U.S. consumers are expected to spend an average of $143.56 each on Valentine’s Day – an increase from last year’s $136.57 – as 55 percent of the population celebrates, according to the National Retail Federation.

Total spending is expected to reach $19.6 billion, up from $18.2 billion last year. And in the workplace, this includes a projected $654 million spent on coworkers.

The top spenders on Valentine’s Day? Millennials. People ages 25-34 will drop an average of $202.76 per person, plus that generation is informally credited with inventing “Gal-entines” Day, held Feb. 13, when groups of women celebrate their female friends. A quarter of Valentine’s Day celebrants under the age of 35 plan to purchase gifts for their pets.

That’s a whole lotta cash for love.

At Hallmark, that translates into a whole lotta cards: 900, to be exact, that make up the company’s Valentine portfolio. Valentine’s Day is the second-largest card-sending holiday in the U.S. (following Christmas), with some 145 million Valentines cards exchanged between loved ones, according to the Greeting Card Association.

A local go-to Cupid…

Michelle Kupiec, owner of Kupcakes & Co., starts thinking about Valentine’s Day months before Cupid arrives.

Between its two locations in Elkridge and Clarksville, the company’s 30 employees bake more than 10,000 cupcakes and 60 custom cakes every week. Every year, the single highest daily tally is on Valentine’s Day.

“By far it’s our biggest holiday of the year,” Kupiec said. “Eighty percent of our customers on that day are males, and they are panicked. They don’t know what to get and they want suggestions.”

Enter Kupid-iec. She keeps the bakery’s two locations – Elkridge and Clarksville – open late. Otherwise, she said, “people are pulling on the door and making puppy-dog faces.”

Signature cupcakes go for $33 a dozen, or $3 each. Boutique and gluten-free versions go for $42 a dozen, or $3.75 each.

For Valentine’s Day, Kupiec recommends the chocolate cupcake painted with 24-carat edible gold.

But there are also pink, red, glittery, sparkly cupcakes. Tiny adorable sets of baby cupcakes ($13.50 per prepackaged dozen). Cinnamon buns. Cookies, heart-shaped with custom writing. Or French macaroons. Or a whole cake, surely a good bet since the company has twice landed the top prize on the Cooking Channel’s show “Cake Hunters.”

The bottom line: “Getting your loved one something homemade that you know will taste delicious is a small indulgence that creates a big impact,” said Kupiec.

Better loving through chemistry

Will chocolate make your Valentine happy? There’s an excellent chance it will, said Dr. Kathy Lilly, assistant professor of chemistry at Howard Community College (HCC).

Chocolate contains theobromine and phenethylamine, which increase the level of serotonin and endorphins in the brain when ingested, according to Lilly.

“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, and increased serotonin leads to a feeling of happiness and increased pleasure,” she said. “Serotonin is sometimes called the love or happiness hormone.”

And, she added, according to a recent article published in “Frontiers in Immunology,” polyphenols in dark chocolate have a cardio-protective effect when ingested. “So, eating dark chocolate can not only make you feel good, it can also protect your heart,” said Lilly.

Opting out or cooking in?

Retail survey find that even those who “opt out” on Valentine’s Day – perhaps citing moral objections to rabid consumerism or the commercialization of love – still tend to indulge in some alternative activity. Which means they still spend money on Feb. 14, whatever they’re calling it.

Why not stay in and cook together? Specifically, cook Pollo Mole Maria, suggested Tim Banks, department chair for the Center for Hospitality and Culinary Studies at HCC. Depending on the recipe you choose, the traditional Mexican sauce can contain fruit, chili peppers, nuts, black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, and chocolate.

“The seasonings marry and create this beautiful sauce that just says ‘I love you,’ ” said Banks. “You feel like you can smell everything that’s going on in the kitchen at that time.”

For dessert, Banks said to dip up some chocolate fondue, and serve it with little pieces of cake or fruit. “It’s interactive and promotes sharing the meal process,” he said. “Plus, it’s light. You don’t want to crash and burn after dinner.”