What I Learned About Gifts This Valentine’s Day

My husband asked for an act of love for Valentine’s day: he wanted me to get the stains out of the clothes I marred with a tube of colored chapstick that I neglected to remove from my jeans before a load of laundry, and if I didn’t want to do that, maybe I could learn to whistle.

I decided I’d fulfill his request and work on the stains. I walked into Target intending to buy one thing (as one does), and an hour I walked out with six things, $100 poorer (as one does).

How did this happen, and was it worth it?

I decided to interview my husband to talk through what kind of thought process led me astray, his reactions to my gifts, and what we thought we should learn from this experience. The (condensed) transcript from that conversation is below.

The Gifts

Mrs. FBF: What did I get you for Valentine’s Day?

Mr. FBF: You got some stain remover, Settlers of Catan, a couple of bundt cakes, a big heart made out of Reese’s, some face masks, and a bird for our bird forest.

Mrs. FBF: What was your favorite part?

Mr. FBF: I like having the Settlers of Catan. I think that’s going to be a good gift for us in the long run. I’m excited to not have stains in my clothes anymore, although we haven’t removed the stains yet [guilty]. And the bird for the bird forest was a nice addition.  

Mrs. FBF: If I had gotten you just the stain remover, and even went so far as to remove the stains – that compared to what I did give you, on a scale of 1 – 10 – how much better was the gift because I got you all the other stuff too?

Mr. FBF: It’s probably about the same with the extra stuff. I guess Settlers and the bird probably raise it by a point or two, but the sweets bring it down by a point [he’s really into fitness]. It was nice to have the candy but whenever I have junk food I want to destroy it with my body as quickly as possible so I can get back to not having junk food, so I usually gorge myself and become sick. Which is what I did.

The Shopping Trip

Mrs. FBF: Can I tell you what was going on in my head when I bought that stuff? I went to Target with my friend Lily because she also had to get stuff for Valentine’s Day and I still hadn’t gotten the stain remover. Immediately, Lily starts clothes shopping – which is not what we were there for, either of us. But there were some really cute things, and she just threw them into her cart and started shopping.

So at this point I’m already starting to feel like I’m getting some kind of a buzz. Do you ever feel like you get a shopping high, where you just feel good getting stuff? Can you relate to that at all?

Mr. FBF: Video games used to be sold at retail stores and they came with nice manuals that you could read on the car ride home, and that was a good shopping experience. But now that stuff is sold online, so I don’t really get excited about shopping. Sometimes I buy clothes but that really feels like more of a chore and I’m unhappy when I have to pay money for clothes.

Mrs. FBF: So Lily is on a mission to find a particular kind of stuffed animal so we start looking for it. Target is a big store, and we’re crossing most of it. Everywhere there are little Valentine’s displays – not even in the dedicated Valentine’s section. It’s as if they’re priming you for when you do get there.

Finally we get to the big, dedicated Valentine’s Day section. The aisles are jam packed with cute things and I start thinking “Wow, so much of this is cute, and I just really want to bestow this cuteness onto my husband that I love” because – because it’s cute? I don’t know, somehow the ideas of love and cuteness seem to go together in my head. It made sense at the time but I can’t articulate it now. It probably never actually made sense.

The options feel limitless and I decide that because of that there must be something in here that would be great for you. I don’t have to get everything but I should definitely get something, because there are so many good options.

I know that you like Reese’s, so I narrow my search to Reese’s products. And I find this big beautiful cardboard box that has birds on it, and we like birds, but it only has like two mini Reese’s in it. And then I find this metal tin of Reese’s that definitely has more than the last container, but the price still doesn’t seem worth it for the amount you get. And then I find like two pounds of Reese’s in the shape of hearts, but I know you wouldn’t want that much candy. At this point I really should have reminded myself that you wouldn’t actually want any candy. But then I find just one big Reese’s heart, and that feels like a good compromise.

So then we continue walking around the store and I see Settlers of Catan, which is something we’ve thought about buying before, and I think “This is the perfect opportunity to finally get it. I’m going to get it.” So I get that.

And then there was a little bird that I found in a random aisle that’s Valentine’s themed and I think “We have a bird forest where this could go. We need another bird!”

And just like that I continue walking around the store, impulsively picking things up and quickly justifying why I should get them without really analyzing the impact they’ll have on our finances, or judging whether or not they’re the best use of our money, and ultimately, our options to do what we want with that money.

The whole time in my head I know that you would rather have nothing over something, but I think “This will be a sweet surprise. Maybe he doesn’t know how much he’ll appreciate it.”

Of course you were so sweet and graciously received all of it, but then you started to eat all of the candy and the bundt cakes I got you, and you were like “Wow, I never want to eat junk food again.” And I was like “I understand. I foresaw this happening.” And yet I spent like $16 on junk food for this moment that was very fleetingly positive before it turned into something negative.

What do you think of that?

Mr. FBF: A couple things. It made for a really nice display. Putting out a lot of things made it a bigger presentation, so I guess in that sense you succeeded in capturing the presentation that you envisioned at Target.

I kind of want to know what happened to Lily. What happened after she stopped shopping? That’s kind of a loose end in your narrative.

Mrs. FBF: Lily also filled up her cart with lots of things. I don’t know how her boyfriend received them.

