Strong opinions, weakly held

Romantic gift giving for pragmatic people

Valentine’s Day is coming up, so I thought I’d post a little guide to romantic gift giving. For the longest time, I had no idea how to give a romantic gift, mainly because I didn’t understand what the word “romantic” means. I’m a guy who interfaces more with computers than with people, and who enjoys reading about economics and sports statistics. One day I was driving home from work and realized that the word “romantic” is an antonym of the word “practical” and suddenly a lot of things I had been missing became clear to me. For example, if you’re like me, you never understood why so many people find jewelry to be a wonderful gift to receive. Allow me to explain.

The first rule of romantic gift giving is that practical gifts are never romantic. Your significant other may need new snow boots, but snow boots are not romantic, unless they’re very fashionable and don’t actually keep your feet dry. It doesn’t matter how much the recipient wants the gift in question, if it’s a practical gift, you won’t get any credit for being romantic.

The second rule of romantic gift giving is that for a gift to be appreciated, it has to exceed expectations. That means that big events call for bigger gifts. One time I went to lunch at Taco Bell, and bought a stuffed chihuahua for less than five dollars. I gave it to my wife when I got home, and it turned out to be one my wife’s favorite gifts. Why? Because she didn’t expect to get anything at all and because it showed that I was thinking about her while I was at lunch at Taco Bell. I had no idea it would be well-received at the time, I just bought it because she liked those old commercials with the dog. Anyway, had I bought her a stuffed chihuahua from Taco Bell for our fifth wedding anniversary, I don’t think it would have made it into the gift hall of fame.

The third rule of gift giving is that a gift is a token of generosity. In other words, the more you sacrifice to give a gift, the more the recipient will appreciate it. You may get chided for absurdity, but everyone wants someone to behave absurdly on their behalf, at least occasionally. The nice thing about this rule is that for most recipients, effort is a substitute for cash. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but you have to put a lot into the gift somehow. Spending a bit more than you can afford on a gift is romantic. Going out of your way to pick up that certain something is romantic. Handmade gifts are romantic.

Now it should be clear why jewelry is a romantic gift. Jewelry is completely impractical, as it’s simply an adornment. It is obviously expensive. The recipient can wear the jewelry and show other people that someone feels like they are worth sacrificing for. The trick with jewelry is managing expectations. If you buy too much jewelry, you’ll get yourself into a position where you can’t outdo yourself. Giving romantic gifts is all about outdoing yourself. As reliable as jewelry is as a romantic gift, it doesn’t work for me. My wife doesn’t wear jewelry.

That brings me to a final point. You have to account for taste. If you give an unexpected, generous, romantic gift that the recipient will hate, you won’t get yourself anywhere. That’s one area where I can’t help you out. Pay attention to what your significant other likes, and avoid giving gifts that strongly reflect personal taste. In other words, avoid purses and shoes, unless you have seen your significant other point at a specific item and say something to the effect of, “I love that but could never afford it.” We’ve all seen the movies where a romantic gentleman surprises a lady with a fancy dress to wear to dinner. That doesn’t work in real life.

A final warning: You know what they call people who are excessively romantic? Idiots. If you buy expensive gifts but you can’t pay your rent, only idiots will appreciate those gifts. Your goal for romantic gift giving should be to astound and surprise, not to keep the recipient up at night worrying about your poor judgement. Good luck!


  1. I enjoyed your post Rafe. Thanks!

  2. This was my attempt at such a gift last year.

  3. Excellent post.

    Geeky and analytical for the subject matter. 😉 But still excellent.

  4. What can I say, I’m the type of person who wants to quantify romance. I had this whole thing in my head about plotting romance as a vector, but I skipped that for the sake of the readers.

  5. Interesting — and I really agree with you on the whole “pay attention to their likes and dislikes” thing. For me, jewelry and flowers are generally unsuccessful gifts (with limited exceptions) precisely because they are generic and require no thought. McGifts.

    Something that shows that they pay attention to your preferences and loves is what really means that you matter to them.

  6. Great tips on gifts, and here’s similar info about flowers for Valentine’s from my blog:

    So I was advising a guy in his first relationship about sending flowers to his sweetie for Valentine’s. First off, let me say that it’s a very good impulse, and a very promising sign that he’ll be a good partner for someone when he’s older.

    While he was browsing through flower delivery sites on-line, I warned him against any of the drop-shipped arrangements. When the site says that they are delivered by parcel post or that they are shipped directly from the fields, she won’t just open the box and drop the flowers in a vase. The flowers and greenery are wrapped individually, so they arrive in great condition, but she’ll have to cut through the cable ties, tear through the plastic, pull off the outer petals, trim the stems, and arrange them in a vase herself. Romantic moments do not start with searching for the scissors and do not end with a pile of packing material. Or remind people of “Maria, Full of Grace.”

    So here is the content heirarchy: Best: A floral arrangement in a vase Good: Flowers in a long white box with a bow Better than nothing: DIY flowers

    As to the actual flowers, red roses are a fine tradition, but other flowers are fine, too. Here in Texas, yellow roses are a nice touch. Mixed roses don’t seem as nice, although I can’t justify it. If you pick another flower for a reason, put that in the note: “I thought of you immediately when I saw these, because I know how much you love purple.”

    Extras like chocolate and teddy bears are OK if she likes chocolate or teddy bears. If she looooves chocolate, the chocolates that come with an arrangement probably aren’t up to her standards. Buy a nice box separately.

    The heirarchy for delivery goes like this: Best: Delivering them yourself (to her workplace if possible, but don’t take her to lunch if she needs to get out early to get ready for dinner) Good: Having the florist deliver (to her workplace if possible) Better than nothing: Having UPS leave ’em on the front porch (not at her workplace, please–she has work to do there)

    Bonus points for delivery early in the day so that she isn’t wondering.

    For someone who can’t have flowers delivered during the day, getting them the night before is good, because then she can talk about them All Day Long on Valentine’s.

    If you are in the same city and a florist delivers, the card should have your handwriting on it.

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