While Valentine’s Day can be meaningful to those who celebrate it, it also can kick your budget to the curb. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), Americans who celebrated the holiday in 2019 anticipated spending close to $160 on cards, jewelry, candy, gift cards, and dining out.
If you’re suffering from holiday debt hangover, Valentine’s Day can feel like an expensive obligation that’s hard to get out of.
Take it from someone who avoids obligatory gifts whenever possible: You don’t have to spend much, or any money, on your Valentine. Nor do you have to run the risk of looking cheap. Don’t have a huge budget? Instead of doling out cash on pricy baubles, create thoughtful experiences instead. Here are a few easy, affordable ideas on how to pull it off:
Take Them Out to the Game
If your Valentine is a sports fan, consider scouting for affordable tickets to a local game. You don’t have to go all out and spring for front-row seats, either, points out Ben Huber, personal finance expert at Dollar Sprout.
“Mid-range or even nosebleed tickets allow you to experience many of the sights and sounds of the game without the financial regret later,” says Huber. “Remember: The day is about spending time with your significant other, not necessarily buying their affection.”
To up the fun, arrive early, check out other free or low-cost things you can do in the area, or make a cheap overnight trip out of it. If you live in warmer climes, camp out close to the venue, pack up an RV, or try to find a cheap Airbnb nearby.
Go the DIY Route
In lieu of a generic card with a cliched message from the drugstore, make your own, suggests Jarek, owner of Time in the Market. All you need is a sheet of sturdy paper, ink, and possibly crafty accouterments. “If you’re not artistic, write her a love letter to tell her how much she means to you,” says Jarek.
There are a bunch of ways you can go the DIY route. For instance, picking up groceries and cooking a meal together. “You get to bond while cooking and enjoy a great meal together at the end,” he says. “There’s nothing better than reverse searing a steak together, spending some great time together and enjoying the results—or even failures—of your hard work.”
If you have special skills, such as writing, carpentry, or videography, you can perform next-level handmade gifts. My friend Carrie received some wooden planters her husband made by himself. And some of my favorite gifts have been handmade cards.
Enjoy an Art Adventure
You don’t need hipster glasses or a tilted beret to enjoy an art night together. Many museums have discounted admission after 5 pm, or freebie days during the month. If you’re cool with celebrating on a day other than February 14, look for some nearby cultural centers and art museums you’d like to check out.
Another way to enjoy art on your date is to create art at home. That’s what Michael Lacy and his wife did to celebrate Valentine’s Day one year. They painted designs on their own art canvas over a bottle of wine.
“We kept our artwork a secret until we were both done, which created some fun moments trying to guess what the other was doing,” says Lacy, who is a financial educator and founder of Winning to Wealth. “If you’re not the next Picasso, you can find step-by-step tutorials on YouTube. The price of supplies and wine cost the couple about $40.
Go for an Outdoor Sojourn
If the weather permits, plan a romantic hike followed by a picnic lunch. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or fancy. You can stop by your favorite grocer to pick up a few items to nosh on while you enjoy the outdoors.
If you and your beau aren’t outdoorsy types, you can engage in some fun, physical activity together. For instance, take a stroll downtown and do some window shopping. If you live in a chillier area, you could head to a roller or ice-skating rink, or an indoor trampoline park (yes, those are a thing).
Double Date with Your Pets
I know it sounds silly, but if you and your Valentine are pet lovers, drum up a date night that involves your fur babies. Take them out to play at a nearby dog park, or stop by a pet shop to sample featured treats.
You can also stay indoors and cuddle up with your pets for a movie night. If you’re both animal lovers, see if you can visit a local animal sanctuary or wildlife refuge.
In Los Angeles, where I live, there are wildlife centers in both the city and the rural outskirts. Most centers accept donations. You can also visit a humane center or pet adoption event to play with the pups and felines.
Create a Scavenger Hunt
I’ve put together a few scavenger hunts in my day. The joy of them is that you can tailor these hunts to your Valentine’s interests, or to a part of town. It’s also fun to create a scavenger hunt centered around a theme. For every question or hint they uncover, you can reward them with a small prize, or a coupon for a service or favor later in the year.
For instance, if your squeeze loves, say, wombats, the answers to each question on your hunt can start with a “W,” and the little gifts can be wombat-related. As I said, you don’t have to spend a fortune. A thoughtful tchotchke or hand-picked wildflowers could do the trick.
Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be all about fancy gifts from Tiffany’s and four-course dinners at upscale restaurants. Bottom line: You can be frugal and still have fun. The next time you want to give your Valentine a fun, thoughtful, and memorable experience, try tapping into your creativity before you open your wallet.
Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in Investopedia, Magnify Money and The Bold Italic, and she’s been featured in Money, Kiplinger, Forbes and Woman’s Day. She runs heyfreelancer.com, a blog to help freelancers and artists with their money, and to balance their passion projects and careers.