The intersection of money and romantic relationships represents one of the most volatile combinations. Furthermore, disagreements over money are a leading cause of divorce in the United States. Clearly, we have unresolved issues over not just our money, but how we spend our money in service of our relationships. And into this fray enters Valentine’s Day, the ultimate consumer binge on useless clutter designed to be generically, thoughtlessly romantic.
Wait, wait, you say! Valentine’s Day is cute! It’s fun! And, actually, I agree. I am, after all, a supreme sucker for holidays. But even I, the holiday devotee, have to admit that Valentine’s Day is a tad too transparent in its thinly veiled prompts to spend money on things we obviously do not need.
Our culture promotes an ersatz paradigm of demonstrating emotion through material goods. And Valentine’s Day hits this notion at its very heart: we’re supposed to express how much we love our significant other through buying them… stuff.
When In Doubt, Buy A Gift!
Early on in our relationship, Mr. Frugalwoods and I fell victim to the tropes of February 14th. He sent flowers to my office, I bought him… something? I can’t even remember what. We were following the societal expectations that surround this holiday and nascent relationships in general.
When you’re still finding your footing in a relationship, it’s tempting to fall back on the cultural norms of chocolates, flowers, and stuffed bears. After all, that’s the easy way out. It doesn’t require you to intimately know or connect with your partner–you just click around online and voilà! Flowers arrive in their office on the prescribed date. Beyond the expense of hewing to the expectation of store-bought gifts, it’s also impersonal. It doesn’t reflect your unique relationship or your unique closeness.
Buying stuff also allows us to paper over potentially serious rifts in a relationship, as in “Here, I bought you this thing instead of talking to you about our disagreement over ____.” Reflecting on the times when Mr. FW and I relied on the simplistic solution of gift giving, I’ve realized those were also the rockiest times in our relationship history. Coincidence? I think not. When things weren’t going well for us, we turned to the trite cliché of spending money in an effort to make it all better. As I’m sure you can surmise, these gifts did nothing to help our relationship or solve our problems. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with gifts, it’s just that they can become a crutch for avoiding issues we’d rather not confront.
A number of years ago, realizing we were employing gifts as just such a crutch, Mr. FW and I decided to stop exchanging gifts altogether (for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, birthdays, etc). This had the dual benefit of saving money every holiday and also prompted us to get more creative–and as a result, more genuine–in our acknowledgment of these occasions. We only came to this decision after realizing we’d fallen victim to the old consumer trap of trying to engineer material goods to serve as stand-ins for human emotions.
We get a little dopamine jolt when we unwrap a gift–that’s only natural. But when we start to equate that jolt with love, we’re treading into dangerous territory–particularly in relation to our significant other.
Two years ago, I utilized my Valentine’s Day post to discuss how forced consumerism doesn’t foster a deeper bond. Additionally, if you feel the need to buy tons of gifts for your lover, there might be something amiss in your relationship that needs to be addressed. I outlined the conversation guide Mr. FW and I employ when we have something weighty or challenging to discuss, and I hope it might be of use to you too.
Celebrating Like Some True Frugal Weirdos
Just because I consider Valentine’s Day a largely commercialized, saccharine joke doesn’t mean I don’t celebrate it. I find there’s usually a frugal analogue, or alternative, for most traditionally spendy, buying-focused events. Mr. FW and I really don’t skip any holidays or celebrations, we simply employ the art of frugal substitution and celebrate in our own way. We are wide-eyed and aware of special occasion spending triggers!
As kids, my siblings and I always made our own Valentines to hand out to our friends and classmates. My mom had this wonderful box of construction paper, paper lace doilies, and glitter that she brought out every year and I’d spend hours drawing, cutting, and pasting little hearts. I was terrible at crafts even then, but no matter, I loved the process. This is something I look forward to instituting when Babywoods is old enough (she’s currently at the stage of putting crayons directly into her mouth, so uh, we’ll wait awhile longer for glitter… ).
Mr. FW and I often make homemade Valentines for each other and… he’s an even worse artist than me. We have many skills, but drawing and crafting are not among them. Despite our shortcomings in artistry, making cards for each other is simple, cheap, and demonstrates a great deal more sentiment than something store-bought. Sidenote on cards: I like to send cards to our families for occasions like Mother’s Day and birthdays and I buy them for $1 at the Dollar Store–they’re nice cards too! Since cards in the regular store are circa $3-$5, I’m a huge fan of my Dollar Store workaround.
Mr. FW and I also “celebrate” Valentine’s Day by enjoying a home cooked meal and a glass of boxed wine together. Although I’m all for demonstrating our love for one another year round, it’s also fun to celebrate holidays in our own hokey, frugal fashion.
Just because we embrace extreme frugality doesn’t mean we ignore these largely commercial holidays. We instead focus on time spent together–which is what my parents were cleverly doing in having us make our own Valentines around the kitchen table.
I also want to point out that–if you plan to go the commercial route–there’s a tremendous downside to celebrating Valentine’s Day on the actual February the 14th. Restaurants are packed, the food is likely to be overpriced and subpar, and there’s a whiff of anxiety in the air as everyone labors to publicly demonstrate their epic love. If you want to eat out to mark the occasion, choose a different day of the week. Same goes for chocolates and cards–buy them after the actual event for a fraction of the price. I’m now making a mental note to cruise the aisles for discount chocolates on February 15th…
Crowdsourced V-Day Celebration Ideas
Last year I polled my wise mom and sister for their best Valentine’s Day celebration tips and they landed on the theme of “actions rather than presents.” I outlined their recommendations here: A Frugal Valentine’s Day: Do Instead Of Buy.
