A Christmas Tree on a Budget

For the past two years, our Christmas tree has been this miniature artificial one. Just a small, simple thing in a plastic pot that we’d decorate with lights and tinsel, and leave to sit all glowy on a bookshelf:

Miniature Christmas tree at our old apartment last year.

I’d gotten it years ago for my bedroom back when I still lived with my parents, and since there wasn’t much space for a larger one at our old apartment, we just kept using it. (That, and laziness.) But this year, for our first Christmas in a new house with more space, we agreed that it would be really nice to put up an actual, full-size tree.

At the same time, though, we’ve been trying to minimize our expenses lately… since we’ve got medical bills to pay, and formula to buy, and various other incidentals that go along with having a new baby. So we definitely didn’t want to spend too much money on it.

Since my family has always had artificial trees, that was the first option that came to mind. Unfortunately, full-sized artificial trees can be pretty pricey — in the ballpark of $150 for the cheapest ones. (And looking at them up-close in the store, the ones at that price point seemed to have fake-looking almost paper-like needles, and the more realistic-looking ones were even pricier.) Sure, you can just buy it once and then use it every year, but that up-front price tag was quite a bit more than we wanted to spend.

So what about a real, live Christmas tree? As it turns out, these are much cheaper. For $60, you can chop down any fresh tree at this tree farm just outside Chicago, and we were surprised to learn that Home Depot even has trees starting at under $20. A real tree would be slightly more work — you’ve gotta water it, clean up any fallen needles, and dispose of it eventually — but it seemed like the savings would be worth it. At those prices, it would take ten years to recoup the cost of an artificial tree.

On top of that, a real tree seemed very appealing, not just because I’d never had one before, but also because I liked the idea of getting a fresh new one each year. Going to pick out the perfect tree, which would have a subtly different shape, size, and color instead of putting up the exact same unchanging thing year after year — it seemed like it could be the start of a great family tradition.

So on the weekend after Thanksgiving, we headed over to the nearest Home Depot to pick up the cheapest Christmas tree we could find.

Christmas trees for sale at Home Depot.

I had no idea how many different varieties there were — apparently there are like twenty different species of pines and firs that are commonly used for Christmas trees, and they can vary pretty dramatically in price. Even at Home Depot, the bigger fancier trees were priced at almost $100. But we wanted one of the cheap ones for $17.98, which meant either a Scotch pine or a white pine.

For anyone unfamiliar with those two types of trees, they’re very different-looking: one has short bristly needles, while the other has long soft needles. I found this great web page showing closeups of the needles of many different Christmas trees, including the two we had to choose between:

Closeups of a Scotch pine (left) and a white pine (right). Images from here.

We ended up picking the white pine. It just seemed softer and fuller, plus a lot of the scotch pines they had looked kind of dried out. Home Depot had a table set up where they’d use a chainsaw to cut an inch or so off the bottom of the trunk, which apparently helps the trees “drink” up water and stay fresh longer, and after that we loaded it up and took it home.

We actually had some anxieties about tying it to our car like that, since it has no luggage rack and the roof of the Honda Insight is pretty curved. But it worked out perfectly fine — we got it home in one piece without causing any road hazards or multi-car pileups, which was good.

As a side note, does anyone want to guess what Lillian was doing during all this?

Bundled up and fast asleep in her car seat.

Yep… she slept through the whole Christmas-tree-getting expedition, and barely stirred even when I took her out of the car seat and carried her around the tree lot in my arms. I guess that’s proof that as long as she has a full tummy and a clean diaper, she doesn’t care in the slightest what else might be going on.

Anyway, the tree was gotten for $17.98 as planned, but we still needed a stand to put it in, and ideally some lights and ornaments to decorate it with.

As far as stands were concerned, the choice at Home Depot seemed to be either a flimsy plastic one for around $15 or $20, or a high-quality welded steel one for $29.97. We picked the latter, which was called “Santa’s Last Stand” and turns out to even have its own website.

The "Santa's Last Stand" Christmas tree stand. Image from here.

It was pretty easy to get the tree up and balanced in it, and the stand seems great so far — very solid and sturdy. (It’s pretty refreshing when a product is made of actual metal instead of plastic that’s seemingly designed to disintegrate after the first use.)

For the ornaments: it’ll be nice to slowly build up a collection of meaningful keepsake ornaments as the years go by, but for now, we just wanted some plain round ones for decoration purposes. Luckily, we were able to find these big tubes of 18 red, green, and gold ornaments for only $2.50 each at Home Depot. And they were even shatter-resistant, which seems pretty important if they’re going to live in a house with a cat and a baby.

The two tubes of shatter-resistant Christmas ornaments.

And the finishing touches were some white lights and a tree skirt to ground the whole thing and protect our shiny hardwood floors. Once it was finally lit up and decorated, here’s what the end result looked like:

The decorated Christmas tree.

