The Economics of Valentine's Day

How not to make the day about Hallmark and an empty wallet

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Valentine's Day-planning time is definitely upon us. There are the ever-present questions: why do we need a set day to express or confess our love? (And couldn't we have come to this restaurant last night, when the waitlist would have undoubtedly have been shorter, the surrounding company surely less close to the brink of tears?) Is Valentine's Day a representation of our romanticism, or a one-day proof of a lack thereof? And, of course, there are those who point out that the whole thing is mostly just to prop up Hallmark and the floral companies, anyway. Though Valentine's Day isn't going to go anywhere, despite these haters' observations, let's run with this theme for a second: what, economically, should be on your mind as we head towards Monday? Let's have a look.

Dan Ariely, a Duke professor, of course comments on V-Day's much-hyped role as a commercial holiday: "There's an underlying level of commercial exchange and if you were an economist, you would just look at that as the main reason that we have Valentine's Day," he says, reminding us, somewhat tangentially, of why some economists have trouble finding dates on this special day.

Ariely also asks, though, what kind of gifts encourage romance and what kinds of undermine it. "If you want to do the best you can to make the person you love not love you back, the best thing to do is to just give them cash," he says. Fair enough, although we didn't exactly need a professor to tell us that handing over cash at the date is a bad idea. On the next level, apparently, there are things like flowers and candy, that "obfuscate" their commercial nature somewhat. (And while we're on that topic: Brian Palmer at Slate has a tirelessly researched article on the pros and cons of Eco-certified bouquets with lower carbon footprints, compared to silk flowers, if you're fan of flora. Remember, nothing says I love you like reduced global CO2 emissions.)

You might want to avoid jewelery, however, and not just for its traditional connotations as a particularly material symbol of love: Business Insider tells us it's quite expensive right now as well. In fact, Business Insider's Gregory White goes so far as to say "inflation is going to hit lovers way faster than singles," largely because "because jewelers are better at passing on commodity inflation to consumers than clothing stores."

The best gifts, assuming you want to express feelings and not monetary evaluation, are ones that have no "financial exchange," Ariely says--those that are thoughtful and creative, like something you've made yourself. Or you could pen a letter, as legend has it the original Valentine--Bishop Valentine, that is--sent to his beloved the night before his execution for conducting illegal marriages. Try and match up to that!

Or maybe with all of that in mind you're thinking that it's looking pretty good to be single. We wouldn't blame you.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.