Happy Approximately Valentine’s Day

Sexier than Retail

Mrs. M and I recently learned that this is the week that the department stores like us to celebrate “Valentine’s Day”.

I approve of this special day, because hey, love and romance are good things. So are little paper hearts that you and your kids create and draw pictures on. But as usual, there are some sneaky aspects to the special day that tend to confuse standard consumers, mixing positive emotions with unnecessary activities.

My wife and son spent a good amount of time over the weekend cutting up pieces of colorful scrap paper to become Valentine’s day cards for his twenty four kindergarten classmates. They even added silly designs and created some simple origami dragon heads that pop out and attack you when you open the card. It was a great way to pass an hour or two of a Sunday while I lingered nearby cleaning up the kitchen and making some supper.

On the actual V-day, he delivered the fancy cards to his classmates, and was pleased to receive almost 24 cards from the other kids in return. We all had great fun reaching in over and over again to the paper bag he brought home from school, reading each card and checking out the design.

But there was something odd about the cards. Almost all of them were manufactured and store-bought rather than made at home, and about half of them came equipped with plastic trinkets and/or chunks of candy. Things had changed quite a bit since I was a kid. My son was still delighted, of course, and he meticulously pulled off the candy pieces and stored them in a separate pile for safekeeping. Surely an early sign of a tendency for ‘stashing.

I’m certainly not criticizing or demeaning my fellow Kindergarten parents. These are hardworking and honest folks who love their kids, and they are participating in one of our fun cultural traditions in the only way they currently know how to do it. Most people in this world are not Mr. Money Mustache readers, so we must forgive them.

But from my own vantage point, I still marveled at sheer amount of waste that went into even this small paper bag of trinkets. I couldn’t help multiplying it across the nation’s tens of millions of young children, and imagining the industrial printing presses in China, the liquid plastic pouring into molds, the delicate hands of the foreign factory workers rapidly sorting cards and action figures into bins and packages, the trans-Pacific cargo ships churning their thirty-foot propellers through the saltwater, cranes in Los Angeles, 30,000 horsepower BNSF freight trains straining to cross the Rocky Mountains, forklifts transferring pallets of cardboard boxes from railcar to transport truck, more forklifts shuffling the boxes through the loading bays of Target and Wal-Mart, teenagers stocking the shelves, and eventually the garbage trucks hauling the goods a few weeks later to a 390-acre landfill, with diesel compactor machines rolling over the mountains of trash and hundreds of seagulls scavenging at the periphery. Then silence as the plastic trinkets are buried under more trash, and begin a 100,000-year decomposition process.

I also marveled at the energy that went into just getting to and from the stores to purchase these things. “Oh shit!”, my fellow parents surely said sometime in the past week. “It’s Valentine’s day next week! I’m too busy to make anything at home – we’ve got two careers and two kids. Let’s get something quickly at Target”. So a 4200 pound minivan or SUV with a 240 horsepower 3.5 liter engine was fired up and piloted through a four-mile roundtrip of stop signs and busy intersections, parked in a giant parking lot, then returned to the driveway with its 400 pound aluminum engine still searing hot from the waste heat of petroleum propulsion. The energy expended in the 10 minutes of driving was about the amount an adult human needs to live for 96 hours. The haul from this expedition: about one ounce of plastic and paper.

That all sounds somewhat bleak, but also quite fascinating. And although you’ll think this is strange, my mind flashes through this sequence pretty much every time I think of buying a manufactured product, or see someone else buying one. It’s a bit painful, which is why you occasionally hear me talking about punching really blatantly wasteful people in the face. But it is a good pain, because it is the byproduct of understanding how the world actually works. With knowledge comes power, and also a refreshing freedom from the burden of wanting so many manufactured things.

So what does this all have to do with Valentine’s Day? It’s the same thing it has to do with every other major consumer holiday. It’s the idea of using your newfound Mustachian Training to identify the underlying joy and feeling within each of our cultural occasions, and unpack it from the unnecessary glossy consumer packaging. Experienced readers will notice that I write a rant like this for pretty much every special day of the year, shooting it down and yet simultaneously lifting it up so we can all start having some real fun around here.