It could probably still use some tinsel, and maybe a star on top. Still, it’s a big improvement from what we had last year — a real, full-size Christmas tree that’s taller than Joe and very thick and full-looking. Here’s a closer view of the branches, showing the long white pine needles decorated with lights and ornaments:

A closeup of lights and ornaments on the Christmas tree.

Update: I couldn’t resist adding this photo of the tree all lit up at night. Between the sparkly white lights on the tree, and the glow from our surprise working fireplace, it really adds a warm holiday atmosphere to the room:

The Christmas tree lit up at night.

And it came in at a pretty reasonable price, all things considered. The following is an itemized list of the various costs that went into putting together this cheap-tastic penny-pinching Christmas tree:

  • Tree from Home Depot: $17.98
  • Ornaments: $5.00 (2 tubes of 18 at $2.50 each)
  • Ornament Hooks: $1.98 (gotta actually hang those ornaments)
  • White Lights: $19.96 (2 strings of 300 lights for $9.98 each)
  • Tree Stand: $29.97
  • Tree Skirt: $0.00 because we had a gift card (but would have been $17)

Total spent on this year’s tree: $74.89.

Not too bad considering that that includes the lights and decorations, and we probably would have spent at least double that for just the tree if we’d gone with an artificial one. Plus everything but the tree itself can be re-used next year, assuming it doesn’t get destroyed by the cat or something.

So that’s the story of our first (real) family Christmas tree, put up in time to enjoy for almost the whole month leading up to Christmas. Hopefully it won’t be dead and dried out by then!


  1. It’s beautiful and very cost effective!! In the years to come, you will definitely be adding more personal ornaments. Lily and any subsequent children will make them at school and such, and you will receive some as gifts, too. Lily looks beautiful as usual! Love you all!

  2. Nothing smells better than a live tree at Christmas. And just the smell can bring back memories! Add the lights and ornaments, turn off other lights, and you’re back in the day! Definitely a winner!

  3. Wow, that is an amazing scene, Good Housekeeping-worthy! Even the tv doesn’t detract – in fact, put some wreathed candles next to the speakers and it looks like a mirror over the hearth.

  4. That’s true about the scent, I hear that’s another big perk of going with a live Christmas tree. (Although I can’t really smell it myself, since I don’t have much of a sense of smell, but at least Joe and Lily and any visitors can enjoy it, haha.)

    And, I’m glad the TV doesn’t look too out of place above the fireplace — it’ll be nice if we can combine elements of “casual family lounge” and “classy formal living area” into one space, since the one living room is all we have with our floor plan. Some candles for the mantelpiece sound like a nice idea!

  5. Thanks! The hoodie was a gift, and we love how cuddly and adorable it is. Plus it hopefully keeps her warm enough, since it gets so chilly here in Chicago…

  6. Since Max and I arent around alot, I started reading this to keep in the know on updates (and prodding Max as appropriate to read).

    As a kid, what withthe judaism and all, I never got a tree or decorations in the house. My father didnt believe in such things…but my moms side of the family certainly did and they got a fresh tree through out my childhood. I love the smell those give off. In college I got a miniature fake plastic neon pink tree…I was forced to get rid of it due to Max’s unreasonable hatred of it. It was hilarious when I had it though.
    This year I do not believe we will be decorating, per my childhood norms, but some of my friends get fresh trees and use them as an excuse to have a bonfire in the march time frame in a forest preserve/camping grounds. You guys could always start a new tradition in getting rid of the tree too. :-)

  7. Hi Hillary, thanks for stopping by! I actually really like the idea of having a bonfire in the spring, once the tree is all old and dried out and ready to be disposed of. I wonder if we can find a good place around here to do that sort of thing…

  8. Sarah, you did a wonderful documentary on the decisions, the budget and the selection of your Christmas tree. I enjoyed reading the tale. Yes, it brings back my memories of getting started with my own Xmas traditions. You exhibit FAR more self control than I ever had! (insert sigh of admiration here) Remember, cats can be lethal to decorated trees. To respond to your comment on tinsel — skip it. Maybe you could consider 2-3″ wide wired ribbon which you could use as a unique garland. Ribbons don’t have to be holiday at all and could be plaid, polka dots or solid pastel (if you are so inclined). Your tree is SO lovely as it is right now! And that baby, oh, what a cutie pie! Merry Christmas!

  9. That’s a good point about cats — my aunt was just telling me about the time her cat grabbed one end of a tinsel string in its mouth and took off running. Nearly tipped over the whole tree. So it probably is a good idea to skip the tinsel. :)

    Anyway, we’ll probably consider our tree finished for now, and think of ways to improve on the decorations for next year. Thanks for the comment!

  10. i found a really nice artificial one at walmart for like 40 bucks. its prelit with clear lights. n i found my ornaments at big lots for a big tube of em for like 13 bux plus my angel for like 6 at the same place. so i got like 60 bux in my tree. i love me n the fiances tree. plus its our first christmas in our new apartment… so it makes christmas AND the tree that much more special to me :)

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