In this time of austerity, how does one keep an active dating life? What you may not have in your bank account can easily be replaced by a little imagination and a healthy dose of initiative. Here are 50 cheap date ideas that are certain to turn up the flame without burning a hole in your wallet.
• Walk and talk. Many places have a public promenade, beach, or pathway that is well-frequented and close to other amenities. Plan a walk with a coffee stop, ice cream break or vendor purchase (i.e. pretzel or hot dog) along the way. There is no better way to get to know someone than to have a little side-by-side repartee.
• Start early. Find your local museum’s schedule for free days. Plan a date to go to the museum (try to get there early before the crowds arrive) and leave in time to hit “happy hour” at a nearby establishment offering drinks and appetizers at usually half the price.
• Start late. Both workaholics? Many restaurants now offer a reduced price after-hours menu after 8pm. Do your research and make your mark by delivering a lasting impression at just a taste of the regular price.
• Sign up for the various “deal of the day” internet offers (i.e. GroupOn, Living Social, Travel Zoo, etc.) Usually you can choose from a variety of experiences or dining opportunities at half the cost. And since you pay in advance, your date never has to know what a bargain you received.
• Go on a “free food” tour. Do you have a local chocolate company, cheese factory, winery, or confectionary in town? Many offer free tours with sampling along the way. Their goal is to entice you to purchase their product at the end. Your goal is to have a fun, sampling date that costs no more than a bottle of wine, box of candy or wedge of cheese. Make a purchase and ask them wrap it up with a bow and for extra brownie points present it to your date as a souvenir.
• Attend a free reading. Do you both enjoy a certain author or the craft of writing? Authors regularly come to town and make a free appearance at a local bookstore or library. Make a date to attend the reading together and then offer to buy your date the book at the end if it meets his/her fancy and then opt to stand in line for a bona fide autograph. A date for the price of a book – it doesn’t get much better than that.
• Take a hint from “Old McDonald.” Farmer’s markets are popping up all over and each offers an eclectic assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables, organically produced cheeses and meats, and heavenly spices and coffees. Stroll the market, visit with vendors, learn their stories and top the date by purchasing an organic bouquet of flowers or a delicacy your date showed particular interest in.
• Bow to your animal instincts. Dating an animal lover? Attend your local zoo, offer to volunteer at your favorite animal shelter, or if you have a dog of your own – invite your date to go dog walking or to join you at your favorite dog park. If it’s your date’s dog, bring extra doggie treats to share and if you don’t get a second date, at least you’ll get a bit of tail wagging from an appreciative canine.
• Try food truck mapping. Dating a foodie? Scope out the latest food truck craze and make an impression by mapping out your various choices, complete with an overview of the cuisine and then let your date choose. If it’s a hit you can plan a second and third date reprising your brilliant idea with the other vendors you didn’t choose.
• Go retro and plan a date at your local bowling alley. For the price of shoe rental and a game card that usually costs about the cost of a movie, you can bowl three games and compare scores. Some establishments even offer “bingo” nights that offer free prizes and giveaways.
Special Occasion Dates
• Birthday – Mark the special occasion by picking up a gourmet cupcake, candle, and a half-split of champagne. Plan a surprise rendezvous at your favorite park or overlook site, sing “Happy Birthday” and make a wish.
• Anniversary – Whether it’s the first or the 25th, there is no better way to celebrate an anniversary than to commemorate your time together through music. Make a mix tape or iTunes compilation of your favorite songs, turn up the volume on your sound system and let the dancing begin.
• Thanksgiving – This holiday is usually set aside for family and taking a date to meet family can be overwhelming if not misunderstood. If family obligations aren’t in the cards, consider hosting a “bring a date” Thanksgiving party for you and your friends. Your Thanksgiving feast can be potluck where everyone brings a dish and the only agenda is to share a meal, have fun, and share a moment of gratitude.
• Christmas – Christian or not, the holiday season puts on a spectacular display of bright lights and ornament. Bring a thermos of hot cocoa (don’t forget the marshmallows) and take your date for a drive down a festive neighborhood street for its display of over-the-top lights, or take a walk among the window displays and twinkling lights of your local town square.
• Valentine’s Day – Cupid’s arrow never seems to strike more fear in dating couples than on this one day. Rather than doing the tired old date with dinner out, flowers, chocolates and expensive baubles, step out from the crowd. Grab red construction paper and paper doilies and make your own card, buy his/her’s favorite childhood candy bar, and take your date on a retro trip to the local diner or drive-in. All you need is earnestness and authentic style to pull this V-day date off.
