Valentine’s Day can be a problem if you’re a middle class American on a tight personal budget. All the glittering store window displays and glossy magazine articles send the message that to express your love, you need to shell out big bucks for lavish bouquets, fancy jewelry, or big boxes of gourmet chocolates. With those big, bright “spend” signs everywhere, it’s easy to start worrying that if you show up with nothing but a warm smile and a handwritten card, you’re sending the message that you don’t really care.
Well, it’s time to stop worrying. Love isn’t measured in dollars, and expressing your love doesn’t have to mean emptying your wallet. With a little creativity and a willingness to think outside the heart-shaped box, you can give traditional gifts like flowers and candy for much less money – or swap them out for some less traditional gestures that are just as romantic.
Traditional Valentine Gifts
A 2015 survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF) found that Americans who celebrate Valentine’s Day spend an average of $142.31 on romantic gifts and special activities for the occasion. About half of all shoppers – both men and women – planned to give candy as a gift, spending an average of $23.86 on it. Cards were the second most common gift choice; shoppers expected to spend a total of $15.32 on them. Other popular gifts included flowers ($41.22), jewelry ($172.38), and an evening out ($77.77).
If these prices sound alarmingly high to you, don’t panic. There are ways to give these traditional Valentine gifts without spending a bundle. You just have to be prepared to expand your horizons a little, looking at different types of gifts within the same general category.
According to legend, love notes were the very first Valentine gifts, dating back to the original Saint Valentine – an early Christian martyr who supposedly left a letter signed “Your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter before going to his death. Today, however, the love messages people exchange on February 14th are more likely to be pre-printed lines on store-bought cards. You can choose from a wide selection, available at any drugstore for around $3 or $4 apiece.
Admittedly, that $3 or $4 is just a tiny fraction of the $140-plus the average Valentine shopper expects to spend for the holiday. But it’s also the single Valentine expense that’s easiest to avoid completely. Making your own Valentine cards not only costs practically nothing, it also allows you to say how you feel about your sweetheart in your own words – a much more personal gesture than signing your name to a canned sentiment on a mass-produced card.
The best homemade Valentines make use of your personal skills, whatever those happen to be. For instance:
- If you’re an artist, draw a picture for (or of) your significant other
- If you’re a crafter, assemble a fancy card incorporating lace, beads, pop-up paper designs, or any other materials you like to work with
- If you’re a skilled wordsmith, express your feelings in a poem or a romantic love letter
- If you’re a computer whiz, design and print a card on your home computer – or create an animated love message that you can send by email
Any of these homemade cards is likely to be treasured longer than something you picked off a rack at the store. As long as the message is personal and heartfelt, it qualifies as a romantic gesture, even if it cost only pennies to make.
Chocolates are the most common type of Valentine candy, but they can also be quite expensive. For example, a 36-piece assortment of luxury chocolates from Godiva costs $50, while a smaller 19-piece collection costs $30.
Fortunately, there are less costly ways to send the message “sweets to the sweet.” For starters, chocolate isn’t the only type of Valentine-themed candy. A quick search for “Valentine candy” online turns up a wide variety of non-chocolate treats, including cinnamon “red hots,” red-and-white candy corn or M&Ms, various flavors of candy hearts, and “conversation hearts” with love messages on them, all for $4 to $6 a bag.
Even if your significant other is a diehard chocolate fan, you don’t necessarily have to shell out big bucks for gourmet chocolates. There are all kinds of homemade Valentine treats that are reasonably easy to make for $10 or less:
- Chocolate-dipped strawberries
- Cherry cordials
- Truffles (chocolate-coated balls of any sweet filling)
- Chocolate “bark” (a layer of chocolate with toppings, such as fruit, nuts, toffee, or peppermint, broken into pieces)
- Heart-shaped cookies
An added benefit of making your own Valentine treats is that they’re more personal than a heart-shaped box chosen off the store shelf. Like a homemade Valentine card, a plate of homemade goodies in your Valentine’s favorite flavor shows that you really put some effort and thought into the gift.
