Forget the roses and candy; try ingenuity

It's that time of year again - when millions are searching for the perfect Valentine gift

Valentine's Day is almost here, and once again, some Americans wish they could escape to a Cupid-free zone. Thirty-eight percent of men have considered breaking up with a woman rather than deal with the "get her something really good" holiday, according to It's Just Lunch, a dating service. For them and many others, finding the perfect gift is like walking a red tightrope with no safety net.

Advice from experts - be creative, do something unique - isn't always helpful for those who are gift-buying challenged. And the problem is compounded by how much it costs to say "Be mine." American will spend $13 billion this year on Valentine's merchandise, an average of $100 per person.

So what's a cowering Cupid to do?

"It's a good idea to take the pressure off and make a light joke about [the day]," says Liz Kelly, author of "Smart Man Hunting." "We forget to take the time to have fun and break the routine, and really that's what it's all about. It's thinking outside the box."

Ms. Kelly advises would-be Romeos to think about what their sweethearts would really like and then get it for them. One man gave his girlfriend a gift certificate for a massage after she was laid off from work. Another guy invited his art-loving sweetie to lunch and then took her to a museum.

Even a jar of sand can be romantic, if it's from a beach that has meaning to the couple. "If you want a woman to swoon," Kelly says, "you're going to have a better shot if you do something unexpected."

Cynthia McKay, a gift consultant and president of Le Gourmet Gift Basket Inc., agrees that creativity can be a plus. She suggests giving a gift set - dinner, theater tickets, and limo service - or choosing a theme such as sharing a chocolate fondue and giving chocolate roses.

But she also warns that there's a fine line between sweet success and bitter failure. One of her clients, for instance, wants to show his "undying" love for his wife - by giving her a casket. "I'm still trying to reason with him," she says.

What she does recommend is taking the time to choose the right card. Many pick something impersonal that shows no emotion. But the perfect card screams, "I sat in that aisle and read every card in the store," she says.

That message is important, says Steve Nakamoto, author of "Men Are Like Fish." After all, most guys are very concerned about "earning points."

Mr. Nakamoto suggests that men spend three hours choosing a present. His top choice: a gift bag filled with a variety of items - perhaps a CD and something from Starbucks - and one red rose. "You have to engage the senses," he says.

A handwritten note in the card and flowers sent to her office also earn "massive credit," because they prove a man was thinking of her, which surveys show is what women really want.

According to a poll by, 41 percent of women most desire time with their special someone on Valentine's Day. Only 13 percent hope for flowers, and 3 percent prefer chocolates.

Yet at least 28 percent of men continue to buy flowers, the survey reveals, partly because it's a safe option. They know, as experts often point out, that every gift conveys a message. And that may add to the trepidation.

But fear is never an excuse for buying a thoughtless or last-minute gift, says consultant McKay. She groans about the bag of beef jerky that one of her friends gave his sweetheart. Three years later, he's still getting an earful about that goof.

"Remember, you are making a statement," says McKay, "and when you give someone beef jerky, the statement is not a positive one."

Walking the Valentine's tightrope isn't easy, she acknowledges. But tackiness is one thing that will send a man crashing.

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