NEW YORK – While romance and money have long been linked, the current economic climate has many people looking for love on the cheap this Valentine's Day.
But those with lean wallets should take heart, because a tight budget can inspire a wealth of creative gift ideas.
"As long as you're not on an emotional budget — only giving attention and affection in carefully controlled portions — you can lavish the one you love on Valentine's Day without having to go into debt," said Trish McDermott, vice president of romance at the online dating service Match.com.
It's not always easy to find a frugal yet meaningful way of saying, "I love you." Feb. 14 has become an increasingly commercialized holiday marketed to romantic couples, with florists, restaurants, chocolate shops, and lingerie companies hiking prices.
"A lot of people are being laid off and there's not a lot of money going around," said Wendee Mason, founder of a southern California dating school called DateSmart Singles. "Spending a wonderful, creative day with someone has more meaning. I'd rather have an experience than a gift."
So instead of doling out $80 and change on FTD red roses, $60 on a heart-shaped box of Godiva chocolates or $152.50 on a "Love Tin" of Altoids mints (featured on www.altoids.com), here are some more modest ways to honor Cupid:
White Castle love feast. Guests craving a sit-down meal of those cheap and greasy — yet strangely satisfying — mini-burgers can do so in style in a handful of St. Louis- and Minneapolis-area restaurants. Diners with reservations will be greeted at the door by a host and taken to an intimately decorated table (complete with tablecloth), where they can feast on tasty beef "Slyders" and fries by candlelight. At just $.43 a burger, $1 for a medium drink and $1 for a medium order of fries, the meal will barely make a dent in the bank account.
Playing games. Give your sweetie-pie, friend, parent, sibling, or child a game (Twister, anyone?) and curl up in the warmth of your living room to play. Some online companies, like www.cheapass.com, offer specials like the "Valentine's Day Pack" of several offbeat board and card games-for-two for $50 plus shipping. Other more mainstream favorites sell for as little as $15 to $35.
Home-cooked dinner and a movie. Instead of dropping $200 on a fancy, romantic dinner out, shop for picnic ingredients like French bread, cheeses, fruits, sorbet, and a bottle of wine for $20-$50. Turn off the phone and TV, play some mood-setting music on the stereo and settle in for a relaxing tete-a-tete in private, preferably by a roaring fire. Then watch a rented romantic movie ($3-$5) like Casablanca, Love Story or An Affair to Remember.
Grocery-store flowers and five-and-dime balloons. Many grocers and deli owners sell a wide array of beautiful floral bouquets for $4 to $15, as opposed to the $80 or $100 you'd spend at an upscale florist. And while balloon companies will charge at least $30 or $40 to surprise someone special with a bunch, you can buy a bag at the drugstore for a dollar or two, slip red or pink construction-paper hearts inside, then blow them up and tie them with festive ribbon.
Music and poetry. Pick up a blank tape for $5 or less and make a mix of special songs — or write a poem or essay about your love, then put it in an inexpensive frame.
Chocoholic-fest. Get a pound's worth of gourmet chocolate bars (about $2-$5 apiece) at the grocery store, buy the fruit of your choice and make chocolate fondue for your honey at home — then share it together by candlelight. Or bake heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies and eat with milk or hot chocolate.
Scrapbook of memories. Purchase a scrapbook for $20 or $30 and fill it with photographs, movie ticket stubs, inside jokes, locks of hair, and any other mementos of your relationship.
Night at a gallery or local play. Instead of blowing hundreds on Broadway-style theater or a night at a bed-and-breakfast, get dressed up and go to a community-theater play (tickets usually range in price from $0 to $25) or hit a museum or free gallery with evening hours.
Personal Web site. If your special someone lives for the Internet, create an "online scrapbook" by setting up a personal Web site … for free.
Love coupons. Pick up some construction paper, cut into heart- or lip-shapes and write different IOUs on each: "Good for 1 full-body massage," "Good for 1 home-cooked meal," "Good for a candlelit bubble bath for two," etc. Then punch holes in them, string together with ribbon and give your sweetheart the whole book.