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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 12/30/2009 3:49:25 PM ET 2009-12-30T20:49:25

Valentine’s Day sure can be an expensive little holiday. Officials with Huntington Bank in Ohio estimate that many would-be Romeos will spend anywhere from $180 to $420 on this single celebration.

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But wait: You say you’re still struggling to pay off your credit-card debt from December? Ouch!

Bearing in mind that money worries can be efficient and ruthless relationship killers, perhaps the worst Valentine’s Day gift you could give is anything that leaves you grappling with debt and debt-related stress. That said, you don’t have to appear cheap or forgo fun and romance altogether, either.

These tips can help you dream up an approach to this year’s celebration that is both meaningful and economical.

1. Get creative when it comes to dinner. You really don’t have to spend $85 to $250 on a romantic dinner at a restaurant. Why not have a nice candlelit dinner at home? You could even get all dressed up for it. If you know you’re going to be too tired to cook after work on Valentine’s Day, which falls on a Thursday this year, order a special meal ahead of time and pick it up on your way home.

2. Enjoy a little ambiance. If you both really want to go out on the town together, you could have coffee or a drink and dessert at an expensive café, restaurant or romantic bistro. This is a way to savor the atmosphere — and your date — without emptying your wallet.

3. Play hooky. OK, do NOT follow this tip if your job or your partner’s job is hanging in the balance. But if you’ve racked up some vacation time, or if your employer allows you to take personal days from time to time, why not see if you can take Friday, Feb. 12 or Monday, Feb. 15 off and turn Valentine's Day weekend into a three-day weekend for the two of you? Depending on where you live, the two of you could stroll through a park, walk on a beach, go snow-shoeing, take a rowboat or paddleboat out on a lake, or catch a matinee movie. You also could drive to a small town near your home or through neighborhoods you’ve never visited before and search for small, out-of-the-way places to eat or find public parks and open spaces for walks. You could do this at home, of course, or you could plan a short getaway that isn’t prohibitively expensive. For ideas on how to line up reasonably priced accommodations and find other travel deals, this past “10 Tips” column about saving money on summer travel contains tips that can be helpful at any time of year.

4. See some live music. Check to see whether a university or college in your area is offering any potentially enjoyable concerts on Feb. 14. Performances by the college music department would likely be free or cost a fraction of the price charged by professional orchestras and opera houses.

5. Seek out some silence. Here’s a potential date idea if you’ve both been stressed out lately: You could wander through libraries and bookstores with coffee shops that encourage browsing. Rediscover passages you love from your favorite books, and enjoy the quiet. (Cautionary note: Be careful not to go nuts buying $25 paperbacks! That could defeat the whole purpose of this tip!)

6. Have low-cost fun with food on Feb. 14. You can pull out the cookie cutters and make heart-shaped cookies and even cut your lunch sandwiches into hearts. You also can make heart-shaped cupcakes by placing a marble inside each muffin tin on the outside of the paper cupcake cup.

7. Give thoughtful gifts. Most people stick to the same general gift themes on Valentine’s Day: flowers, chocolates, cards, maybe a piece of jewelry. Can you think of something different that might mean a whole lot more — and maybe even cost a whole lot less? This past "10 Tips" column about how to avoid overspending during the holiday season includes a tip about making your own gifts. Such gifts could include cakes, cookies or gift certificates for your services. The gift certificate idea might be just the ticket for you if you’re short on cash but high on love this Valentine’s Day. You could offer to run errands for your loved one, make a nice dinner, clean the house, repair the car or give a massage.

8. Reflect on that flower purchase. If you’re sure your special someone will be devastated without the gift of flowers, then you probably should get some. But once again, you don’t have to follow the herd. Everyone opts for roses at this time of year, but there are plenty of other gorgeous and neglected (i.e., less expensive) flower varieties to choose from. And red isn’t your only option, either. You also could choose peach, pink or yellow. What’s more, if you place your flower order early, you stand to save as much as 15 percent on your purchase. And here’s another detail to consider: Does your partner love to garden and work in the yard? If so, a beautiful outdoor plant that will keep on living might be more appropriate than cut flowers that will quickly fade.

9. Write down how you feel. Using a package of inexpensive Valentines from the drug store or grocery store — or, for that matter, any kind of paper — you could write out dozens of reasons why you love your mate. Leave the messages all over the house, in both noticeable and hidden-away places. This is a gift that could keep on giving for weeks or months to come.

10. Plan ahead for next year. If Valentine’s Day is a holiday that matters to you and your significant other, make a mental note of how quickly it can sneak up on you after the big winter holidays in December. Think about realistic ways you can cut back on your spending so you’ll be able to use cash to cover all of the 2008-09 holidays without relying on credit cards and going into debt. Can you cut back on costly coffee drinks, snacks and sodas during your work day? Or maybe put off some discretionary purchases you’ve been thinking about making?

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