Every Valentine’s Day, Mr. and Mrs. Money Mustache have traditionally gone out to some sort of nice romantic dinner, or stayed home to cook one. If we’re going out, we won’t do it on the actual February 14th, of course, since that’s when everyone else does it and the restaurants are busy. A day or two before or after is a much better choice.

And if it’s romance you have in mind, you don’t necessarily need flowers that somebody else grew or an expensive chunk of jewelry that someone else made. What about making a new resolution to deliver more attention and respect to your mate instead? What about making a point of grooming yourself to top condition, wearing the clothes your partner happens to find you most attractive in, and delivering a kiss that is entirely too sexy for people who have been together as long as you have, at an entirely unexpected time or place? If you throw in a multi-course meal with dessert, you’ve beaten any diamond ring in terms of creating good memories.

Valentine’s day is one of my favorites. Just don’t let the confused spendy consumers around you dull its intensity by mixing it with rounds of retail shopping.

  • Dollar D @ The Dollar Disciple February 15, 2012, 10:41 am

    You definitely don’t have to spend a lot of money to appreciate your partner – as long as your partner isn’t the “high maintenance” type.

    I had completely forgotten about the school-kid angle of the holiday. So many of our holidays revolve around consumption and no one stops to think about what will become of all this stuff after the holidays are over.

    This first dawned on me when I celebrated new years in downtown San Antonio. So many cheap plastic hats, so much glitter and so many noise makers. So much trash left on the street. And all of that will end up in a landfill. It’s not like you can reuse those novelty glasses which look like the numbers “2010”…

  • Jason February 15, 2012, 10:46 am

    A wonderful article – I’ve now sent it to all of my close friends/family.

    I try to get everything used when I -need- it, and I remember that “need” is American slang for “want”.

    Valentine’s Day here in Arizona consisted of schoolwork/house cleaning/running/playing in the rain with my girlfriend and Frisbee, followed by a warm vegetarian meal. Couldn’t have asked for more :)

  • October MacBain February 15, 2012, 10:56 am

    Instead of flowers or candy, I promised my S.O. a massage this weekend because I was busy out of the house all evening. I haven’t given her a massage in years. Far too long!

  • RubeRad February 15, 2012, 11:01 am

    Great article. It reminds me of why I hate McDonald’s, because every time (rare! I promise!) we go there, there are new Happy Meal toys, and it just infuriates me that there are millions of people in China who, for a living, make shit that clutters up my house and I just want to throw away. I wish all those Chinese could have more meaningful careers, and I wish McDonald’s didn’t make me pay… I know, I know, they don’t walk me into the restaurant at gunpoint, I’m just sayin…

    Anyways, my middle son is into Origami right now, so he had fun making 20 identical “hats”, each with a little candy bar stuffed inside. I don’t know if he had the time in the end to write a few words on each one. But that seems to be a nice alternative (even if the pack of origami paper may have been made in China, that’s better than a shitty plastic toy with a max play time of 5 min and millenia in the landfill…)

    • Stashette February 15, 2012, 12:27 pm

      I think I have a lifetime of penance to do for all the kid’s meal toys I received as a child. We saved all the toys in a bin in the basement for a few years before getting rid of them and filling it up again. As an older child, my entire family of 4 would eat Happy Meals at McD’s multiple days a week for the 101 Dalmations toys. We would never play with any of those toys again.

      Now I’ve swung the other way, and it is hard for me to give or receive any commercial gifts, especially for Valentine’s Day. All I can think of is the clutter in my parents’ basement (I’m pretty sure the toys are still there).

