Money can cause a lot of stress in a relationship, and this is never truer than on Hallmark's High Holy Days -- Christmas, your anniversary and, of course, Valentine's Day.
The National Retail Federation projects Valentine's Day spending will shoot to $18.9 billion this year -- about $142 a person on candy, flowers and apparel. A whopping 91 percent of those polled by the NRF are planning on doing something special for their significant other, and that won't come cheap.
It could, though. We talked to more than 30 personal finance and relationship experts on the delicate politics of romantic gift-giving, and they all said more or less the same thing: It doesn't have to cost money to mean something -- and, in fact, sometimes the best gifts are the cheapest.
So we asked them for the best Valentine's Day gift they either gave or received for less than $20. Here's what they said.
"The best gift I ever got on Valentine's Day for under $20 was a ride home from the airport. My boyfriend picked me up after a three-week trip away. He brought flowers. But the best part is that he says realizing how much he missed me on that trip is what led him to propose. He is now my husband! It doesn't have to be a lot of money to make your special someone happy."
"Last year on Valentine's Day I gave my girlfriend a coffee mug with a heart on it that lights up whenever it is filled with hot liquid. I purchased it from Amazon for about $10. Some folks might view this light-up coffee mug with a heart as a cheesy gift, but I thought it was a great idea. And my girlfriend loved it. Every morning when she pours her morning cup of coffee, she's reminded of how much I love her. And she's not the type of person that wants or needs someone to drop a load of money on her in order for her to feel loved, so that also made it a great gift."
By Lucy Mueller, Senior Editor
"The best Valentine gift I ever got was a hand-written love letter from my ex-husband, trying to win me back. It really made me feel like Valentine's Day was about more than chocolates, roses and Hallmark cards. This man sat down and wrote from his heart. He didn't text or email. That made it personal, and wildly romantic. Sometimes old-fashioned love letters and simple, elegant gestures are lost in our bigger, better, faster world of tech, speed and gift cards. This gift was about true love, deep romance, marriage and divorce, and it was a showstopper. I don't think I've had a Valentine's Day since, when I haven't thought about that letter he sent me that cost nothing, and meant so much. I still have it, and the sentiments expressed in the love letter are impressed on my heart and in my mind."
"Valentine's Day also happens to be the day when my husband and I enjoyed our first date 10 years ago. And one of our binding interests is cooking and, well, eating. However, my husband never makes desserts. So, when he handed me a tiny box filled with dark chocolate truffles he had rolled from scratch -- I was floored. We had all the ingredients on hand already, so all it cost him was time and effort."
Money Smart Life
"When I was younger, I used to think that sending flowers on Valentine's Day was a rip-off, but I've since changed my tune. Now I see them as a great way to say "I love you" and to show how much you appreciate someone. I avoid flower shops and buy them from the floral department at grocery stores like Hy-Vee or Price Chopper, and I'm able to send my wife a beautiful and affordable Valentine's Day treat."
"I asked my wife this question thinking I would get an answer like "when you took me to the park to watch the snowfall" or something like that, but instead she insists that her faves that I have given her were flowers and anything from Starbucks. I guess this just goes to show that the perfect gift often depends on how well we know the desires of the recipients!"
"Buying a $20 flower arrangement for your wife may seem like a traditional gift, but not when you have them delivered to her work in the middle of the day like I did one year. Not only will she experience the initial joy of receiving the gift, but the oohs and aahs emanating from her coworkers all day long will increase the significance of the gift and her appreciation for your thoughtfulness tenfold."
Max My Interest
"My husband loves bread. When we lived in Tokyo, our favorite neighborhood bakery was Joel Robuchon's boulangerie in Roppongi Hills. For Valentine's Day one year, I stopped by there and bought him an enormous, crusty, chocolate-studded bread in the shape of a heart."
Young Adult Money
"The best Valentine's Day gift I've received for less than $20 was a stack of 12 envelopes. Each envelope had a month on it and inside each envelope was a date idea. Granted, some of the dates would cost money, but it was a thoughtful gift that cost very little to make. It was fun to open a new envelope each month and see what my wife had planned."
Wealthy Single Mommy
"Once when I was about 7 or 8, my mom had to go out of town for a conference over Valentine's Day, and my brothers and I stayed with our grandparents for a few days. When we woke on the morning of the holiday, we found that Mom had left each of us a little valentine and a giant heart-shaped bubble gum -- a sugary treat we normally never received. Even though she was always very affectionate, I just remember feeling her love and thoughtfulness remotely -- something I hope to extend to my own kids now that I'm a mom. I do try to keep the candy to a minimum, though!"
Monster Piggy Bank
"The best Valentine's gift I ever received was actually a really large (and awesome) beer mug that has the logo of my football team on it. I remember receiving the gift and thinking "this is great!" My girlfriend at the time knew that I loved drinking beer from big beer mugs, and she said that she wanted to get me something that would last. Even though we aren't together anymore, I still have that beer mug.
