By Mark Cox
“Money can’t buy me love,” sang the Beatles.
It’s a lovely sentiment, but on Feb. 14, many of us will test that theory to the limit.
Valentine’s Day – the official day of romance – has become big business across the U.S. in recent years, and it’s still growing. Fueled by creative marketing and raised expectations, Americans splashed out an eye-watering $19.6 billion for the holiday in 2018, according to the National Retail Federation.
Older readers, who remember a not-too-distant past when just buying a card and chocolates did the trick, might be surprised to learn the average Valentine’s Day expenditure last year was $143.56. Across the country, the NRF found that lovestruck romantics blew $3.7 billion on dining out, $2 billion on flowers and $1.5 billion on gift certificates. We spent $751 million on our pets.
In one sense, this is good news. Valentine’s Day gives the U.S. economy a helpful lift – particularly in the retail and food sectors – following a quiet post-holiday period. (At jewelry stores, for example, the brightest sparkles to be seen this time of year are in the owners’ eyes as they sell $4.7 billion worth of goods, according to the NRF.)
And with so many industries jostling to get in on the action, it creates a kind of retail frenzy.
“Certainly, for the types of businesses most directly affected by Valentine’s Day – restaurants, gift stores, florists, Hallmark greeting cards – the economic boost can be pretty significant,” says Christina Peters Huber, economics professorat Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Businesses have also craftily expanded their market by stretching the concept of romance itself, so people buy “fun” Valentine’s cards and gifts for family members, friends, teachers and even co-workers. Plus, Valentine’s Day simply inflates prices. Flowers, for example, actually cost more. The cost of weekend breaks surges. And those special Valentine menus in restaurants always cost a few extra bucks. (Because really, who wants to be seen arguing over the check on such a night?)
But how much of this frantic spending activity is born of genuine affection – and to what extent are we merely conforming to social pressure? Here’s an interesting fact: Retailers see a significant shopping spike around lunchtime on Valentine’s Day itself, suggesting thousands of harried workers are still rushing around for last-minute gifts. Hardly sounds like the actions of thoughtful and besotted lovers, does it?
As for who exactly is splashing the cash, millennials are easily the biggest Valentine's Day spenders, according to the NRF, with an average outlay of $202.76.
And that’s no accident, says Randi Smith, psychology professor at MSU Denver.
“There’s definitely a competitive edge to this occasion for millennials because, much more than previous generations, they have always had to compete with – and through – social media. And that creates real performance pressure,” she says.
The result is large-scale and flashy purchases, fueled by the thrill of being able to share everything on Facebook, YouTube or Instagram, Smith says.
“There’s a certain extravagance and showiness to millennial spending,” she says. “Events and gestures that might once have been considered over-the-top are now accepted as normal.”
And the fact is, it’s hard for some people not to get caught up in this Valentine’s arms race.
When everyone else around you is spending, it can take nerves of steel not to join in – especially since there often is a price for failure. (Research suggests many disappointed partners will be scowling across the sofa at their loved one this year after seeing their friend on Facebook got a way better gift.)
All this social pressure probably helps explain why national Valentine’s Day spending has trended steadily upward for the past 10 years, largely immune to peaks and troughs in the broader U.S. economy, says Peters Huber.
“No one wants to appear cheap on Valentine’s Day!” says Peters Huber. “Perhaps this day, like birthdays and Christmas, has simply become one of those holidays that people will choose to celebrate regardless of cost.”
That might be true, but it still doesn’t mean we always have to break the bank. Perhaps a better idea would be to scale things down and remember what Valentine’s Day is supposed to be about. Instead of buying something dazzling and sharable, for example, maybe find a nice little something that shows you’ve really been paying attention.
“Most people would much rather receive a small but distinctly personal gift – with a loving and thoughtful card, of course – than a pricey object that shows little insight into either the recipient or the relationship,” Smith says.
Nothing warms the heart more than a truly thoughtful Valentine’s gift – maybe something they saw months ago and had forgotten they even wanted. But you remembered.
Because ultimately, it really is the thought that counts. Or, as the Beatles sang it: "Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can't buy."
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