  • Melissa February 15, 2012, 11:03 am

    I laugh when I think about Valentine’s day. My husband said a man who needs that day to remember to do something for his wife has a serious problem. We both laugh thinking about all the women who receive the same identical, “special” jewelry. My husband will write me a romantic note and spend the afternoon doing whatever I want, and I give him an evening no man would forget.
    We have three kids and we always spend an afternoon before V-day making homemade cards made from leftover craft items. Then we make a dessert treat ( no toxic preservatives or chemcals). It’s a great way for us to spend time with each other, and we still have our stash left intact by the end of the festivities

  • Teresa February 15, 2012, 11:20 am

    We were lucky enough to have some unused Valentine cards given to us from our neighbor last summer. I stashed them in a drawer until last weekend and my daughter who is in kindergarten filled out all of her classmates’ names and attached a small package of conversation hearts to each Valentine. It is really surprising how elaborate people get with their kids’ Valentines. My daughter received the usual cards and candy, but she also got bracelets, a necklace that doubles as a bubble blower, pins, and other various toys and a box shaped like an owl with cookies in it. I have never considered Valentine’s Day a significant holiday so I find it curious people spend so much dough on random trinkets to give to mere acquaintances. Also, I think the more elaborate the cards/gifts are there is a sense of social awkwardness/inadequacy that runs a muck since it becomes the ultimate competition of who can spend the most money and give out the best swag. Eventually, someone feels left out, awkward, cheap, weird, etc. because the Valentine they have given or received now does not meet the social “norm.” Just gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling…

  • SPF February 15, 2012, 11:32 am

    I’m such a DIY’er that I would totally make Valentine’s cards for my daughter (when the time comes) to hand out to her classmates. Same with the “treats”. When I was a kid, and we had holiday parties in class, I would always volunteer to make the cupcakes! Looking forward to doing the same with my daughter.

  • Nancy February 15, 2012, 11:32 am

    I go through the same thought process whenever I buy something newly-manufactured as well. That’s why I furnished my apartment completely from used items from thrift stores and Freecycle. I wonder if newly engaged couples or new parents think of the manufacturing process when they register. There are so many usable items that go directly to the landfill after one family is through with them. It boggles my mind. I just recently got back from a beach vacation and was saddened to find a lot of plastic washed up onto the shore. I wonder if people will finally start to see the toll of their lifestyles…

  • Marcia @Frugal Healthy SImple February 15, 2012, 11:39 am

    I enjoyed my valentine’s day. My coworker was horrified. His boyfriend and he send very nice, old handmade cards to each other. We didn’t exchange cards, but then again – I think it’s more important maybe to send a card when you aren’t together (one of them is in CA, one is in TX).

    I made my hubby key lime bars over the weekend (he doesn’t like chocolate). That was it. A normal dinner at home.

    We bought valentine’s cards for my son’s class. I haven’t taken a look at all that he got. I probably should have helped him make them instead, but I’m pregnant and tired. And I didn’t make a special trip. We were out and about one day a few weeks ago and at the drugstore to get cold meds to help my cold, and we walked past the aisle…my son has always been REALLY into temporary tattoos, and wouldn’t you know it, they had cute, colorful valentines with temporary tattoos. Definitely fit him to a T.

    I’m sporting a rainbow colored tiger on my hand right now. :)

    But yeah, holidays are filled with SO much waste. It’s scary.

  • BE @ BusyExecutiveMoneyBlog February 15, 2012, 11:41 am

    Unfortunately, the day job required me to be away from my mrs out of the cointrycountry on business trip. We simply wrote email letters to each other that were good enough expression for us and it didn’t cost a thing! You don’t have to spend a lot if its from the heart.

  • jennypenny February 15, 2012, 11:54 am

    I see your point but I LIKE flowers and in my neck of the woods I haven’t seen any in months. I don’t think it’s awful to indulge *a little* on a holiday. My DH won’t run out and buy me $50 worth of roses and an expensive piece of jewelry just because he’s supposed to this week. We will however, buy $10 worth of fresh flowers, buy some shrimp to make our favorite meal, chill champagne and guinness, and send the kids to the basement for the evening with food and sleeping bags. We’ll also do this on our anniversary and our birthdays.