The best thing I have done for valentine's day that's under $20 would have to be putting together a homemade picnic lunch and taking my partner to a nature reserve. The spot was amazing, it overlooks the ocean on one side and the countryside on the other. The food was hardly Jamie Oliver quality, but it was probably the best Valentine's Day I've had, and it was certainly one I remember well."
"The best Valentine's gift I ever received was actually free. It was when my girlfriend said "yes" to my marriage proposal. While cliche, I wouldn't have it any other way. Nine years later, it's still the best gift anyone has ever given me and it didn't cost a dime."
Your PF Pro
"The best Valentine's gift I ever got was homemade chocolate strawberries. In fact, my wife makes them for me every year and when you throw in a bottle of champagne, it's a thoughtful gift that can be had for way less than $20. You don't always have to spend the big bucks in order to have a great and meaningful gift!"
Budgets Are Sexy and Rockstar Finance
"The best gift you could ever get your wife/mother of your children is a few hours to herself. Not only does it cost nothing (at least financially, it's definitely hard work wrangling your kids by yourself!), but it gives her a much-needed break to unwind and relax. I've never once heard a mother turning that down."
"According to my wife of 31 years, the best Valentine's Day gift I've ever given her was undoubtedly the simplest and cheapest one ever, costing next to nothing. And the fact that she loves it so much has always made me love her that much more.
We were married in June, and the following year for Valentine's Day I presented Denise with a simple heart-shaped pin made out of wood (pictured here). It was attractive enough, I suppose, with the natural rings of the wood creating the center of the heart. But it wasn't a gemstone, nor could we afford such gifts back then.
Being the gracious person she always has been, Denise immediately said she loved it and asked me to pin it on her blouse. As I did so, I told her that I'd carved it for her myself, and a tear rolled down her cheek. Then I asked if she recognized the wood.
"The wood?" she said. "What about the wood?" You see, I'd secretly saved a thin slice of wood from the trunk of our Christmas tree the December before -- our very first Christmas tree as husband and wife -- knowing all along exactly what I intended to carve with it. Upon learning that part of the story, the tears really rolled down her face
Last year, for our 30th Valentine's Day together as a married couple, I bought Denise a small heart shaped broach made from her birthstone and a couple of tiny diamonds. By that point in our lives, I didn't even hesitate to fork over the couple of hundred dollars it cost me at the jewelry store. Like three decades before, when Denise unwrapped it she said she loved it, and asked me to help pin it on her blouse.
Later that evening when we went out to dinner, I looked lovingly at her across the table and noticed that before we'd left home, she'd replaced the pin I'd just given her with the wooden one I'd carved for her 30 years before. God I love that woman."
"While I am usually quite frugal, I do like to spoil my special someone. So I admit usually the gifts are on the pricey side. One inexpensive gift that I've got in the habit of giving is a custom homemade card. All it ends up costing me is a couple bucks to get it printed on card stock at a printing store. It does take some effort, but then she values it much more than something bought at a store."
"My wife and I really don't exchange much when it comes to Valentine's Day as we tend to be pretty frugal. As such, anything we do give each other isn't very expensive. One of my favorite gifts my wife has given me in previous years is a six-pack of different craft beers. It usually costs her $10 or $15 and is something I really enjoy. I know being frugal isn't for everyone when it comes to Valentine's Day, just remember that you don't have to spend a lot to show your partner that you love them."
Money Smart Guides
"When I was a poor, broke college student, I couldn't afford to buy my girlfriend roses, so I made a bunch out of paper towels. I took things a step further by using markers to color the flower and stem so they really stood out. My girlfriend loved them, not only because of the thought, but also because they will "last forever"! If you'd like to learn how to make roses out of paper towels, there are YouTube videos showing you how."
Investing to Thrive
One of the best and most memorable Valentine's Day gifts that I ever received was a single white rose in a vase from the guy I had been dating for a few months. (Then, it was delivered; now you may need to deliver yourself to keep the cost under $20 or use a coupon.) I was surprised by my Valentine's Day gift; it was not too presumptuous but made clear that the man I was dating wanted to be sure I was thinking about him on that day. We married the following year, and welcomed our first child on Valentine's Day (10 years after I received that rose).
"Proposals aren't about the ring, the extravagance or what other people think. Telling the love of your life how much you love them and want to spend their life with you is the most romantic and amazing gift anyone could receive. If you're thinking of giving a gift under $20 for Valentine's Day, it doesn't have to be a proposal to stand out. Telling them how much they mean to you in a card, a poem, a handwritten letter or a handmade gift can be more meaningful. Essentially, you're not giving just a gift -- you're giving love."
The Penny Hoarder
"The best Valentine's Day gift I ever received was a home-cooked meal. My partner, whose cooking skills usually begin and end with ordering takeout, spent the entire week learning how to cook one of my favorite meals, pulled pork and cornbread. There were several nights of test batches and many laughs as the recipe was improved each night leading up to Valentine's Day. It was so thoughtful and the memory was worth way more than any gift that could have been purchased."
