Updated on 11.14.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Christmas Lights

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Stephen writes in: with Christmas coming around, what about LED Christmas lights verses regular (incandescent I assume) lights. This is our first Christmas in our new house, so we’ll probably buy some lights soon.

Today, Christmas lights are generally sold in one of two general types: “mini” lights and LED lights. The exact energy use of these different light types varies quite a bit, so I went down to my local Home Depot and looked at a lot of different strands.

My numbers indicated that the average wattage of LED lights is about 0.1 watts per bulb, while the average wattage of “mini” lights is about 0.4 watts per bulb. We’ll assume that for calculation purposes.

So, let’s say you’re going to hang 500 lights from your home, you’re going to have these lights on for 30 evenings during the holiday season, you intend to run them for six hours per evening, and you hope to use the strands for five years. I think these are all reasonable assumptions.

With the LED bulbs, you’ll be using about 0.3 kWh per day to run the bulbs, given the six hour assumption above. That adds up to about 9 kWh per holiday season, or 45 kWh over five years. At an average cost of 0.11 per kWh from your electric company (this is a rough nationwide average), the cost of running the LED bulbs over that five year span is $4.95.

With the “mini” bulbs, you’ll be using about 1.2 kWh per day to run the bulbs, given the six hour assumption above. That adds up to about 36 kWh per holiday season, or 180 kWh over five years. At an average cost of 0.11 per kWh, the cost of running the “mini” bulbs over that five year span is $19.80.

In other words, you’d save about $14.85 over the five year lifetime of those 500 bulbs by using LEDs instead of “mini” bulb strands.

The real question is whether or not you can make up that $14.85 when buying the bulbs. Can you make up $14.85 when buying 500 mini bulbs versus buying 500 LED bulbs?

After examining the prices at a lot of different places, I would say you could save that much or perhaps even a bit more… but only if you’re buying right now at full prices. In November and early December, Christmas lights tend to sell at a very high price.

However, there are tremendous sales on Christmas lights right after Christmas. It’s not uncommon to see 100 bulb strands for $1 during such sales. My wife and I have several strands of LED bulbs in our garage that we bought at such a post-Christmas sale.

So, what should you do? If you’re absolutely convinced that you must buy bulbs for this year, the lowest total cost will probably come from buying “mini” bulbs provided you can find them for $3 per 100 bulb strand less than the LED bulbs. If you can’t, the LED bulbs are going to be the better deal.

If you can possibly wait, though, do so. Buy a big pile of LED bulbs shortly after Christmas during the big bulb sales because you should be able to find strands of those at a very inexpensive price (and probably very close to the price of the “mini” bulbs).

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  1. lurker carl says:

    I see plenty of homes with string light sets used all year long instead of as a seasonal decoration. Hopefully the LEDs have longer lifespan than incandescent mini-lights, I can see them paying for themselves in both energy efficiency and longevity.

  2. valleycat1 says:

    Through Nov 19th Home Depot is offering $3-$5 coupons for LED lights when you trade in up to 5 strands of traditional lights. In California, at least, other stores will give you a deal on trade ins too.

  3. Steven says:

    I’m with Carl on this one. The LED should have a longer lifespan than the incandescent bulbs. Assuming you don’t leave them outside year-round, they could last quite a long time.

  4. Stephen says:

    but waiting a few more months to buy them makes a lot of sense to me … now I just need to convince my wife that we don’t need a lot of lights this year ;).

  5. Ted says:

    One thing your analysis does not take into consideration is the lifespan of the bulbs and strings. The LED strings last much longer (I’ve been using some for up to 5 years and none of my original sets have burned out or broken yet) than conventional mini-lights. So the advantages to me are: energy savings, lifespan, and the saved hassle of not trying to fix tiny little bulbs.

  6. dajolt says:

    The problem with LED christmas lights is that they have a really ugly techy feel to them compared to traditional bulbs or even candles. Rather than worrying about the additional every cost I’d just run the christmas tree only for a few hours a day in the evening (either via a timer or by manually switching the tree on and off.)

  7. Dave says:

    @ dajolt, that’s a good point. My wife had the same comment when we looked for lights after Christmas last year. However, noticed that some of the brands sell a “warmer” colored light string, in addition to the blinkers, the multi-colored strings, and the ice-blue strings.

  8. Liz says:

    Wow, my LEDs lasted me three years, and I was very careful to bring them in as soon as I could after 12th night, and I didn’t put them up till after Thanksgiving the first year I had them. At the price I paid for them, I’m not convinced that they are a better deal. There were (if I remember correctly) 60 on a string, and I paid 7.99 for them on sale (they’re 9.99 now, and there are very few left after Christmas, at least around me). If I desperately wanted them, I’d probably buy on Black Friday, or use the Home Depot coupon valleycat mentioned. I bought either 3 or 4 strings, we’ll say 4 for comparison sake. For about $3 I can get 250 mini lights, compared to the $32 that I did pay for the LEDs. If I use the Home Depot coupon I’m still paying more for the LEDs, and I’m not entirely convinced that they’re a great option in the semi-snowy and definitely rainy northeast. Maybe if the waterproofing on the bulb bases gets better…

  9. Shauna says:

    Another thing to consider is the trade in for reg to LED bulbs that Home depot is having right now.

  10. kristine says:

    I’m with dajolt. Since the only reason I have Christmas lights is to enjoy the beauty, I will stick with traditional. Even the “warmer” LEDs still look like a lit-up bugs eye to me. I’d rather just have fewer lights, or turn them on less.

  11. Gretchen says:

    I’ve never seen them as cheap as a dollar and my husband used to get really good deals on store samples.
    Some of the colors look “techi-er” then others and I belive they are actually working on that.

    What I’d love is big bulb LED’s- I like the look of the larger bulbs outside.

  12. Kirk Bond says:

    I think folks hit on the issue with LEDs. Many are just plain ugly and/or cold looking. Either the lighting companies will adapt their products (which I assume would be too expensive at this point) to look more like traditional Christmas lights or we will adapt. I’m thinking the lights will have to adapt.

    Just finished replacing six can lights in my kitchen with LEDs and I would bet no-one would be able to tell they were LEDs. Simply fanastic replication of good 2700K light. You cannot say this about most LED products at this time.

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