    I don’t think the problem is in the occasional mild indulgence, but in indulging mindlessly or all of the time.

  • FreeUrChains February 15, 2012, 12:20 pm

    Don’t forget about the 5 men dieing per mile of railroad Track placed in Canada (1886) and thru the Rocky Mountains. It took some 1,000 surveyors, 7,500 chinese labor men, and some 10,000 American Worker and Engineers to make those treacherous railroads along those Variable Glacier Peaks in Canada. Canadian Pacific was about to go bankrupt, before the track even hit the Rocky Mountains, but thanks to tourism of Lake Tahoe, etc, they saved the Railroad and probably this nation of consumers and the transporting of troops to World Wars to follow.

    IMAX Rocky Mountain Express. Educational movies, only theater shows worth paying for.

  • Michelle C February 15, 2012, 12:20 pm

    We paid $3 for a box of Valentines. They fold into little paper airplanes. My kids had several hours of fun with the 2 we folded up to try out. These cards will be the one Valentine that every kid will pull out of their bag at home, get their parents to help with (the folding is too complex for a 6-year-old to do alone), and play with. I think they are pretty sweet and well worth the $3!

  • Sean February 15, 2012, 12:36 pm

    Loved this. I just wish I could convince people like my mom that I really really really really really don’t want any more Stuff from them on any occasion, ever. Really. Store-bought greeting cards included. A nice phone call is so much better.

    I took my girlfriend to a lovely dinner yesterday, but resisted the urge to buy her stuff.

  • Jimbo February 15, 2012, 12:37 pm

    Man, I totally agree… My thought process is similar, and waste DOES sadden me a lot. This helps tremendously on the frugality part, but not a lot in the Love thy Neighbour part of life.

    For V Day, I gave my wife-to-be a nice card, and homemade attentions that will last months.

    We also tried (but failed) to have a nice dinner…

    All in all, it was good.

    However, MMM, I am saddened by the fact that I will have to call you out on the red wine there on the table. I thought you were cutting wine/alcohol out? Tss tsss… 2 drinks per week means only 100 per year… Spread out over the summer, this will be a tough number to reach.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 15, 2012, 2:05 pm

      104 drinks per year is more than enough for me! I can have two dinners like the one in the picture every single week!

      Remember, I’m old now – I used to drink more and I’m still allowing the younger readers to stick to the earlier rule of 6 per week (312/year!).

      As I get older, I get a little better at things due to practice. Some of the things I do now would seem extreme to a 20-year-old (including me at that age), but your skills just naturally advance over time – and that includes the skill of controlling my urge to drink wine.

  • Nami February 15, 2012, 1:08 pm

    I agree with you 100%. I got queasy when my son brought home tons of the similar Disney themed-boring if I might say-cards from his kindergarten.
    I’m determined to raise him to be a special, creative, one in a million- kind of guy so he and I made origami hearts and homemade cards over the weekend as well.

    I made dinner at home, bought $2.99 rose bouquet at Aldi’s and my hubby, as creative as he is, made a personalized slideshow for me with gimp and such.
    It was fun.

    Keep up the good work, MMM! Love your site.

  • Poor Student February 15, 2012, 1:11 pm

    If those thoughts went through my head that often I am not sure I would get anything else done. But at least sitting there thinking about waste is not wasteful of anything but time. I know that I have taken to not spending money on days like Valentine’s. There are many things you can do for someone that shows you care more than spending $20 on a rose and a card.

  • peachfuzzmustache February 15, 2012, 2:10 pm

    Now I know I married a great girl. Neither one of us had even thought about v-day, until this weekend when I was at a local grocery store that is shutting down(what a shame). I was checking to see what they were marking down, so naturally I stepped into the alcohol isle. I saw that Guiness was half off after my initial celebration, I grabbed a few 12 packs, took it home and threw some in the fridge. Well when my wife noticed it on Monday and asked why I bought it, I quickly answered happy valentines day. Well she was as happy as could be and I didn’t even have to buy her a new lexus. :)

    • lurker February 15, 2012, 4:12 pm

      a woman who appreciates guiness is a rare treasure. appreciate her and toast her, often! happy valentines day everyone.
      wonderful site.

