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Love can hurt — your bank account

People between the ages of 25 and 34 — when many couples are dating or engaged — plan on spending the most this Valentine's Day, according to the National Retail Federation.
People between the ages of 25 and 34 — when many couples are dating or engaged — plan on spending the most this Valentine's Day, according to the National Retail Federation.Getty Images stock
/ Source: Business Week

The first date is just the start of what may turn out to be the largest spending spree of your life. With the average courtship before a marriage lasting about two and a half years, dating is an increasingly expensive venture. Flowers, presents, dinners, and movie tickets are just the start of the list of items single men need to factor into their budgets, dating and relationship experts said. And don't even get us started on the costs of maintaining a long-distance romance.

By the time you head down the aisle, you can easily have spent more than $40,000 on vacations, jewelry, wedding expenses, and meals out, according to our calculations.

In extreme cases, some people are so intimidated by the cost of dating that they avoid it, said Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington who also serves as an adviser to the dating Web site "I've had men say to me, 'I just don't want to get into a relationship because it's going to cost me a tennis bracelet,'" Schwartz said. "But I don't think most people think about it. They feel true love is worth what it cost to get there."

Money makes up for a lot

That's not to say money isn't high on most single people's priority lists. Nearly 70% of women and 50% of men said they were interested in marrying for money, according to a Prince & Associates survey of 1,134 men and women earning $30,000 to $60,000 a year. When asked just how much money it would have to be, in all cases it was over $1 million in net worth and, in some instances, as high as $2 million.

"As men and women think about the potential trade-offs of a relationship, money seems to carry a lot of weight in terms of balancing [other] things they'd rather overlook," said Hannah Grove, managing partner of Prince & Associates, a Stratford (Conn.) high-net-worth research firm.

The courtship period is the ideal time for couples to make sweeping statements about how much they care for each other through the purchase of lavish gifts and expensive dinners. In most instances, men tend to spend more money overall, especially when it comes to women's jewelry, said Pamela Danziger, author of Shopping: Why We Love It and How Retailers Can Create the Ultimate Shopping Experience and founder of Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pa.

Crazy for love
For example, the average amount spent by a jewelry buyer in 2007 was $3,267, with men spending nearly twice as much as women, Danziger said.

"I think that really how much people spend and their buying behavior is very much linked to personality and their basic attitude about buying and spending in other areas of their lives," Danziger said. "When the idea of romance comes in, then sanity goes out the window."

Dating brings in millions of dollars to the retail industry each year, much of it on Valentine's Day, said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation in Washington. People between the ages of 25 and 34 — when many couples are dating or engaged — plan on spending the most this year on that day, with those in that demographic planning to shell out, on average, $160.37, according to the NRF.

"Love is a big business in the retail industry," Grannis said. "Small gifts such as a sweater, apparel, or flowers or even large gifts, such as expensive jewelry or a trip to someone's favorite spa, or even sports tickets, really speak volumes when it comes to showing someone how much you appreciate them."

Buying your bride
Indeed, most people tend to view the amount of money they spend while dating as an indicator of a long-term future together, said Catherine Surra, a professor and chair of the department of human ecology at the University of Texas who studies the development of romantic unions, including marriage. This is especially true for men, she noted.

"The data show that their commitment depends more on tangible and financial investments," Surra said. "It could be that men pay more attention to that sort of thing than women, and it could be that men are investing more than women."

Those first few months of dating are prime splurging opportunities, said the University of Washington's Schwartz. To impress their dates, men will do such things as ordering a bottle of the restaurant's most expensive wine or tipping lavishly — even if they can't afford it. Women typically respond positively to these gestures, she said. Money essentially serves as a "subterranean language" between couples that is never spoken but is understood by both people, she said.

Still, there is a limit to how much people can spend. And when they finally decide to tie the knot, men may be even happier than women. "They can't afford to date for much longer," said Schwartz.