• Bridget Sullivan Mermel CFP(R) CPA

Valentine’s Gifts: Anxiety-inducing nightmare or celebration of love?

Updated: Feb 24

John Scherer CFP® and Bridget Sullivan Mermel CFP® CPA talk about what the research tells us about in how to pick gifts for your romantic partner.

When is giving a gift a risk you want to take? When is NOT giving a card a risk you don’t want to take?

If you aren’t in a couple, but someone has caught your eye --we talk about the fact that it’s okay to not take a risk. Then we talk about what type of risk you might want to take on Valentine’s Day.

Old married couples—get tips on the type of gift that helps improve your connection and express your feelings.

For many people, you’re going to spend the money anyway, why not make it work for you?


Valentine’s Gifts: Anxiety-inducing nightmare or celebration of love?

Bridget: Valentine's Day is rapidly approaching. You've got to buy gifts! You're spending money anyway -- let's make it more meaningful. Hi, I'm Bridget Sullivan Mermel, and I have a fee-only financial planning practice in Chicago Illinois.

John: And, I'm John Scherer. I have a fee-only financial planning practice in Middleton, Wisconsin. Bridget, I'm excited to talk to you today about giving gifts that are meaningful.

You know there's these things where, you know, if I know what's good for me, I buy a Valentine's gift for my wife, right? That's sort of... it could be a lot of pressure. It sounds kind of funny when you say it, but like, "Oh, what do I do when I don't have great ideas all the time?"

So it really can be a struggle for me, and just from some of our conversations here before recording, some of the research that you've done, there's some guidelines. And I'm excited to hear about this and share with our listeners, so where do you want to start? Tell me about like where these guidelines start, how we can think about this?

Bridget: Yeah, well, let's think about this in two ways, and this should help reduce your anxiety and help you get more meaningful gifts. So this is the way to think about it. The first thing is: what stage is your relationship in? And then the second stage is: do I want to take a risk, or do I want to take no risk? Okay? So those are going to be the two things that we think about.

And when we think about what stage your relationship is in, we can think, "I don't have a relationship. Maybe I'm flirting with this person. Or maybe I'm interested in this person and they don't even know. To, like, we're dating, we're a little more serious. To old married couple. So what you do is different in each stage, okay?

John: It's funny, as you describe it...

Bridget: And what's safe vs. risk is different.

John: It's so interesting. I think about, like, I'm on the old married couple side of things now. I'm like, "Oh, there's some stress." And you made me think back to, you know, "Hey, I'm not dating. I want to be dating. There's stress there, too! Those things, I can feel myself tense up as you're describing it, yeah.

Bridget: Yeah, I mean, I got married 13 years ago, and we've been seeing each other for 15 years, and so I actually remember it. It can be stressful and disappointing, and it can be hard! So anyway, I put together a little chart that shows best ideas for each category, and then I've got some notes on the bottom. And I just want to make sure to go over them.

John: Awesome.

Bridget: So let me share my notes here, and here we go. Okay! “Better Valentine's Day Gifts.”

First stage: we're not dating, or maybe we're at a first date. So if you don't want to take a risk, don't do anything. That's fine! You're not dating, don't worry about it! If you want to take a a risk, then get a card. Or make a card.

So, for instance, one example of this was: I was in sixth grade, and I had no idea, but this boy was interested in me, and he gave me a card. And I was thrilled! Risk well taken from his side. Thank you! And so that's a good example of "take a risk." John, any input on that?

John: No, just as as I'm looking, you know, at that first initial thing, I just love that. "Do nothing." That's what I used to do most of my life, as I recall, the dating era, right?

Bridget: That's okay!

John: And just interesting, like, "Oh, no, that's acceptable!" as opposed to feeling bad about it. That's the one thing I took from that is, "Yeah, that's okay." Of course, really useful to see that. Bridget: That's fine.

John: Yeah.

Bridget: You take risks at different times, you know. You don't have to take a risk at every juncture. It's fine to do nothing if you're not really dating. And once you start dating, it's probably a risk to do nothing. And so acknowledging, "Okay, we have the holiday," is a good idea. So at least get a card.

And then if you want to take a risk, then do more. And this is a little bit gendered, but like classic courtship would be if you want to take more risk when you just start dating, card and flowers both.

John: You know it's interesting, as you said, and it is -- of course, I'm thinking it from my role as a husband to a wife sort of thing -- but the gendered ideas. And I'll tell you one thing for me is, I know that I've gotten flowers from my wife. And I assume it was Valentine's Day, but maybe some random times, too.

But flipping those things around, I know from my personal perspective, anyway, that's a really cool thing. Getting the flowers at the office, those sorts of things. Something, and I know you're going to talk about it later, I see. You know, the thought that counts. Those unexpected things, that sort of thing can be really cool, at least in my experience.

Bridget: Yeah, I've always had good luck with that, too. Actually, it gives me a good idea, too. The next thing, again: we're a thing, we've got a relationship. So, card and flowers acknowledging is the low risk.

Then we get into the “signifier of us.” This says something special that signifies our relationship or says "I see you. I know what you want and know what you need." So it goes beyond just the basics, card and flowers, or maybe even jewelry or something like that. And it goes into, "No, this is more personal."

So this says, like, "This is about us." So it could be something that you've talked about. It could signify some mutual interest. It could be a camping stove, because you know you like camping together and you've talked about that.