The Lessons

Mr. FBF: Another way that you can think about calories – although this requires a very disciplined and frugal mind, almost machine like – is that a calorie is a calorie, so you can eat these calories, and then abstain from buying other foods. And it’s actually true that junk food is very cheap per calorie. So if I had eaten those Reese’s and those bundt cakes, and not eaten any food for the next 24 hours, then really, it wouldn’t have been wasteful at all.

It would have been quite the ordeal. I would have been hungry and uncomfortable and my teeth would have been a little worse off for it, but it’s not entirely you who was wasteful, but also me for eating food on top of this junk food. I just wanted to make that clear.

Mrs. FBF: Thank you for clearing that up. If you could have had your ideal Valentine’s gift, after knowing the options, since before Valentine’s day you just wanted me to clean your stains but I was like “Oh maybe he just doesn’t know how much he would like this other stuff,” – now that you’ve seen both options, would you have preferred to stick with your original request, or are you glad that I got some of the other things?

Mr. FBF: What I asked for would have been fine. I enjoy every day that we have together so holidays don’t need to be a big deal.

Do you feel like your shopping experience would have been different if Lily hadn’t been present? How did she influence you?

Mrs. FBF: I feel like I got a contact high from watching her shopping. It rubbed off on me somehow. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten that first hit of shopping then it wouldn’t have started this whole chain reaction. That’s not to say that Lily did anything wrong at all – I need to be stronger, or at least more self aware when I’m making financial decisions, regardless of my surroundings.

Mr. FBF: So one could conclude that one should shop alone to not get distracted when they’re shopping so they just get what they need. On the other hand, is there something to be said for shopping vicariously through your friends? Or there are a lot of YouTube videos about shopping where they take you to the store with them or do unboxing at home. Do you recommend people get shopping satisfaction by doing those things instead of actually making purchases themselves?

Mrs. FBF: Google (which owns YouTube), publishes a lot of data about how much videos like that can impact purchasing decisions. [Take a look here and here. It’s fascinating!] I think they’re implying that there’s a correlation between watching people shop and what they spend and buy. So I would say probably not, unless you’re an unusually strong human being and the norm doesn’t apply to you. I know for me, seeing other people shop makes me want to shop.

Mr. FBF: How do we become “strong human beings”?

Mrs. FBF: As with most things, I think that having goals can be a very big anchor for you in guiding how you act. Reminding yourself of those goals and how your actions can help you get closer or further to them can help. So I think that focusing more on how I want to be spending my money and what my money goals are can help me (and others) not spend money on things that don’t help them accomplish their goals.

How would you have rather we spent that money that I spent on your Valentine’s presents? What are your big money goals in life?

Mr. FBF: I want to live forever.

Mrs. FBF: And how will money help you accomplish that?

Mr. FBF: The cost of healthcare is rising, even adjusted for inflation, and I think that if I have a lot of money, it increases the chances that I will get to live forever.

Mrs. FBF: And by getting you junk food I just decreased the money that you have to have healthcare later on, and I made you more unhealthy. So that was a really shitty gift.

Mr. FBF: Well, the thought counts when it comes to gift giving. When I received that candy I knew that to you, that is a good thing. So it’s not stuff that I would have bought for myself, but I still appreciated the sentiment. I don’t think you should second guess every gift that you get for somebody.

What are some mindfulness techniques that people can keep in mind when shopping so that they’re not distracted by the siren song of Target or anything like that? I’ve heard that paying for cash is a good way to be more aware of what things cost. Do you think that it’s necessary to pay for things with cash?

Mrs. FBF: I’ve heard that there have been studies that have been done that have shown that paying with cash hurts more – like it activates the pain centers of your brain more than plastic. And I’ve also heard that cash registers that allow you to pay with Apple Pay and have messaging about that tend to increase the amount of revenue that companies intake. So I do think that paying with cash is a technique that is pretty tried and true.

There’s also having a list and sticking to it. I wish that I had gone in and just gotten the stain remover like I originally planned. I think that everyone would have been happier. I wouldn’t feel bad right now and you would have given me just as much credit for my gift. So having a list and sticking to it and agreeing with yourself on that before you go shopping is a good move.

Mr. FBF: Is it important that people have things that they know they enjoy spending money on in addition to their long term goals like retirement and living forever so that they can weight small purchases against others? That way you could say to yourself “I could buy a couple of movie tickets and go on a date instead of…” – and you could also have something that you enjoy doing in the $100 price range, so that at different price points you could double check that whatever you’re purchasing is something that you would really like to buy or have over another thing that you value.

Mrs. FBF: I think that’s a really good strategy – to know what things cost and to take self-inventory to understand what kinds of things really make you happy so you can make the decision between having more of that thing or having this other thing you’re thinking about spending money on. I think you should always be thinking about if what you’re buying is really going to add to your life or not.

It’s also a good idea to think about how much of your time is needed to pay for that thing. So if you make $20 an hour, you can think to yourself “Would I rather have this or work for another hour of my life.” A lot of the time you would probably not have to work for that extra hour.

Your Turn

Did you trade gifts with your Valentine? What did you get each other? Do you wish you had done any of your celebrating differently?

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