Flowers are also traditional tokens of love. In Victorian England, there was a whole elaborate “language of flowers,” which allowed lovers to send coded messages to each other by exchanging blooms. In this code, roses stood for love, so it’s not surprising that roses are the most popular flower for Valentine’s Day. In a survey by Science of Relationships, people asked to rate 10 flowers on their appropriateness as Valentine gifts put red roses at the top of the list.
Unfortunately, roses are a summer-blooming flower, so you can’t just go out and pick a bunch of them in February. Most roses purchased for Valentine’s Day are shipped up from South America, and sending them over this long distance while keeping them fresh adds to their cost. A dozen red roses ordered from ProFlowers costs anywhere from $20 to $65, depending on the type of roses and the way they’re packaged.
However, there are less expensive ways to “say it with flowers”:
- Different Flowers. Although red roses are the most popular Valentine’s Day flower, carnations – which cost much less and also last longer – make the top five list in the Science of Relationships survey. You can order a bunch of 25 carnations from Potomac Flower Wholesale for $10 to $12 – less than half what you’d pay for a dozen roses. Other inexpensive alternatives include chrysanthemums, daffodils, and tulips. Red tulips are a declaration of love in the language of flowers, and yellow tulips mean “hopelessly in love.”
- A Single Rose. You can send the message of passionate love that red roses convey without buying a whole dozen. A single rose, especially when accompanied by a message such as, “You’re my one and only,” is just as romantic and much more affordable.
- Potted Plants. Unlike a bouquet that withers after a week or so, a live indoor plant can keep growing and blooming long past February. Home and garden centers carry a variety of flowering plants, such as orchids, chrysanthemums, and African violets, for $10 or less.
- Paper Roses. Instead of buying cut roses that will fade, you can make roses out of paper that will last a lifetime. Do a search online for “paper roses” to find tutorials for a variety of methods that produce different-looking blooms. Making the roses out of old book pages or sheet music adds an extra touch of romance, especially if the text is about love.
The exchange of jewelry, especially rings, as a pledge of love is a centuries-old tradition. In the Science of Relationships survey, about one-third of all respondents – both men and women – named jewelry as the best gift for a woman on Valentine’s Day.
Unlike many other Valentine gifts, gifts of jewelry are treasured at least partly because of their financial worth. The idea is that spending thousands of dollars on a tiny ornament – for instance, a half-carat diamond pendant from Zales, which costs more than $2,500, not counting the chain – shows how committed you are to the relationship, since most people wouldn’t throw away that kind of money on a passing fancy.
For some people, however, buying an expensive piece of jewelry isn’t the best way to invest money a relationship. For instance, spending that same $2,500 on a fabulous week-long vacation for the two of you – and tucking the tickets into a card that costs only a few dollars – is likely to get just as enthusiastic a reaction as the pendant, especially from a girlfriend who loves to travel. Planning to spend a whole week together is at least as good a pledge of your commitment as spending money on jewelry, and research shows spending money on experiences, such as a vacation, usually brings more happiness than spending it on goods.
However, if you think jewelry is what your Valentine would really love most, you don’t have to spend thousands – or even hundreds – of dollars on it. Some less costly alternatives include:
- Created Stones. Nowadays, it’s possible to synthesize gemstones – such as diamonds, rubies, and sapphires – in a laboratory. These are not pieces of costume jewelry – they’re genuine jewels, but they cost a lot less than the same stones mined out of the ground. You can find many necklaces made with lab-created stones at Zales and other jewelers for less than $100.
- Costume Jewelry. If your girlfriend cares only about how a piece of jewelry looks and not about what the stones are, you can save even more money. Costume jewelry, also known as fashion jewelry, is made with glass, cubic zirconia, semi-precious stones, colorful beads, or just plain metal worked into decorative shapes. Costume jewelry pieces can cost as little as $5, and there are lots of choices available, so you can find just the right piece for your special someone.
