smart spending

14 loving but inexpensive Valentine gifts

Highlights
  • Dinner out? Go for a picnic on the beach.
  • Return to the scene of your first meeting or date.
  • Kids: Make up a coupon book to help harried parents.

Want to celebrate Valentine's Day without going into debt? Think fun.

Some of the best gifts involve sharing time, along with a little thoughtfulness. And the memories last far longer than a dozen roses or a box of chocolates. Here are 14 ways to express your love on the 14th -- or any other day for that matter.

For a spouse or significant other:

1. Time in a bottle:  Give your hardworking spouse a full day to do whatever he or she wants -- or just to relax -- no interruptions allowed. For him, that means he gets to engage in his hobby, watch the game, play 18 holes or do absolutely nothing. For her, that might means you feed and entertain the kids while she indulges in a good book, a bubble bath or a manicure. Announce your gift -- along with your most heartfelt message of love and appreciation -- in your best handwriting or play with various fonts on your home computer. Clean up an old wine bottle and insert the rolled-up message tied with a red bow.

2. Dining out:  Sure, you can take your loved one out to dinner, but that can get expensive. Instead, eat out -- as in outdoors. A picnic in a park or at the beach will fill the bill. In frostier climes, set up a picnic blanket and basket at the dining room table, on the living room floor or in the middle of that king-size bed. Add a rose or two (rather than a dozen) for atmosphere.

3. New adventures:  Do something different. Go somewhere you've never been before, or "someplace you haven't been in a while that's special," says John Gray, author of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." The site of your first date, for example. When you vary your routine, "that's what creates the memory," he says.

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4. Surprise, surprise:  For guys that don't normally cook, Gray says, your best attempt at a home-cooked meal can be a huge treat and doesn't have to cost anything. Or hide a note under her pillow the night before or little notes around the house on the day, telling her what she means to you. Look at the little things. "What men don't realize about Valentine's Day is that it doesn't have to cost a lot," says Gray. "Little things make the difference. The surprise factor is nice, whenever possible," Gray says.

5. Culture up:  Does your significant other delight in museums, foreign films or rare books? In most metro areas, you can find high-culture, low-dollar activities if you know where to look. (Start with the local paper, check online and you can even call the local library or cultural organizations for suggestions.) Many museums have free days. Movie houses have special times when tickets are heavily discounted. For the book lover, plan a trip to a rare book shop, and splurge for cappuccino and biscotti at a nearby coffee house.

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