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4 ways to make the most of Valentine's Day

by Peter Andrew

Last year, the American Express Spending and Saving Tracker survey conducted a poll to discover the number of people who expected to make or receive a marriage proposal on 2013's Valentine's Day. It was 6 million. A whole lot of people were likely to have been disappointed, because in the whole of 2011, the last year for which official data are available, the total number of marriages in the U.S. was only 2.1 million. Clearly, this whole love-and-marriage business is a tricky thing. So what can you do to improve your chances of getting what you want?

1. Get the right gift

The 2014 version of that American Express tracking study finds 74 percent of American adults planning to mark Valentine's Day this year, up from 69 percent in 2013. Spending's expected to top $37 billion, with an average expenditure per consumer of $213. The question is: How much of that is likely to be wasted? A different survey suggested a whole lot, when it revealed enormous gaps between the gifts and treats men plan to buy, and the ones women hope to receive. (The last few decades seem to have passed those researchers by, as no mention was made of women buying for men, or the fact that there's now a flourishing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.)

It's usually fine, early on in the dating process, to buy the wrong gifts. You're still in that appropriately-named honeymoon period, which is also known as the getting-to-know-each-other phase. However, this is very quickly going to turn into the you-should-know-me-by-now phase, which almost invariably lasts for the rest of your life. For all but a tiny few, death from old age arrives long before the you-know-me-better-than-I-do-myself phase.

A good relationship recognizes this, and the two parties drop and pick up hints in the weeks before anniversaries, birthdays, the holidays and Valentine's Day. If you haven't been paying attention during January, it might be a good idea to ask your beloved outright, though in a sensitive way: "Darling, I love you so much, the last thing I want to do is disappoint you on Feb. 14. What can I do to make you happy?" You may lose points for being unimaginative, but possibly fewer than if you buy sexy underwear that's two sizes too big ("Just how fat do you think I am?"), and/or wildly inappropriate.

2. Buy to a budget

It can be tempting to let romance get the better of you, and spend way more than you should. After all, (s)he's worth it. And a massive over-investment may pay off, at least in the short term.

However, last year, Sonya Britt, assistant professor of family studies at Kansas State University, published research that revealed that rows about finances were the No. 1 indicator of future divorce.

"In the study, we controlled for income, debt and net worth," Britt observed. "Results revealed it didn't matter how much you made or how much you were worth. Arguments about money are the top predictor for divorce because it happens at all levels."

This may mean that, if you want a life-long relationship, you'd do better to husband your financial resources than splurge on unaffordable gifts and treats. And that applies, even if you're buying that ultimate symbol of romance, an engagement ring. A February New York Times article said that, in 2012, the average engagement ring cost $4,000. That seems an awful lot, given that the average annual money income for Americans through 2008-12 was $28,051, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

3. Pick a card … but not any card

If you're still in the getting-to-know-each-other phase, you're at risk of some small thing putting off the object of your desire. A couple of years ago, IndexCreditCards.com published Worst credit cards for a first date. Here are some sample Valentine's Day no-nos:

  1. Don't pay for dinner with the nice woman you met at a church social using your Hooters MasterCard.
  2. If you are the nice woman from the church social, and you try to pay with your Hooters MasterCard, you might disconcert your date even more than in the first scenario.
  3. If you have a pre-paid or credit card branded with Star Trek, World of Warcraft or any other sci-fi property, don't use it unless you know as an absolute fact that your date speaks fluent Klingon. Paying with one of these in any other circumstances is unlikely to further your ambition of losing your virginity.

4. Reap your rewards

The rewards you most hope to reap on Valentine's Day evening may not be principally financial. But that's no reason to miss out on the cash back, points or miles you can earn from your rewards credit cards.

Some of those cash-back credit cards that offer 5 percent cash back on shopping categories that change each quarter are currently offering that deal for restaurant, movie theater and department store purchases. And, as Jennifer Gregory recently highlighted on CardRatings.com, many card issuers have special Valentine's Day promotions, and rewards credit cards can be your friend this Feb. 14 in many ways. Enjoy!

Published 02/10/14

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