  • Lindsey February 15, 2012, 2:43 pm

    Call me trivial but I like my husband to give me flowers on Valentine’s Day. I don’t need cards or chocolate or a meal out, but I love flowers indoors when all is frozen outdoors.

  • et February 15, 2012, 8:27 pm

    The amount of material waste we as a culture produce every hour is overwhelming & depressing. I try to stay out of stores to keep from running screaming down the isles. But we are all “guilty” of ewaste and keeping server farms in business – a huge but invisible burden.

  • Dancedancekj February 15, 2012, 8:31 pm

    Better yet, you can be single like me and skip the whole ordeal :P

    I made a dessert (Mexican orange flan) and met up with some friends for dinner to celebrate Single Awareness Day instead.

  • poorplayer February 15, 2012, 9:11 pm

    I wished DW Happy Valentine’s Day when she came down in the morning. She said, “What? Valentine’s Day? Today? Really.” I think that’s the epitome of low maintenance.

    I can’t wait to hear the President’s Day rant!

  • Heidi February 15, 2012, 9:16 pm

    We made origami cards, too!
    I’m curious, though, are we the only couple who just don’t care about this holiday? This is the first year we’ve even recognized it and it was because our kids found out about it–which was way fun!
    I guess I get pretty happy when my husband unexpectedly brings home some herbs or vegetables.

  • Steven February 16, 2012, 6:25 am

    Great article. Valentine’s day is over-commercialized, and homemade cards are the way to go. However, I have to point out that, even though they are still rather a waste of money, many of the manufactured valentine cards (at least the ones in my area) marketed to school kids are made right here in the United States. Yes, even the ones sold at Walmart. Check out Paper Magic Group.

  • Mr Mark February 16, 2012, 7:58 am

    We often wonder what those poor Chinese workers think of us with all the ‘plastic crap’ we import from them. I always have an image of them holding up something and mouthing WTF? at the worker across the assembly line.

    For our daughters class we bought a big bag of wild flowers seeds mix & made little individual packets of seeds with a handmade card. They loved it!

  • Co February 16, 2012, 9:00 am

    I made a heart shaped pizza from scratch. Not only was it delicious, had minimal packaging and much healthier than anything I could buy pre-made we had a good laugh when I took it out of the oven and DH first saw it. If you can’t laugh you aren’t going to make it through the tough times everyone runs into.

    • Becky O August 14, 2013, 8:29 am

      I LOVE the idea of making a heart-shaped pizza! What a cute way to celebrate while having a good home-cooked meal.

      I know what we’re doing this year on our first married Valentine’s Day. :)

  • Geek February 16, 2012, 9:17 am

    For Valentines, I promised my husband steak and homemade Mac n cheese. Hubby has simple tastes.

    He surprised me with logs neatly stacked in and by the fireplace, a red tablecloth, and a couple of red candles plus a super-clean apartment to cook those steaks in when I got home from work. He also got some nice wine. At $12 for a bottle it’s about 4 times the price of what we usually drink (3 buck chuck) :)

    It was way less mustachian than many solutions here, but way more than us last year. Progress!

  • Deb February 16, 2012, 9:27 am

    There is definitely a common theme of us women cooking for the guys! My fiance has a sweet tooth, so I made some caramel shortbread and flapjack squares and wrapped them up up nicely for V-Day. He had to make do with the same container from last year though because it is a) plastic so not being thrown out and b) very handy storage.

    Unfortunately he found the excess that wouldn’t fit into the pretty container hidden in a cupboard a couple of days before and thought I was stashing treats away from him!