- Vintage Jewelry. Antique stores, secondhand shops, and pawn shops carry unique antique jewelry pieces such as lockets, cameos, and intricately designed rings and earrings. Prices vary widely – you can find antique jewelry that costs as much as new jewels or even more, but you can also find vintage pieces on sites such as eBay and Etsy for $20 or less.
- Handmade Jewelry. Speaking of Etsy, this website also carries unique jewelry sold directly by the artists who make it. There’s a huge variety here to fit any imaginable style – and any budget as well.
- Making Your Own. Finally, you can truly customize a piece to your sweetheart’s tastes by making it yourself. Craft stores such as Michael’s carry beads in every shape, color, and style, along with the supplies to fashion them into necklaces, earrings and brooches.
Along with exchanging presents, many couples go on Valentine’s Day dates, typically for a meal. About one-third of all respondents in the NRF survey said they expected an evening out to be part of their V-Day plans. Many fine-dining restaurants charge at least $20 just for a main course, so the complete cost of a dinner for two – with appetizers, drinks, dessert, coffee, tax, and tip – can easily add up to $100 or more.
If that’s way too much for your budget, you don’t necessarily have to switch from the romantic bistro to McDonald’s. There are several less expensive ways to enjoy a romantic meal for two on Valentine’s Day:
- Cook It Yourself. Using recipes from the “Good and Cheap” cookbook by Leanne Brown, you could cook a dinner of broccoli-apple salad, vegetable quiche, and peach coffee cake for just over $6. Add in $10 for a nice bottle of wine, turn down the lights, and light some candles, and you can enjoy an intimate candlelit dinner for less than $20.
- Eat Out Earlier. Another alternative is to go out for a less expensive breakfast or lunch instead of dinner and pay just $20 or $30 in total. After all, the point of a date is the time you spend together as a couple, not what you eat. If you can’t both get away from work during the day – or if you want to make sure your date lasts all night – then you could go out just for cocktails, spending $20 or less, before dining in.
- Just Have Dessert. Even at a fancy restaurant, desserts usually don’t cost more than $10, so you can enjoy dessert and coffee for two while soaking up the elegant atmosphere and still only spend around $30. Or you can go to a place that serves only desserts, such as a coffeehouse or an ice cream parlor, and pay $15 to $20. As an extra bonus, a dessert-only date is likely to put you both in a more romantic mood. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that people who have just eaten something sweet tend to have more positive feelings about their relationships.
If the person you’re dating is a die-hard traditionalist, then traditional Valentine gifts like flowers and candy are probably your best bet. However, if your significant other is a bit unconventional, why limit yourself to conventional ideas? If your Valentine is the adventurous type, a bungee-jumping date is a much better way to show how much you appreciate that person than a quiet weekend at a rustic bed and breakfast.
The same rule applies to gifts. The best gift isn’t the most traditional one, but the one that’s the best fit for your partner. Here are several original Valentine’s Day gift ideas that give free rein to your creativity.
In some ways, a book is the perfect gift for any occasion. There are so many on the market that you can find something to suit pretty much anyone’s taste. You also have a wide choice of formats: new or used hardcovers, paperbacks, e-books, and audiobooks.
All these choices mean that there’s a book for every budget as well. You can find used paperbacks for literally pennies on Amazon. Even after tacking on $4 for shipping, they cost no more than a high-end greeting card, and they can be enjoyed for much longer.
Because Valentine’s Day is all about love, any book with a romantic or sexy theme makes a good choice. However, you also need to consider your partner’s personal tastes. If your better half loves to read gritty detective novels, then a classic by Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler is a better choice than the love poems of Lord Byron. If you know your squeeze is a fan of a particular author or series, then the latest book by that author is a great Valentine pick – as long as you make sure it isn’t in his or her collection already.
If you choose a printed book rather than an e-book, the book itself can double as your Valentine card. Just add a romantic inscription on the first page expressing how you feel about the person.
Like books, music is very much a matter of personal taste. That makes a gift of music a great way to show how well you know your partner. You can buy a CD or a song download by their favorite artist, or create a whole playlist of songs you think they’d enjoy.
