kind unique ornament, but resist the urge. One of the loveliest trees I’ve seen was adorned with nothing more than simple bows made of twine, which come in a variety of colors.
Alternately, you could gather some pine cones and (after killing any bugs with heat or vinegar), paint them gold, and use twine to tie them to the tree in lieu of non-biodegradable ornaments. Or just set them on the hearth, interspersed with some of the free tree branches you snagged from the tree sellers.
If you’d like more color and sparkle, skip higher end retailers like Crate & Barrel for ornaments and head to less expensive options like IKEA or Walmart. Once again, waiting until the last minute to decorate can actually work in your favor, as even upscale retailers looking to unload their Christmas stock start discounting as the holiday approaches.
A few showstopper ornaments can make your tree look special — don’t be afraid to pick up a bunch of standard-issue red, green or silver balls at the drug store for filler. Not only are they inexpensive, but it won’t be a huge loss if a few break (and they always do) while you’re decorating. Sure, you could shell out $25 for three shatterproof red balls from Plow & Hearth, but you can get a set of 16 balls for $3 at Target.
When it comes to lights, keep it simple, as you will likely need multiple strings to get the job done, and the more bells and whistles you add on, the more you’ll pay. I like to stick with basic white string lights, both because they’re cheap and because they’re easy to replace in case a strand goes dead. Other budget-friendly ideas include making popcorn and cranberry garlands or hanging candy canes on the tree.
Lastly, if this is your first year putting up your own tree and you’re starting from scratch, consider hosting a last-minute tree trimming party where your friends bring the ornaments and you supply the booze or hot chocolate.
You can even put them to work on those popcorn garlands or stringing up lights while they’re there. This $5 a pitcher sangria can go a long way toward spreading the holiday cheer while you all sing Christmas carols and gather by the fire. Or try this easy hot cocoa mix from Martha Stewart.
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Dec. 15, 2017, 11:30 a.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.