This year, I decided to turn to another stellar resource–the readers of Frugalwoods! I polled our Facebook group for your suggestions on how to celebrate in fine frugal fashion and you responded with gusto. There were too many responses for me to include them all, but I’ve tried my best to hit the hight points below–many thanks to everyone who weighed in!
How Frugalwoods Readers Celebrate:
Dani said: “A picnic is always a win, indoors probably, being February. A bottle of inexpensive champagne and homemade chocolate covered pretzel sticks is an under $20 treat that can make the evening festive. Cards and a crockpot of cider would go over well if it’s a family affair or you have friends over. The best celebrations are those tailored to the people involved, celebrating what they LOVE. If you’re outdoorsy, it could be a stroll in the woods, artsy could mean a visit to a local museum, homebodies might find it a great day to bake something decadent.”
Kara shared a cute (and free) gift idea: “My husband is an engineer and likes to play with Excel. One year for Valentine’s Day, he wrote a macro in Excel with a bunch of buttons that I clicked on and there were different messages to pop up to tell me he loves me.”
Julie has plans for a cozy V-Day: “Something yummy for dinner then watching some tv together with the doggie.”
CL says: “I’m going to surprise my hubby and take him to a new BBQ concession truck and go hiking at a nearby state park and [give him] a handmade love note. I don’t have anything on a wish list other than accomplishing some projects around the house. He also writes awesome handmade notes.”
Parsla shared that: “My local pizza joint does heart-shaped pizzas for Valentine’s Day, so we always get one of those. Cheesy – both meanings of the word.”
Jamie is going to: “Make chocolate covered strawberries at home with the kids! Cheap, fun, festive!”
Mike is going: “Hiking! Making a nice little packed lunch and getting outdoors. Nothing better.”
Jennifer says: “We make homemade pizza, homemade dessert and have friends over for a visit/play.”
Sarah has perhaps the cutest plan: “We make homemade pasta, build a fort (complete with blankets, pillows, and string lights–bonus points if you pull the mattress off the bed), and then drink wine and eat our pasta in it!”
Wendy’s plan is to: “Snuggle up by the fire with a great book, lotion to rub each others feet, and no TV.”
Christina and Jenny both plan to employ some of their new cooking skills! Jenny reports: “My husband learned how to make sushi a while back, and that is what we generally do on special nights. Since we usually already have on hand nearly all the stuff to make it, it’s super cheap, fun, and delicious.”
And at Christina’s house: “My guy and I just learned how to make pad Thai, so we do the same thing for any date night/special night. Cheap, fun and delicious for sure!!!”
Hannah makes: ” a pie and puts heart crust cutouts on top.”
Caitlin plans on enjoying: “Homemade cookies and a bottle of bubbly at home.”
Linda shared that: “Around here it’s homemade… like grade school used to be. We make our own cards… put out the red placemats (used at Christmas, too) eat a favorite homemade meal and relax… keeping it stress free.”
Rhiannon cleverly: “Made a crossword for my husband! He loved it, and it was fun to watch him go through all the clues…”
Bridget says: “My boyfriend always makes egg plant parm for us at home. This year we may try making the noodles from scratch too. We love cooking together so this is a relaxing treat. We’ll play games and watch Netflix together afterwards.”
Dani had good advice for Rusty and Josh–two single guys who commented that they had no plans: “Gentlemen, you have to treat yo’ self, frugally. In the single years, I spent many a Valentine’s doing my nails, having a hot soak, snuggling up with the dog and watching something that made me smile. Food you like, fancy or otherwise, made while listening to music you love, makes it a celebration, bonus for bubbles (bath or champagne)! Galentine’s was always a big hit, but you could just as easily have a Dude’s night, a couple beers, some cards, and people you love (however platonically). If you have a mom who’s a widow, or a sister or aunt who’s single, this’d be a nice time to check in or maybe bake something decadent together, or just go to the movies, even by yourself, and see something you’re excited about.”
Leslie has a yummy plan: “We like to make tacos with all the fixings, margaritas, and do a puzzle while we listen to some Sinatra.”
Emily and her husband have: “A sleepover in our living room. We take the mattress off our bed, pull it into the living room, make popcorn, and watch a movie! We cuddle under the blankets and fall asleep usually watching something we love. We don’t have a TV in our bedroom so it’s a fun treat to watch TV in bed!”
Amy shared that: “Last year we borrowed E.T. from the library and watched it while eating Reece’s Pieces.”
Yamina said: “I’m planning on making and buying lots of “picky bits” like hummus, focaccia, olives, marinated vegetables. We’ll eat it like a picnic on the living room floor, in front of the fire, and make crazy plans for what to do when we’ve paid off the mortgage (6 years to go, and counting!). We will also be having a candlelit bath, which we do most nights right now. Sounds romantic, but our bathroom light blew a couple of weeks ago and our ex-electrician friend is currently out of the country… plus it saves water. Who says romance is dead?!”
Kristen reports: “Honestly the ‘stay at home warm fire nice dinner quiet evening’ sounds pretty great to me… make dinner together and maybe a slow dance in the kitchen ♡ no people no stress!”
Open Hearts, Not Wallets
Instead of the usual hackneyed Valentine devices of expensive jewelry and red roses, I challenge you to reorient your holiday this year. Utilize it as an opportunity to create a deeper connection with your significant other, or with your friends and family.
Savor the beauty of imperfect, homemade cards and inexpensive, homemade meals. Sample from the above suggestions or create a novel approach all your own. The creativity inherent to frugal holidays makes them all the more meaningful and fun. Plus, the pressure to impress via consumerism is absent and you can instead enjoy one another’s company–not to mention all the money you’ll save!