It was our 15th anniversary and we were, ah, less than rich. We'd recently moved out of our starter home and into a slightly larger one to accommodate our three kids and 80-lb black lab. Add to that fact that our anniversary is in January, two weeks post-Christmas, and you get the picture of where we found ourselves financially.
But I wanted to do something significant—something that would surprise and delight my wife. I knew I could do one better than just planning a night out for the two of us.
I could arrange for babysitting, pick the location, and tell my wife to be dressed and ready on time. That would be nice and romantic—but it didn't seem to be enough. And that's when I hatched my plan.
Twelve months. Twelve dates. Twelve opportunities for me to show my wife how much I loved her and how much appreciated where we'd been and where we were going.
At our local Hallmark store, I purchased 12 cards for Brenda—one for each month of our anniversary year.
I scheduled each date for the 15th of the month. Although it took a bit of work, I managed to plan dates with her that took us back to places we'd been, apartments we'd lived in, old friends we hadn't seen in years.
Brenda loved it. In fact, she still maintains that for a hurried and harried mother of three (now four), my planning one date out once a month was the best anniversary present she's ever received.
If you find yourself in the same situation and you'd like to do something similar for your spouse, here are a few tips.
Do your homework
Start planning at least 3 months in advance. I started working on this idea in November, and our anniversary was in January. I knew that the holidays were fast approaching, and that people would be busily preparing for their family celebrations. To be truthful, I ran out of time. Don't make that same mistake.
My calendar was carefully planned to make the most of every box that had 15 on it.
I got creative, looking for events and places we'd both enjoy, and that would take us back to where it all started.
Make a list
Brainstorm a list of places you and your spouse can go that will stir memories and start conversations. Come up with at least 25 options (since a significant number of your ideas will inevitably not work out).
Keep the list handy so you can make notes on what details you need to nail down when the time comes.
Think through the details
As you plan for each month, visualize how that date will go. Is it a weekend? If you have kids, what will your family be doing on that day? Will the kids be in school until 4:00? Are chances good that your daughter will have a soccer game? If so, plan accordingly—for example, getting up and going to a nice breakfast together before the game could be a wonderful surprise for your spouse.
Remember that some of the places you used to go may have changed. Perhaps the lakeside park where you proposed is now a condo development. Best not to arrange a picnic there if it calls for sitting in someone's backyard. And if you plan to go to a few old restaurants, make sure you call ahead to ensure they're still in business.
If you have to purchase event tickets in advance, make a note of it on your work calendar. If you need to get to a store to do some shopping for food, make sure your spouse knows you need the time away.
Create a back-up plan
It pays to expect the unexpected and create a back-up plan. Example: Your dinner date calls for you to drive an hour to your destination but you just got a foot of snow. Make sure in advance that you can either change the date or have Grandma and Grandpa or a neighbor take the kids for a few hours while you make a romantic dinner for two at home. Have Plan A, but be ready to call up Plan B if needed.
Remember, this is for your spouse
An important aspect of successfully pulling off this anniversary present is your thoughtfulness. So make sure each date has some relevance to years past and include activities your spouse is interested in.
To put it another way, guys, it's a fairly safe bet that your wife doesn't want to spend time with the buddies you lived with when the two of you were dating. If she didn't like "Stretch," "Stinky," and "G-Money" back then, she probably won't be interested in spending time with them now. Think of your wife first—what memories does she treasure? Restaurants or other spots where you spent time together; weekends away that you could go back to, even as part of an afternoon drive.
And ladies, a word of warning. He may not be interested in sitting through a Susan Sarandon movie marathon just because you want to hearken back to your "Thelma and Louise" phase. To be sure, a guy will do a lot of things on an anniversary that he might never do otherwise, but this isn't one of them. Guaranteed.
Granted, some of the dates my wife and I went on got off to a slow start. Our first, for example, was an afternoon at our college campus, where we planned to stroll our old haunts and then watch a basketball game. As we drove to the game, I could sense she wasn't as keen on the idea as I was. But when we arrived at the fieldhouse and sat in the bleachers, we were instantly transported back to our dating days. While we watched the game our conversation never stopped as the memories flowed. We even saw a few old friends in the crowd—locals who still faithfully support the team.
Although my plan to go to a basketball game was "iffy," in the end it turned out to be a wonderful event for both of us and it created a great memory.
Don't leave out your friends!
Consider sprinkling in a few double dates with old friends who mean something to your relationship. Call and ask them to commit to a date. It may seem odd to ask them to think about what they're doing on October 15, especially if it's January 10, but if they can put something on the calendar, it will be worth it. And make sure they arrive ahead of time at whatever location you're targeting so your spouse will be surprised to see them.
Find reliable babysitters
If you have kids, make sure you line up reliable babysitting for each date. Consider a mix of family members and trusted babysitters. Make those calls well in advance and follow up with the sitter the day before.
Write it in the cards
Remember those 12 greeting cards? Fill out each one in advance. On the outside of the envelope write what time your spouse should open the card. Inside write a statement of your undying love and devotion, of course, followed by instructions as to what your mate should wear and when the babysitter will arrive.
Did all our dates work out exactly as planned? Not necessarily. As it happened, my wife was pregnant with our fourth child during that year, and the little bundle of joy came in September. Of course, you can guess what happened the first three months after that: We were essentially housebound.
But we still were able to get out and do things, even if we had to take our baby with us. Our dates just became shorter as we worked around the baby's schedule.
Follow through on your plans. The worst thing a spouse could do with this anniversary gift would be to make promises and not keep them.
You don't have to overextend yourself. Thoughtfulness rarely coincides with extravagance. If your plan for the date is a good one, you should be able to carry it off with minimal expense. Think simple, and do the leg work ahead of time.
Remember what you wrote on those cards. Do whatever you need to do to remind yourself of your responsibilities early and often. And carry through on your plan. If you do, there's no question that you'll be the hero. Hands down.
Finally and above all, enjoy this process. Make it fun, not a chore. Think about how your spouse will react when he or she opens each card. Making a plan to go out and have fun with your spouse once a month can motivate you to think creatively and act accordingly. And it's guaranteed to be the best anniversary present you'll ever give.
Mike Vander Klipp is senior director of product development for the Zondervan Bible group. He and his wife, Brenda, have been married 20 years.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.