With over $200,000 in student loans, and our hair-brained ideas to pay them off as soon as possible, gift-giving holidays are one of my biggest frugal challenges. With the next holiday quickly approaching, I have been trying to figure out how to have a frugal Valentine’s Day without looking like a cheapskate and I keep thinking about the day I was told I had to evacuate.
On September 11th, 2001, I was living in a rural town 650 miles from Afghanistan as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It took a day for the news to reach me. When it did, I was instructed to pack a backpack and leave as soon as practicable. I was told to pack a warm sweatshirt, wear comfortable clothes, and bring no more than what I could fit on my lap.
We were preparing to leave by helicopter.
Although I had arrived the year before with two huge suitcases and two carry-ons, I packed my backpack in 5 minutes, with room to spare. What did I put in my backpack that couldn’t be left behind? My photos, the letters I had received, and my journals.
Now, whenever I reflect on the most important “things” in life, I think about my photos, my letters, and my journals. They represent my memories of people, places, and times shared with them. They are the most irreplaceable “things” I own. If my house were burning down, I know that I would want to grab my photos, my letters, and my journals and if I couldn’t, they would be the things that I would mourn the most.
These sobering thoughts help me prioritize where (if at all) to spend money on my honey. I know how not to spend my money on Valentine’s Day, but I want to do something for my sweetheart, to let him know that I love and appreciate him. In that vein, here are my suggestions for alternate Valentine’s Day gifts. They follow the same line of thought as what I packed on September 12, 2001: Letters, Photos, and Journals.
DON’T: Buy Flowers.
DO: Write love notes.
We all know that flowers, especially roses, are particularly marked up on Valentine’s Day, and those flowers aren’t going to last more than a few weeks. How long will a thoughtful love note last? Forever. Or as long as your relationship — whichever comes first.
The most memorable Valentine’s Day gift I ever received was from my husband, on our first Valentine’s Day ever. He made me the sweetest card I’ve ever seen. It was funny (don’t ask, I’m not telling!).
It had pictures.
It was badly hand-drawn.
But that was the beauty of it! It was so unique to him, and he did it just for me. These days, sometimes the hardest thing to get from people is their undivided attention and kind words about what you mean to them. It is truly something money can never buy.
DON’T: Give Jewelry.
DO: Give Photos.
If you have the means to give jewelry and you know what you sweetheart would love, by all means go ahead and get it for her! I’m sure it will be appreciated. (After all, my second favorite Valentine’s Day gift is a necklace my husband gave me our second year together!) For those of us in debtor’s prison, however, you can get just as much emotional bang for your buck with a thoughtfully framed photo or album. You can accomplish this for as little as few dollars, by printing an 8″ x 10″ photo and getting an inexpensive frame.
My favorite frugal photo shop is Walgreens, when they offer free 8″ x 10″ photos. You have to catch the deal, but if I get wind of it I’ll post it to my Facebook or Twitter feed. It took me less than 5 minutes to snag a free photo from Walgreens last month during their free 8″ x 10″ photo sale, then I picked it up at the store, wrapped it, and put it under the Christmas tree for my sweetheart.
My favorite place for an inexpensive frame is one of the craft stores — Michael’s, AC Moore, or JoAnn’s — with one of their ubiquitous 40% off coupons (in your weekly paper or typically available online).
DON’T: Dine Out.
DO: Something Fun.
There are few things I enjoy less than going to an event or a restaurant on an over-hyped, over-priced, and crowded holiday. For this reason, I have spent three New Years’ Eves at the bottom of the Grand Canyon — as far from civilization as I could get! I do not want to go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day. Instead, choose the experience wisely: do something together and create a memory or two. Something worth writing about in your actual or imaginary journal.
Instead of getting caught up in the latest restaurant and braving the crowds, I would love to enjoy time together even if it’s at home. Maybe I’m just an easy woman to please, but if Mr. Stapler comes home from work on Valentine’s Day with a special desert he picked up at one of the famous local bakeries near his office, it would be enough for us to share it by candlelight after Little Stapler has gone to bed for the night. In the days B.C. (Before Child), an entire evening of dining at home by candlelight would have been fun too. It doesn’t have to be home-cooked or elaborate; it could be take-out from a restaurant that cooks better than I do and it would be special.
Because Valentine’s is a Friday, you could plan a daytime excursion for Saturday. For those in the snowy Northeast, renting two pairs of snowshoes or cross-country skis is surprisingly inexpensive. You won’t need to shell out money for lift tickets either — just explore your local (unplowed!) public spaces. For those enjoying better temperatures, a picnic lunch in a beautiful spot is another low-cost, high-quality way to spend time together. Bring along a soccer ball to kick around or Shakespeare’s Sonnets or something else a little out of the ordinary that you can do together.
The benefit of dining in or picnicking out is that you can linger as long as you want. You won’t feel rushed to vacate the table for the next couple. You won’t have to pay three times the value of the wine you’re drinking. You won’t need to tip anyone. And after dinner you can proceed to whatever fun plans you cook up for the rest of the evening. *wink, wink* Oh, you know I’m talking about a heated game of Scrabble!
What are your plans for Valentine’s Day?