Recently, the National Retail Federation estimated that Americans will spend an average of $63.34 on each other for Valentine’s Day in 2010. That’s 6 percent less than last year, which is hardly surprising, given the recent economic tumult. It’s hard to justify spending obscene amounts of money on roses and fancy dinners when unemployment rates and house foreclosures remain steadily (and alarmingly) high. Frankly, I’ve always supported low-key Valentine’s Days. When it comes to showing love and affection, it’s the thought and effort, not the price tag, that matter. The best gifts to give on the fourteenth come from the heart, and, luckily for the cash-strapped among us, they won’t drive us into debt come February 15.
1. Can’t put your feelings on paper? Put them on a CD or MP3 player.
I believe that mix CDs, done properly, convey more sentiment than a random Hallmark card. Include the songs your partner loves, songs that are significant to your relationship, and songs that remind you of him or her. Write out the playlist and don’t forget to decorate the CD itself for an extra-special touch. Another variation on this idea is to make a personalized Pandora or MP3 player playlist. Your Valentine can enjoy the gift en route to or at work; plus, it’s a daily reminder of your love (or extreme like, depending on your situation). And don’t limit yourself to music; include favorite podcasts in the mix, too, especially if there’s a radio show or comedian you both enjoy.
2. Tidy up the house from floor to ceiling.
When I mentioned this story idea to a friend, she had a surprising suggestion. “This is going to sound so ‘Mom,’ but doing a bang-up cleaning job [is a great gift],” she said. I initially felt it wasn’t romantic enough, but she quickly changed my mind. The gift would be more than just dusting; it would include shining furniture and getting everything organized, too. “Personally, that would take my breath away,” she explained. Once I imagined coming home to a spotless apartment, I had to agree. For most of us, cleaning is a chore we’d gladly cast off, so the idea of our loved one taking care of it for us—without even being asked!—is truly sweet.
3. Find guilty-pleasure movies on the cheap online.
We’ve all got movies that we might never purchase in real life but will gladly tune in to if they happen to be on TV. It’s silly to spend your life relying on network executives to satisfy your craving for The Hot Chick. (That’s a hypothetical guilty-pleasure movie, of course …) How excited would you be to open a box and find a few DVDs that always put you in a good mood, even if the rest of the world thinks they’re bad? Guilty-pleasure DVDs almost always cost less than $10 because they’re not very popular, so you can get a bunch for cheap. If your partner doesn’t mind used movies, the price gets even lower.
4. Cover coffee or lunch for the week.
If your Valentine is one of the millions of people out there who aren’t functional in the morning without a cup of coffee in hand, a gift card to his or her favorite café might be the best gift your money could buy. A $10 or $15 card should be enough to cover caffeine consumption for the workweek. Coffee’s not his thing? Put that same amount of money toward lunch at a favorite eatery near the office. To earn extra Valentine’s Day points, rearrange your schedule so you can have lunch together. If a restaurant gift card is too much for your budget, offer to make a week’s worth of lunches. Brown-bagging’s a lot more fun when someone else does the hard work.
5. Don’t go out to eat.
A night on the town’s nice, but a night snuggled up indoors is even better, right? That doesn’t mean heating up frozen dinners and zoning out in front of the TV, though—put on an apron and whip up a meal worthy of the special occasion. It doesn’t require expensive ingredients or hours of preparation; even a simple spaghetti dish looks fancy next to candlelight. Eat at the table or spread a blanket on the floor and dine picnic-style. If you’re a disaster in the kitchen, get takeout from one of your favorite restaurants and plate the meal before your partner gets home. (Plastic containers kind of kill the romance, in my opinion.) Don’t forget dessert!
6. Look for free tours around town.
Is there a brewery, winery, or chocolate factory within reasonable driving distance? Many of them offer free tours that almost always end with samples of their goods. Depending on what your Valentine’s into, it could be a cheap date that’s both informative and fun. That’s hard to beat! If there’s nothing like that where you live, look into local walking tours. Often they’re free (or practically free), and give you both a new way to look at your hometown. Try to find tours that walk by places that are meaningful to you, such as the restaurant where you had your first date or the park where you met. When all else fails, create your own tour and grab some snacks and beverages for the stroll. If you have time to plan it, that’s an even more thoughtful gift.
7. Help support his or her hobbies.
This is another gift idea I got from my friend who suggested the clean apartment. “Get your Valentine something inexpensive that he always needs, like film or printer ink,” she said. “It’s cheap and practical, but it also shows your appreciation.” I’d add that it demonstrates how much you’re paying attention, too. When you know enough about your partner’s passion to buy specific things that help or encourage the process, it shows how much you care. It’s supportive, simple, and sweet—you can’t ask for much more than that on Valentine’s Day.
Clearly, finding the perfect gift on February 14 doesn’t have to mean breaking the bank. It also doesn’t mean loading up on chocolate at the nearest Dollar Tree just to pinch a few pennies. One great thing about this recession is that people are less focused on the material value of goods, which means sentimentality’s making a comeback. Use that to your advantage this time around, and come up with a gift that wins your partner’s affections, not your credit card company’s. This year, it really is the thought—and effort—that count.