It’s almost Valentine’s Day and love is in the air — along with relationship pressure, unmet expectations and credit card debt.
But it doesn’t have to spell death and destruction to your bank account or your relationship.
That’s why Julie You, 25, and her husband Kevin You, 27, have collectively decided not to give Valentine’s Day gifts.
“After we got married we both decided that we like doing stuff more than getting stuff,” said Julie You, who lives in Utah.
“We know that we have a certain amount of money to spend, and we can either go and buy flowers and chocolates for Valentine’s Day, or we can do something that’s free that we would enjoy more.”
Julie You works in tech support, and her husband is a financial adviser. She said that she and her husband enjoy hiking and snowshoeing as an alternative to buying gifts.
While the Yous are not alone in their Valentine’s Day frugality, the holiday will be a significant financial burden for many Americans this year.
According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, adults celebrating Valentine’s Day will spend an average of $146.84 per person this year, totalling a record-breaking $19.7 billion nationwide.
The survey also found that men will spend an average of $196.39, nearly double what women will spend. And those between the ages of 25 and 34, an age group where people are often in less-developed relationships and are laden with student debt, will spend more than any other age group.
The problem is that all of this spending is unlikely to improve romantic and familial relationships, especially if it causes financial hardship.
According to the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts, “money issues” are one of the leading causes for relationship problems, accounting for 22 percent of divorces.
The Yous have found that their relationship has profited from utilizing a budget to make sure they have enough money to cover all of their expenses.
“Now especially that we have a baby coming, it’s surprising how many extra little costs there are,” said Julie You. "Early on in our marriage we didn’t have a budget, and we felt that our credit card bill would get racked up so much faster than expected.”
In fact, a lot of problems in relationships stem from failing to discuss financial expectations, says financial therapist Susan Zimmerman.
Financial therapy is a rare trade of people who, like Zimmerman, are licensed in both marriage and family therapy and financial planning.
“I saw that the emotional element in traditional financial planning is so often ignored," said Zimmerman, "and it’s really the most important part.”
At their Minnesota-based firm, Mindful Asset Planning, Zimmerman and her husband help couples to reach their financial goals — and work on their relationship.
“Valentine’s Day and other holidays bring up the question of ‘how do we celebrate this in such a way that everybody is satisfied, but we don’t break the bank?’” said Zimmerman. “We see often that there hasn’t been any communication with each other about it.”
Zimmerman uses the acronym CEO in order to help couples communicate about their finances. CEO stands for clarity, expectations and openness.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, Zimmerman recommends discussing expectations and how it will fit into your budget — not the week before, but even a year ahead of time.
“Any dollar spent on a gift is a dollar that isn’t going toward a bigger goal down the road, like a vacation, or buying a home. It always delays in a realistic timeframe being able to accomplish other goals.”
This is true, not just for buying gifts, but also for spending on engagements and weddings.
From Valentine's Day to weddings
According to a national survey conducted by TheKnot.com, the average cost of a wedding in 2014 was $31,213.
Intrigued by the lucrative wedding industry, two Emory economists decided to study the relationship between wedding spending and marriage duration.
Andrew M. Francis and Hugo M. Mialon observed in their 2015 study, “‘A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration,” that the wedding industry's growth is largely due to the rise of consumerism and the commodification of love and romance.
“We weren't sure what the statistical relationship would be,” said Francis. “On one hand, larger wedding spending might signal ‘true love.’ On the other hand, ‘true love’ might obviate larger wedding spending.”
Francis and Mialon found that there is either no relationship, or an inverse relationship between spending on weddings and the duration of the marriage. This means that the less you spend on a wedding, the longer the marriage is likely to last.
“I am not sure whether the result is correlational or causal,” said Francis. “It could be that couples who spend little avoid the kind of wedding-related debt that may place an extraordinary burden on new marriages and thus may raise the likelihood of divorce.”
Diamonds or poetry?
Valentine’s Day was beyond the scope of Francis and Mialon’s study, but it may represent a similar commodification of love and romance.
That being said, there’s nothing wrong with buying gifts for Valentine’s Day, as long as expectations are discussed and are being met.
“There are some individuals who view material gifts as a symbol for showing or affirming that they are loved, and others might have a more romantic notion like writing a poem or knitting a scarf,” said Zimmerman.
“If those kinds of understandings have never been given out and received, then the gifting can be completely the opposite of what feels good to the other person.”
However, if you do decide to give material gifts, Zimmerman cautions that financial realities should be considered.
“If the need is an expensive gift, you need to be able to talk about that from a realistic standpoint, accepting what your real financial situation is,” said Zimmerman. “Just because I love you two karats worth, doesn’t mean I can afford it.”
Zimmerman also notes that often more pressure comes from the gift giver than from the gift receiver. This is especially common in relationships where one partner makes significantly more money than the other.
“Sometimes people go into debt because they feel better about themselves if they can give more expensive gifts,” said Zimmerman.
“The best thing you can do is decide to have self compassion, which doesn’t mean you give in to the urge to splurge, but that you identify that you are valuable regardless of how many dollars you pour into giving a gift.”
Ultimately, communication with your partner is vitally important to navigating Valentine’s Day financially, whether it’s establishing a spending limit, sharing specific needs and desires, or discussing larger financial goals.
Julie You has found that frequent financial discussions have strengthened her relationship with her husband — more than gift giving possibly could.
“I think having a budget has helped a lot because there's less blame — there's no bad surprises and we are working towards a common goal,” said You. “We don't always stay within the budget perfectly, but it makes us more accountable.”
While You said that she and her husband don’t plan on giving Valentine’s Day gifts in the future, she thinks it may work well for some couples.
“A lot of it is personality,” said You. “I know that some people really like it and they find it romantic, so I don’t have anything against it.”