Love on a Budget

Celebrate Valentine's Day in sweet ways that are easy on your finances and fun for the whole family.

  • Veer

    Motherboard Moms aren't going to turn up their noses at flowers and chocolates (some of their favorite treats, according to a recent poll), but this time of year (and in this economy) it really is the thought that counts.

    "We tend to get swept up in the doing of life and forget the sweetness of just being," says life coach and author Melanie McGhee, who wrote the book An Illumined Life—A Personal Yearly Retreat & Reflection Guide. "Valentine's Day can exacerbate this tendency and leave our hearts feeling a little dry as we rush to buy a box of candy or a dozen roses," she says.

    That's why themotherboard.com has come up with these inexpensive, heartfelt alternatives to all that Valentine's Day merchandise and those restaurant Lovers' Specials. Relax, enjoy, be sweet.

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    1. Say It in a Special Way

    Here's a nifty but inexpensive valentine to give your sweetheart: Write your message with that sidewalk chalk left over from warmer days, says San Francisco kids book illustrator Linda Davick, whose newest book is 10 Easter Egg Hunters. Place your message where the recipient can't miss it on his or her way to work or school. If there's snow on the ground, consider a nearby concrete wall for your message or use the snow to your advantage by tramping out a heart or a message—highlight the edges with dry red Jell-O mix if you want your beloved to see red.

  • Adam Albright

    2. Plant Love That Lasts

    Flowers are a time-proven expression of love, and for many a dozen red roses never gets old. But Rachel Travis, a self-employed arts and crafter in Knoxville, Tennessee, prefers what her husband gives her: "Rob buys me a half-dozen potted red tulips, and after they're done blooming we plant them in the garden. We've got quite a patch of red tulips going—it's definitely a gift that keeps on giving."

    Another plus: The Travises get to share their love in a visual way with their 18-month-old daughter, Eleanor. Each spring they show her the tulip patch and explain why it's growing.

  • Peter Ardito

    3. Make It a Family Affair

    For some, it's important in these days of early dating to let children know that Valentine's Day celebrates all kinds of love, not just romance. Amy Witsil, mother of three from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, fondly remembers how her harried and budget-strapped mother (of eight) would give each child a fancy store-bought valentine at the breakfast table. "It was such a great example," she says, "because it took the emphasis off of what a boyfriend or girlfriend might do for you that day. We knew we would get a valentine from our mom. I treasured those cards for decades, and I still love Valentine's Day."

    Witsil carries on another tradition from her childhood: "We'd be met in the morning with a big bowl of inexpensive candy—M&Ms, conversation hearts, the works—and could eat what we wanted before school," she says. It reminded her that Valentine's Day was a family affair, too. Not just a boy-girl thing. "When you're 6 or 10, that is so important," she says.

  • 4. Make Your Own Stickers

    If your child is stressing over the valentine card one-upmanship that often takes place in the classroom, try this frugal, fun idea: Make a sheet of valentine stickers with your child's own art and adhesive-backed printer paper. Many office supply or discount stores sell sticker sheets of paper that are already die-cut or, to save even more, buy a full sheet of sticker paper and cut your own shapes.

  • Jennifer Levy

    5. Dine in Style at Home

    What's the difference between sharing a restaurant with other couples and sharing someone's dining room, all decked out with cafe lights and tables for two? Have your Valentine's Day meal at home and you'll save lots of money and get to drink a lot more good wine for the price, says Knoxville's Rachel Travis. She enjoyed a Valentine's potluck dinner that was simple but fantastic: two other couples, lasagna, salads, and plenty of wine. There's also the option (and advantage) of hiring a babysitter or two (hard to get on holidays) to care for all the children at one home.

    If Valentine's Day is a family affair at your house, wait until the kids are in bed and then serve your honey (and yourself) a special Valentine feast, says Motherboard Mom Jenn Fowler, who blogs about creative money-saving at frugalupstate.com. "Throw a cloth on the table, pull out the good china, light some candles, and put something sultry on the stereo," she says. And don't fret over the cost of a classy steakhouse-style dinner with a bottle of wine and something decadent for desert , she says. "It might run you more money than your typical meal—but it's sure frugal compared to heading out to your local steakhouse, especially with babysitting costs for the little people thrown in." Dinner's over? Leave the dishes on the counter till the morning, Fowler says, and enjoy the rest of the evening with your sweetie!

  • Kim Cornelison

    6. Get All Flowery

    In the Victorian era (and you know how frugal they were), people would send each other small posies of flowers. Each bloom had its own significance, honeysuckle for "bonds of love" or gardenia for "joy," for example. For a twist on the posy idea, create a bowl of potpourri scented with romantic flowers, such as lavender for "devotion," red rose petals to express "true love," or lemon to say "discretion."

    Another flowery twist: Tie red ribbon around a batch of meaningful seed packets to create an original gift. Consider moonflowers (dreaming of love), peonies (bashfulness), red poppies (pleasure), or purple lilacs (first love).

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    7. Make It 3-D

    If you have a piece of red cellophane or a leftover pair of 3-D glasses, you're halfway to a cool 3-D valentine. Write your message in black ballpoint on plain paper or light or white cardstock. Then use a crayon or marker to cover it completely in red. Send it to your loved one with a piece of red cellophane or the 3-D glasses and instructions to hold it over the card. Presto, change-o, all is revealed!

  • Daniel Loiselle

    8. Make a Love Mix

    There's nothing so powerful as a love song. That's why making a mix of some is such a great Valentine's Day gift. It's as simple (and as inexpensive) as burning a CD of your favorites (or the recipient's favorites). For an added heartfelt touch, you or your children can make a Valentine CD cover with photographs or artwork.

    This project can also help kids get to know older members of the family better. Have your child call his or her grandmother, for example, and ask a few questions about whether she had a "song" with anyone she ever dated or married, or what songs she liked in high school or danced to at her wedding. Then help your child load some of those songs onto a CD, decorate with markers, and mail to Grandma—or share them together over YouTube or a free music-share program like Grooveshark.com.

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    9. Give Veterans Some Love

    Here's a way to multiply the joy at Valentine's Day: Share the love via Valentines for Veterans, the National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans Week, which runs February 13-20. You don't need to do anything fancy. Simply add a short handwritten message to homemade or store-bought cards. Valentines may be delivered to your local VA hospital, and the address can be found by checking the local phone directory or by visiting the Department of Veterans Affairs website (va.gov) and selecting "Locations." In addition to delivering valentines, why not take a few moments to personally say thank you to a veteran? For more information, visit the VA's National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans webpage (volunteer.va.gov/NationalSaluteVeteranPatients.asp).

  • Kristada

    10. Go Wild with Hearts

    Valentine's Day is a great excuse to go wild with those heart-shaped cookie-cutters. Make Jell-O jigglers, lollipops, or cookies. If you're more into savory over sweet, roll out a homemade pizza into a heart shape. Use red sauce, of course, and add meaningful herbs—like rosemary for remembrance or fennel for strength. Yum.