"The best gift I've made for under $20 was a silhouette for each of the children that we matted and framed. We had the kids sit in a chair, very still, while one of us shined a flashlight to cast a shadow on the wall behind them. We sketched the shadow on a piece of black construction paper with a light-colored pencil, then cut out their shadow to frame against a light background. Capturing each of our six kids in this way is so special and unique. We will always remember how they looked at that very moment, from their little out-of-place hairs on their heads to their dimply chins! This makes a great Valentine's Day gift for Grandma and Grandpa!"
"Knowing how easily I forget things, my girlfriend made me a deck of cards filled with her favorite 52 memories from the previous year together. Each card was themed and every week I can flip to a new one and it puts a smile on my face."
Making Sense of Cents
"The best Valentine's gift I have ever received was a nice dinner at home. My husband lit some candles, made dinner, bought me a box of chocolates and some flowers. It's always nice just to spend some quality time together and not get caught up in expensive Valentine's Day gift-giving."
"Every year, Mr. Frugalwoods gives me the best Valentine's Day gift: a scrumptious home-cooked meal. What I appreciate so much about his culinary effort is that it's both a huge money-saver and a very sweet reflection of his love for me. It takes a lot more work to put together a fancy dinner at home than it does to make a restaurant reservation! I believe that all things can be done frugally and for us, Valentine's Day is no exception. We're happy to save our dough and snuggle up at home. The added bonus is that our greyhound, Frugal Hound, serves as maître d'."
"While my lady friend and I aren't much for giving each other expensive gifts (luckily, she's just as enthusiastic about investing for the long term as I am), she really outdid herself last year. The bag of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups was nice, but it was the card that really sealed the deal. It was a replica of the Choo-Choo Choose Me card Lisa Simpson gave Ralph on an episode of "The Simpsons." Fans know the episode well, and it's one of my favorite episodes from my all-time favorite show. It was easily the best card I've ever received, for any holiday."
"Men can be very hard to buy for but if the reader's sweetheart likes beer and dogs, this would be a great buy!"
"The best gift I ever received was a CD that my husband burned for me. It cost him $10, but I have never forgotten it. The songs he chose were ones that made him think of me, or described our relationship in his eyes. When I hear those songs play on the radio my heart melts all over again as I think about the gift he gave me years ago!"
The Broke and Beautiful Life
"Chapstick (Little Luxuries and Habits). I know that to some, chapstick might not sound as appealing as flowers or chocolates, but to me, it's totally romantic. I LOVE chapstick; in fact, it's a bit of an addiction. So not only is it practical when I get it as a gift, it's personal; it says, "I'm listening" and "I care." Who knew chapstick could be so deep?"
U.S. News Money
"My mom is a pro at finding fun, budget-friendly gifts. One of the greatest Valentine's Day presents she sent me was a Hershey's Kisses fondue set she found for under $20. If you want to have a sweet (and affordable) night in with your significant other this Valentine's Day, I promise dipping strawberries, marshmallows and Oreos in melted chocolate is the way to go."
Living on the Cheap
"Valentine's pretzel M&M's: These can be made with kisses or hugs, and are so easy, kids can make them (with a little parental guidance). I use pretzel snaps (the ones that look like little checkerboards because I think they work better). Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Line rimmed cookie sheet with a single layer of pretzels. Place a chocolate kiss in the center of each pretzel. Bake for two-three minutes or until chocolate is softened, and remove from the oven. Immediately put an M&M on each. You will want to press down slightly so the chocolate forms a circle with the M&M in the center. Set on counter or refrigerate for five-10 minutes or until chocolate is firm. Four or five in a little cellophane bag with a cute label is all you need."
"The best Valentine's gift I ever gave was Chateau Le Me.
In college I decorated my boyfriend's dorm room with items from the Dollar Store: curtains thumb-tacked to the ceiling to create a canopy, scented tea light candles, a red tablecloth, candy and balloons. I also cooked.
I used all of these things to create a inexpensive, private romantic "restaurant" that I dubbed Chateau Le Me."
"Every year, my wife Rebekah tells me, "You don't have to get me anything for Valentine's Day." Of course, I'd have to be missing brain cells to actually listen to her. That said, I can say that some of the most well-received gifts have been the ones that cost little or no money. On more than one occasion, I have promised to clean the entire house by myself, and it's gone over very well given that we have two boys who make it their mission to keep things in a constant state of disarray. It may seem like an unromantic gift, but the look on her face when she sees a freshly scrubbed kitchen floor is brighter than any expensive jewelry could buy."
Doctor of Credit
"The best gift I ever received for Valentine's day was a home-made picnic and treasure hunt that took me to some of my favorite free places (art galleries, parks, library, etc.) that my then girlfriend organized. It's really a day about spending time with the person you love and this was a great opportunity for us to do this without spending a lot.
The best gift I ever gave for Valentines day was a vintage dress that I bought from a thrift store for less than $5. My girlfriend loved it and after wearing it for several months she eventually sold it (with my blessing) on eBay for $80."