So it doesn't have to be a high price point, but it acknowledges, "Okay, this is something special for us." If I gave some other person a camping stove, they would be like, "What's with the camping stove?" You know? But because of our joint interest in camping, then it would be a gift that went over well.

John: And that would seem to me to be something, Bridget, where a bottle of wine from the restaurant we went on our first date, or things like that, right?

Bridget: Exactly!

John: Some of those not nostalgic, necessarily, but historic and meaningful things. You don't care about the bottle of wine from XYZ, but my wife sure would care about it. Like, "Oh, yeah!" That that sort of thing.

Bridget: Yeah, right. Exactly. Absolutely. And this gets into the old married couple, and I'm happy to be in that group now. Old married couple gifts. Again a lot of married couples settle into a pattern, and then you just kind of do the same thing every year. And you're comfortable and happy with that. And that's fine! There's no problem with that.

If you want to take a little risk, then you can get again that "signifier of us" gift, like John said, the bottle of wine, like you first shared on your third date. Or go back to the restaurant where you proposed. Or if you want to give the person...

You know each other's budgets. You so you know what you spend. That's how familiar you are with the person. Go with the extra luxury, that extra luxury is appreciated in this category. So spending a little more for these people has a different meaning than spending a little bit more in other categories. So this is the time where a little extra luxury helps, especially if your spouse has ever told you you're cheap. So that's a good time to... A little extra luxury in this category, that's a good way to spend a little bit of money.

John: And as I hear you say that, Bridget, it seems to me... What I take from it is: something that maybe your spouse already does, or your sweetie already does, that they wouldn't quite spend this much money on for themselves, right?

Bridget: Exactly.

John: And whether it's at the spa, or if you're buying a golf outing or something. But oh, that nicer restaurant, that nicer golf club, those sorts of things that you know it's part of their routine, but hey, this is the little special something. Okay, cool.

Bridget: Yeah. And we've got some time, so let me talk a little bit about couples' gifts. There was a particular study that looked at couples. And they had couples classify gifts as using the terminology from the old game Battleship. So in Battleship, as you recall (or maybe you don't), you had a miss, and then you had a near miss or a near hit, and then you had a hit. Okay?

John: Yeah.

Bridget: And so basically what this signified is like, okay, you know some gifts are hits. And then some gifts are misses. But then there's some that your spouse remembers you giving them, but you don't remember you ever even gave that to them! Okay?

John: Interesting.

Bridget: And so it signifies something to the spouse, but you don't even remember. So those gifts tended to be practical items that you gave right in the nick of time. So it's the new printer, because the printer just crapped out. And it's the new wrench just when I needed that wrench. You realized I needed the wrench, and you got it for me without me asking for it. It's those practical items. Again, the spouse giving forgets, but the spouse getting it, it can be a hit for them.

John: I think that's a really powerful thing to share with people, because I would feel like getting something practical, as I'm looking at the extra luxury, or some of those things. You know, like, "Ah, a printer...you know?"

Bridget: For Valentine's Day?

John: But listen, as the receiver, though, you know, "Whoa, practical stuff!" And it's an interesting thought process that it's about the giving, right? And it's about making the other person feel good. That's something that I never would have guessed.

That's really interesting. I'm glad you went there. When you said Battleship, I thought, "Geez, using that with Valentine's Day... I'm on dangerous ground here.

Bridget: We played a real lot of Battleship.

John: So that was that was a good turn.

Bridget: Yeah, very good. Okay, so other issues: if you hate commercialism. So I don't want to get a card because I hate the commercialism of this holiday. Fine! Handmade is just as good as bought, maybe even better in some situations. So it really is the thought that counts.

And then for most people in most situations, except for that one luxury that I talked about, price point really isn't crucial. It really is the thought that counts, particularly on this holiday.

And then the bad gift. So if somebody gets you a gift and you're disappointed. Or you give a gift and you see the look on their face, you know? So the thing is that the topic of this, let's circle back, is about meaning. And having a conversation about it can really deepen your relationship and help you with the next gift-giving situation.

John: Isn't that interesting that a clunker of a gift, basically, whether you're giving or getting, and you go, "Oh, thanks?" You know, not what you wanted to have happen. But communication…

And that can really be more than what you intended or what you were looking for in the first place, right? But that communication, and using that as a lever to deepen your relationship, that's a really great way to take one of those misses on the Battleship board and turn it into a hit because of how you handle it. That's a super takeaway.

Bridget: Yeah! So with that, let's wrap it up, John. I'm Bridget Sullivan Mermel, and this is John Scherer. We're both members of ACP, which is the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners. There's planners that think like us all around the country, and you can check out acplanners.org. John, you talk about subscribing.

John: Oh, yes, subscribing! That's the most important thing you do in addition to checking out ACP. Click that "subscribe" button. That helps to raise our ratings.

And if you find this valuable, that will help other people find these episodes and help learn some of these things, as well. So click on that "subscribe," and we'll see you next time. Thanks, Bridget!

Bridget: Great. Thanks, John!

At Sullivan Mermel, Inc. we are fee-only financial planners located in Chicago, Illinois serving clients in Chicago and throughout the nation. We meet both in-person in our Chicago office and virtually through video conferencing and secure file transfer.

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