  • Acorn February 16, 2012, 11:20 am

    Not a fan of Valentine’s Day at all and had forgotten about it until my husband came home and wished me a happy Valentine’s Day(I think he only knew about it because of coworkers). We always forget our anniversary and don’t exchange Christmas or Birthday gifts so Valentine’s Day is pretty low on the priority list. My rule for gifts from him is that it has to be free or less than $5. Something found in the dumpster would be the best!

  • Heidi February 17, 2012, 11:45 am

    A few days before we went to a hot springs in Jemez, NM (an hour away from our home) and had dinner at a nice restaurant. Pinterest had a large selections of vintage cards, so I printed one and gave to my wife. I think I will be printing out all my family cards from now on. That day was definitely a treat. We hadn’t had a day together away from the kids in a long time. I like holidays. I don’t go overboard, but since I don’t buy my kids many gifts, it is good they rake it in on Christmas and birthdays. Poor guys would never get toys if they didn’t. I see winter holidays especially as the way we have in our culture of breaking up the monotony of winter.

  • Lisa February 18, 2012, 11:58 pm

    Mr. M,
    I have just recently started reading your blog after our meeting in Reno. My honey had mentioned your commentaries many times, but it really hit home when I met you in person and was fascinated by your ‘badassity’. Stories of bicycle dependence and teaching your young son real values was inspirational to me a teacher of young children. This particular post hit me as well, since I was bombarded with crap from China that mothers of my students were so proud to send. We are such sheep in this society and every time I turn around, I feel like I am trying to undo some hopeless cycle or consumerism and poverty. Amazingly, they seem to go together quite well. I get so frustrated with diapers and plastic packaging that at the end of every school day get rewrapped in thick plastic school garbage bags and put in the dumpster with no chance of seeing the slightest start to a decomposition process. I am a consumer, like all, and have found that our school systems are oblivious to teaching our kids any real stewardship. Stewardship of their bodies, resources, relationships, or planet. I digress and thank the Lord for people who are waking up. We live in an unsustainable culture that doesn’t see the warning signs, but there are beacons for a better way. Thanks for that.

    We celebrated V-day on the 13th, by the way :)

    Next time you come this way, bring the family!

  • Delf February 21, 2012, 6:13 am

    I’m European and was very surprised by the “school valentine day” idea, at first I thought it was a joke… Are children really required to give love cards to their classmates? I find it a bit disturbing; to me a Valentine card is given to a lover, not a friend or vague relation… Can someone explain the meaning of this card exchange, and has it been a tradition for long?

    • IAmNotABartender February 8, 2015, 12:28 pm

      It’s been tradition for at least 20 years (since I’ve been a kid), but I can’t explain it.

    • Ann February 8, 2015, 9:07 pm

      They are more about friendship and fun than romance. My older daughter made “ipods” out of conversation heart candy boxes and Hershey’s kisses; my younger daughter traced her hand on paper, added a cheap ring, and wrote, “you’re a gem of a friend” on the cards. Not very Mustachian, but it was a creative way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and they really do enjoy their classmates.

  • Kay September 3, 2014, 3:54 pm

    Best Valentines Day I ever had was when my boyfriend and I were doing terribly financially (pre Mr.MM days). I brought home free dessert from work, we made dinner together and shared our favorite beer cuddling in our tiny bed in our tiny room watching a documentary on beer online for free. Since then our celebrations have been very low-key and I love it.

  • Greg January 12, 2016, 3:54 pm

    Bravo! On this post MMM! So many of these dates are loaded up with consumerist spending habits. The purpose of the day is wonderful, that wasteful spending and producing is not, as you state. Love your attitude – much more appropriate 😄

  • Nice joy April 23, 2017, 12:01 pm

    This is a great post. It applicable to any other celebrations too.

  • EarningAndLearning May 2, 2017, 1:24 pm

    I loved this & I look forward to more MMM rants against consuming-heavy public holidays, with great ideas in the comments about how to celebrate them Mustachian style!

    Love the idea of getting a bag of wild flower seeds & making little seed packets for everyone, I’m definitely going to steal that one! 😊


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