Ever since the first Valentine’s Day that my wife and I spent as a couple (1998, for those curious), we’ve done a wide variety of things to celebrate the day. We’ve went out for the fancy dinners. We’ve seen a vase full of roses on the dining room table. We’ve popped open boxes of chocolate. We’ve even settled in at home with the kids.
Here are a few things we’ve learned over the years.
Romantic time together means more than any material gift. Our best memories of Valentine’s Days past seem to always revolve around doing something together. It really doesn’t matter too much what we were doing - what matters is that we were simply together, enjoying each other’s company with as little interference as possible.
Thoughtfulness always outweighs any other factor. Thoughtful gifts are almost always treasured more than expensive and flashy gifts. My wife would enjoy a dozen roses, but a carefully thought-out handwritten note melted her heart much more effectively. A homemade dinner with a truly loved food that takes a lot of effort is almost always more memorable than yet another night out at a restaurant.
Shared experiences are better than “one way” gifts. Many people feel the pressure to give their significant other some kind of great Valentine’s Day gift. If you do feel the need to give a gift, the best way to make it a truly memorable one is to find a way to make it a shared experience. Instead of getting jewelry, get a pair of tickets to a concert. Instead of a dozen roses, get one and a gift card to a gardening shop so you can plant a rose bush in the spring together.
What do all of these things have in common? They’re almost universally less expensive and more memorable than the traditional flowers/chocolate/jewelry/night out that Valentine’s Day often connotates.
Need some specific ideas? Here are nine ideas from a post I wrote last year for a frugal Valentine’s Day…
Take time off. If you both have some vacation time built up, put in for a day off and spend it together. Do some simple and purely fun things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to do. Cuddle together for a big chunk of the day and just enjoy each other instead of stressing out at work.
Make an elegant homecooked meal instead of hitting the town. Put in the time and make a wonderful meal at home. Put out a nice tablecloth, use a few candles, and make it a romantic evening at home instead of fighting the Valentine’s Day crowds out and about.
If you’re going out, do something unexpected. Lots of places will be crowded on that night, so do something unusual if you’re going out on the town. Don’t go to the high-dollar place - instead, ask around for something quiet and secluded and undiscovered. Not only will the meal be cheaper, it will also be more memorable and distinctive.
Do something low-stress. My wife and I used to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a trip to the bookstore together. We’d find some quiet chairs in the back and read through books together and talk quietly. We’d also go to a very low-key coffee shop and sip coffee together. These were very inexpensive things to do (provided we didn’t buy things at the bookstore), yet they were both enjoyable and fulfilling to us.
Don’t buy flowers without thought. Obviously, if your significant other would be devastated without flowers, pick some up, but don’t make it a requirement. I used to buy a dozen roses for my wife, but one year I came home with just two long stemmed red roses. Last year, I got a red rose, a pink one, and a white one. Another year, I got a flower selection that didn’t involve roses at all. In each case, I picked flowers with meaning instead of just pulling out the wallet and buying the dozen red ones.
Give a thoughtful gift. It’s easy to just buy jewelry or chocolates for Valentine’s Day, but it means more (and is less expensive) if you find a gift that truly has the recipient in mind. My wife is a science fiction fan, so one year in lieu of expensive gifts, I gave her a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love with a little inscription. Guess which gift she still remembers, many years later? It’s not the chocolate.
Write a note expressing how you feel to go with that gift. A little sentimental note means a lot more than some extravagance. Spend some time and try to express - in your own handwriting - how you actually feel about your partner and why that person is so important to you. No matter the gift, that note will be the part that is meaningful.
Look for free concerts. Many communities have free Valentine’s Day concerts by municipal groups that don’t get widely publicized. Take a look at your community calendar and see what’s out there to do for free on that day.
Remember that your love is about the two of you, not about other things - and enjoy it. Hold each other close and enjoy each other, not things and events. Share a few passionate moments - that will mean far more than anything else you can do on this day. Best of all, it’s free!
And here are seven more ideas, culled from my own experiences over the years.
Bake some cookies. Instead of giving a generic (and probably expensive) gift of chocolates, bake some homemade cookies instead. Take a good chocolate chip cookie recipe - and add to it an ingredient that you know your partner will like. For example, my wife has baked me a batch of cookies before that were basically just chocolate chip cookies - but they also had cherries in them, cherries that were soaked in cherry liqueur before baking. It didn’t cost her much more than an hour or two of time and a couple dollars’ worth of ingredients, but the gift was not only delicious, but memorable.
Make a mix tape. Simply make a compilation CD of all of the songs that either mean something with regards to your relationship or express in some way the way you feel about your partner. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean all sappy romantic songs (for example, our “song” is the at best semi-romantic “She’s An Angel” by They Might Be Giants) - they just have to have some shared meaning between the two of you.
Go out for the atmosphere, not for the expensive food. If you do decide to go out on the town, eat at home and just stop by a place with a nice atmosphere for coffee or a drink and maybe a small snack or dessert. This way, you can enjoy the ambience and the romantic moment without the big, expensive bill at the end (which is a downer).
Do something silly. One year, we were snowed in on Valentine’s Day. What did we do? We put on some mood music, ate dinner together… and then colored. Seriously. We got out some printer paper and a box of crayons and drew pictures of various things. We gave the pictures to each other, too, and I still have mine.
Get refreshed. Put on pajamas, have a drink together, and relax in the most comfortable room in your home. Give each other a massage. Hold each other. Fall asleep in each other’s arms. Get a great night’s sleep. You’ll wake up the next day physically and emotionally refreshed without spending any money at all.
Consciously agree to save for something. Let’s say, hypothetically, you’re saving for a down payment. Instead of planning an elaborate Valentine’s Day celebration, stay at home, do some planning for this big step in your life, and put that $100 you saved into your savings account for that down payment. Apply this same principle to other “big” days in your life (birthdays, Christmas, etc.) and you’ll find yourself much closer to your big dream.
Volunteer. If you’re both socially conscious (and also adding in the fact that Valentine’s Day is on a Saturday this year), why not spend the day involved with a volunteer project together instead of doing the typical date thing? Help build a Habitat house. Serve a meal at the local food kitchen. Do some drudge work for a charity that matters to both of you. That way, the day means something beyond merely spending time together - and it doesn’t cost anything, either.
The Simple Dollar chronicles a man's road to recovery from "total financial meltdown." As author Trent Hamm puts it, "The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two." We'll post a couple of entries a week, but you can check out his writing daily at www.thesimpledollar.com