You can also put a romantic twist on a musical gift by creating a playlist of songs that are special to you. Include the song that was playing when you met, the first song you danced to, and any other songs that recall important moments in your relationship. Alternatively, you can put together a collection of songs that express what’s special about your sweetheart or about the two of you as a couple. At about $1 per song, a playlist makes a romantic gift that’s easy to afford.
Another way to give a musical gift is to write a song of your own to express your feelings about your partner. This idea works best if you can play an instrument to accompany yourself, but if you don’t, you can still make up a simple tune to sing by itself. Even if you don’t have a great singing voice, speaking your love in your own words is much more romantic than borrowing someone else’s – and it doesn’t cost a penny.
Because the heart shape is universally recognized as a symbol of love, anything with a heart on it can be a Valentine. Stores at this time of year are full of heart-shaped cards and chocolate boxes, but you don’t have to limit yourself to what’s on the shelves at Walgreens. Anything that has a heart shape is fair game.
Here are a few unconventional heart ideas to get you started:
- Heart-shaped cookie cutters, $5 at Michael’s, let you create a variety of heart-shaped foods, from sandwiches to pancakes. You can also find instructions online to make your own heart-shaped cookie cutters from soda cans or tuna cans.
- A deck of cards, which you can pick up for as little as $1, has 13 hearts in it that you can use for all sorts of projects. For instance, you can arrange the 13 cards to form a larger heart on poster board, or inscribe each card with a romantic message and bind them into a book. Or, just pull out the king or queen of hearts and paste it into a blank card, with an inscription addressed to the king or queen of your heart.
- You can also find instructions online to construct heart-shaped paper and cardboard boxes, which you can then fill with candy or any other small items.
Going out for a meal is a common way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but it’s not the only option. Couples on a budget can choose from many fun but inexpensive date ideas:
- Art Museums. Many art museums offer free admission, while others charge only a modest fee, such as $5 a person.
- Community Events. Check local calendars of events for activities that are free or low-cost, such as concerts or plays. If you live in or near a college town, there are likely to be free concerts or lectures on campus that are open to the public.
- Go Shopping. Pick an inexpensive store that you both like to visit, such as a used bookstore, a dollar store, or even a grocery store. Browse your way along the shelves together, looking at unusual or appealing items. Even if you don’t buy anything, you can have fun looking – and if you do, you won’t have to pay too much for it. You can also combine this activity with gift shopping, planning to pick out Valentine gifts for each other as part of your shopping excursion.
- Rent a Movie. Going out to the movies isn’t so cheap anymore, with tickets costing $10 or more even for a matinee. However, staying in and renting a movie through Redbox or Netflix – or checking one out of your local library – can cost a dollar or less. As a bonus, you can snuggle on a cozy couch instead of sitting in theater seats with an armrest between you.
- Play Games. Playing card games or board games together is an inexpensive way to spend an evening in, focused on each other. If you want to give your game night a spicy twist, choose a game with a naughty component, like strip poker or dirty-word Scrabble.
- Take a Walk. In many parts of the country, February isn’t the best time for a romantic walk outdoors. However, if the weather is nice enough, you can enjoy strolling hand in hand through your favorite setting, whether that’s the woods, the beach, or the city streets.
- You Know What. When Science of Relationships asked men what they really wanted for Valentine’s Day, the number one answer was sex. So if you’ve been wanting to try something a little adventurous in the bedroom, Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to do it. And the other good news is, it’s absolutely free.
When it comes to Valentine’s Day gifts, it really is the thought that counts – not just that you thought of getting something, but that you really put some thought into what you chose. The best Valentine’s gift isn’t the most expensive one, but the one that does the best job of showing how you feel about your loved one.
So instead of settling for a greeting card that expresses some general idea about love, take the time to express your specific feelings for one specific person. Throwing money around is easy, but showing how much you truly care is priceless.
What was the best Valentine’s Day gift you’ve ever received?