Red roses, chocolates and fancy dinners are the traditional currency of Valentine's Day. But on a tight budget, a little creativity can make the lover's holiday even more romantic.
While the greeting card, restaurant, candy and flower industries flourish every year at this time, older notions about romance still ring true; the most memorable gifts you can give are those that show your sweetie how well you know -- or want to know -- him or her.
Here are some gift ideas that involve more thoughtfulness than money for couples that have been together for a while, along with a few for brand-new lovebirds.
If you just met a new love interest, fishing for ideas is an easy task -- getting to know someone gives you the perfect excuse to ask all kinds of questions about favorite foods or interests, and, above all, what gifts or gestures he or she considers the most romantic. For couples that have been together longer -- this is your chance to spark a little romance.
Take notice of what interests your partner has that you haven't paid much attention to in the past. Surprise him or her by doing a little research and finding an inexpensive gift that shows you care about those interests and desires.
Romance is a personal thing, and ultimately, you are the best person for the job when it comes to figuring out what will dazzle your significant other.
Dine in -- in styleEvery Feb. 14, upscale restaurants rake in the dough by offering special Valentine menus that give patrons fewer food choices and charge them more money than almost any other day of the year. Reservations have to be made well in advance, and dining rooms are often so packed that an evening that is supposed to be romantic is instead cluttered with long waits, crowded dining rooms and slow service.
Why not roll up your sleeves and make dinner for your valentine that includes his or her favorite foods? If you're short on ideas, the Web is brimming with free recipe sites such as Allrecipes.com, Epicurious and Recipe Source.
Even though the Food and Drug Administration says there is little or no scientific evidence to support the notion that foods such as oysters, chocolate and truffles have aphrodisiac properties, there is a long history of folklore that suggests that they do. If you are a fan of the power of suggestion, Mangiare Bene has a list of recipes and the BBC Web site has a list of "aphrodisiacs."
Gifts from the heartEvidence that you've given a gift a lot of consideration and care can go a long way. For people with steady hands or silver tongues, making your own Valentine's Day cards or writing a few lines of poetry are great ideas. But you don't have to be an amateur craftsman or literary maven to come up with something special that has meaning.
If you can't write a lick of poetry or paint a whit, consider sitting down and writing a letter describing every characteristic that you love about a person, from the way they smile to the things that they do that endear them to you. Handwritten love letters are a lost art in this era of e-mail and cell phones, and taking the time to write one guarantees that your gift will be saved in a nightstand or jewelry box long after the neighbor's roses have withered.
If you don't think you have a way with words, you have an endless number of loving lines at your disposal. Buy a blank greeting card, and personalize it with a romantic quotation or a famous poem that reflects the way that you feel about your valentine. Web sites such as Links 2 Love, Romantic Tokens and The Love Quotes Encyclopedia are full of sonnets, verses and quotations which, when written down and cited in your own handwriting, will make it clear that you are a romantic.
Another simple, inexpensive and sentimental gift is a framed picture of the two of you together. Digital photo fans know how easy and inexpensive it is to enlarge and print a good quality photo. If you don't have a digital camera and quality printer, plenty of photo processing centers will make a 5-by-7 or 8-by-10 print the old-fashioned way for a reasonable cost.
Make a grand gestureTrue romantics know that few things are more endearing than a willingness to risk embarrassment or do something that seems completely out of character. If you are crazy about the person you are with, why not declare it publicly? Your valentine and any other witnesses will have a great story to relate for years to come.
If you are usually reserved about expressing your feelings, something as simple as delivering a single rose and a handful of sweet words to your valentine in front of a group of people you both know can be more valuable than enjoying a five-course meal together. Even the memory of a hearty and good-natured laugh together is likely to last longer then a bottle of cologne.
For the most daring fools for love, consider dragging your main squeeze to a karaoke bar and singing a love song to him or her. If you can't sing without attracting crows to your window, that may be an even better reason to try. Ham it up. Humor is an underrated force in the realm of romance, especially when you consider how many people in long-term relationships claim that laughter keeps them together.
Another way to make a grand gesture is to simply spend Valentine's Day doing something you don't particularly like, but that you know your valentine does. If he or she is an art fan and you are not, spend the afternoon at a gallery or museum. If he or she is a sports fan and you aren't, visit a sports bar at happy hour and watch college basketball on ESPN together. Go to a movie that your loved one would want to see, even if you would never choose to do so yourself. If you go this route, make a promise to yourself that you will stay cheerful about it and stick with it. It's only one day, after all.
Pamper and fussIn the '80s several companies came out with gimmicky "love coupons" that people signed and slipped inside of greeting cards. They were redeemable for things such as back rubs, breakfast in bed and household chores. They really weren't a bad concept, but there's no need to buy manufactured coupons when you can figure out what your valentine would like best on your own. The more specific the task, the more personal the gift, whether it's the promise of a lavish home-cooked meal or that you'll finally clean out the garage like you've been promising for months. Whatever you commit yourself to doing, just make sure you are ready to deliver with as much enthusiasm as you can muster.
Treating your valentine to pampering at a spa is always appreciated. Some treatments such as a massage or spa facials tend to be on the pricey side. Simpler extravagances such as a manicure, pedicure or a clean shave are often more reasonable, and still a special treat. You can, of course, give the gift of a foot, back or neck massage yourself, which is a terrific way to end a romantic evening.