Valentine's Day is looming, bringing a tidal wave of chocolate, roses, lingerie ... and rich revenues for the retail industry. In search of gifts that say more about the heart than the wallet, I asked DailyFinance's readers for their best tips for inexpensive but meaningful ways to express your love on Valentine's Day. Starting with their suggestions, I've compiled a list of ideas that can -- hopefully -- let you demonstrate your love without bruising your bank account.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that, like many men, I can't stand Valentine's Day. I love Thanksgiving, get giddy around Christmas, eagerly anticipate Easter, and spend weeks preparing for Halloween. But when candy hearts go up in stores and flower prices go through the roof, my mood heads south.
Part of this has to do with the pressure of the day. For young men in freshly-minted relationships, Valentine's Day is a high-pressure exercise in blindly gauging their own feelings, as well as those of a potential significant other. And, not unlike the Grail scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the wrong choice can be deadly: A poorly thought out gift can kill a promising romance or -- possibly worse -- keep an ailing, better-off-dead relationship on life support far past its expiration date.
Either way, perils abound.
Jewelry, Chocolate and ... Sheepskin?
Valentine's Day -- or at least the version that shows up in the local mall -- often seems to have more to do with commerce than with romance. This is hardly accidental -- the Valentine's industry, with its emphasis on showing your love through consumption, is designed to help fill the post-New-Year's slow spot in the retail calendar. And this strategy works: According to the National Retail Federation, this year's average Valentine's celebrant will shell out $126.03 to buy chocolates, champagne, jewelry and other gifts for families, friends, significant others and pets (yes, pets). And, as one might expect, these expenditures will break along a fairly strict gender line: the average man will spend $168.74, while the average woman will spend just over half as much: $85.76.
Of course, Valentine's Day isn't just about love and money: it also has a quasi-religious veneer. Officially called St. Valentine's Day, it was originally designed to honor one of the 14 saints who has that name. However, it has been off the Catholic liturgical calendar for over 40 years, due in no small part to the fact that nobody really knows anything about the St. Valentine who was martyred on Feb. 14. In fact, today's celebration of love actually has a lot more to do with Lupercalia, a Roman holiday honoring the wolf that suckled the founders of Rome. In the middle of February, half-naked men would drunkenly reel through the streets of the city, whacking women who wanted to be fertile with furry strips of sheepskin.
(Lest you're considering reviving old customs, be warned: Your significant other will probably not respond well if she opens a heart-shaped box to find a sheepskin whip.)
Showing How You Really Feel
So how can you transform a high-pressure, high-consumption cash grab by America's retailers into a meaningful, heartfelt expression of your love? One reader, "Leah," suggests that real romance is about the little things:
If I come home and (after a long day of his own) my hubby has a fire started, a bottle of Cabernet breathing, and something (anything) simmering on the stove, I am irrevocably lost. Don't buy me flowers, chocolates, or jewelry ... just let me know you see ME.
Another reader, "Stan H," offers a similar perspective, noting that some of his gifts to his wife are the simple things he does every day, including "the household chores like the dishes and laundry." To make the day special, "I also take her out to dinner. She's disabled, so I try to do quite a bit of cooking for her."
For "E.R.W.," Valentine's is a time for remembering how love began -- and how it continues to grow. He advises readers to channel young love by "recreating your first date or first meeting together." Given that many of us met our loved ones when we were a bit poorer, he notes that "More than likely, your first date didn't cost a lot of money. In my case, it was pizza and a movie -- inexpensive, but the conversation was priceless and led to our marriage, now forty-three years strong."
Valentine's Suggestions for Younger Couples
Recapturing old memories is great, but what if your romance is still in its infancy? "Williamsburg 2001" offers a suggestion for a Valentine's gift that will keep growing with your relationship:
On our first Valentine's day after we were married, my husband gave a beautifully wrapped notebook. Just a plain old black and white spotted binded notebook, like you kept in school for your journal or poetry writings. He told me to look at the first page and there was a quick note telling me the date and how much he loved me. He then informed me that he would write something about me, our love, and our lives together each and every day. And believe it or not he did!
Over the years, her husband filled the book with memories of his wife. On their tenth anniversary, "he had it printed and bound in our own book." The tradition didn't end there, though: "He bought me another black and white notebook for the following Valentine's day, and still continues to write little tidbits for me. I look forward to getting up every morning, just to read what he has written."
If you're not sure where your relationship is going to go, there are still several playful, reasonably-priced options. As "Leah" and "Stan H." suggest, a home-cooked meal can be a nice, intimate way to celebrate the holiday. Ziplist has a handy checklist to help plan the evening, while Allrecipes.com offers a selection of aphrodisiac dishes that range from the subtle (strawberry and feta salad) to the incredibly obvious (oysters Rockefeller). And if you're looking for something to do after dinner, Coupon Cabin has several reasonably-priced romantic movie suggestions.
And Something for the Guys
While Valentine's Day shopping can be difficult for men, it's no picnic for women either. Most online gift suggestions for boyfriends and husbands focus on things like memberships to the microbrew of the month club or baskets full of preserved meat. Not to question the value of beer or bologna, but some may argue that suds and processed meats aren't particularly romantic.
Finance correspondent Nicole Lapin offers a few low-priced ideas that may help bridge the gender gap on Valentine's Day. She notes that downloading the free Kama Sutra app on a boyfriend's iPhone sends a definite message, as does a suggestive bag of candy. She proposes Hershey's kisses ("the little black dress of Valentine's gifts"), and advises gift-givers to "spice it up with Red Hots and say 'you make me red hot.'"
Personally, I'd argue that some gifts know no gender, and that the perfect present is one that can be shared. With that in mind, it's hard to do better than a half pound of "Pig Candy" -- chocolate-covered bacon -- from Roni-Sue chocolates. Alternately, if you decide to go the alcohol route, think about something unique that you can enjoy together. For example, Santa Theresa 1796, a Venezuelan rum, is aged in bourbon and cognac barrels and splits the difference between rum and whiskey. At $35, it's a little expensive, but still comes in far below the average price for a man's Valentine's Day gift. And with a few more weeks of winter to go, there's plenty of time left to curl up with your beloved and a couple of mugs of hot buttered rum.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.