• 4th of July – Almost every community hosts a free fireworks display on Independence Day. Make it easy and stress-free by staking out a premiere viewing point early (marking the spot with balloons and a blanket in advance if your sweetie can’t join you until later). Invest in all the glow-in-the-dark paraphernalia such as glow sticks and halos, bring a picnic and wear your red white and blue to make waiting for the pyrotechnics worth it.
• Memorial Day/Labor Day – Three-day weekends are notorious for hosting free music, jazz and blues festivals. Spend the day band hopping and taste testing with the on-site concessionaires.
• St. Patrick’s Day – Who doesn’t love a parade? You’ll be hard-pressed not to find a St. Patrick’s Day Parade somewhere in your community, or if not you can slap on a bit o’ green and start your own. Bring along a couple of mugs (easily purchased at your local thrift store), purchase a six pack of beer (or cider if you are going non-alcoholic) and with a few drops of green food coloring, make it a March to remember.
• New Year’s Eve – Second only to Valentine’s Day for bringing with it huge expectations, this countdown to midnight at least guarantees the obligatory kiss. Most communities offer their own version of dropping the ball in Times Square, so plan to join the masses for your own local countdown. It’s free; it’s festive and brings with it its own built-in excitement. What to do with the hours leading up to midnight? Make up your own scavenger hunt that takes you indoors and out and requires you to converse with others out to celebrate the night. Have a thermos of hot toddies to help keep you warm.
• New Year’s Day – Everyone needs a “lazy” date and this is the day to do it. With your pick of bowl games on TV, make a pool of playful favors that can be redeemed along the way when your team or your date’s team makes the point spread, scores a touchdown, or wins the game.
• Tee for two? A round of golf for two can be downright prohibitive if you’re watching your pocketbook, but a date to the golfing range is an easy second choice. Even if you only have one set of clubs (he/she can practice with the irons while you swing the woods) what’s better than sharing? One bucket of balls and some close interaction as you help each other with alignment, hand position and swing is sure to offer some close contact. Top of your date with a lemonade at the course café and compare your best shots and your worst.
• Hit the sledding hill. When the snow begins to fall, let yourself be a kid again. You can purchase a disc “sled” at a sporting goods store for less than $20 and then scope out the local sledding hill. This is a date that is sure to offer a few bumps, thrills, and close cuddling along the way. Bring hot chocolate to help you warm up or opt to rub noses like the Eskimos.
• Ready, aim, fire. Following along the same winter adventure, plan a snowball fight for two. Remember soft tosses will be more fun than aggressive attacks. If you tire of the combat, lie back in the snow and make snow angels or play a game of “Fox and Geese”. Top your snow day off with a trip to your favorite coffee shop, and if they have a fireplace going, even better.
• Frisbee anyone? On a sunny day, what could be more carefree than heading to the park with your date and a Frisbee? There’s something about throwing a plastic disc that erases the need to show skill, competitiveness or expertise. If you need a break, scour the grass for four leaf clovers. Whether you’re lucky or not, keep the adolescent theme intact by stopping at your local food mart for a refreshing slushy.
• Row, row, row your boat. Think about those impressionist paintings with two enamored lovers floating down the Seine and plan a date by renting a kayak, canoe, rowboat or paddleboat. Bring reserves of day-old bread and spend time feeding all of your feathered friends.
• Bicycle built for two. If you both have bikes, plan a cycling date along a bike-safe route. If not, rent bikes for an hour or two, or even be adventurous and try a tandem bike to test your teamwork and cooperative spirit.
• Set your alarm for a sunrise date. Challenge you and your date to be early risers. Pack hot coffee, your favorite pastries and drive or hike to a location where you both can watch the sun rise. You can take a nap later, but there is an incredible bond created as you both watch (and listen to) the world wake up, basked in the glow of the rising sun.
• Win, place, or show. Plan a date at a race track where you can watch the ponies run. Admission is usually about the cost of a movie and the experience is truly unique. Watch the parade to the post, set a betting budget (i.e., $2 bets on one horse per race) and place your bets. If the odds are with you, use your earnings for a great meal out. If you end up empty handed, take a drive to your local McDs.
• Shall we dance? Even if you have two left feet, you can plan a date to learn the tradition of ballroom dancing from the pros. Check with your local community center for public dances which usually have an optional 30-minute lesson. Or many communities have ballrooms that offer drop-in classes for $8 to $10 per person. If you and your date are the youngest participants, ask your senior rug-cutting experts to tell their stories.
• Make a date with the birds. Pick up a regional bird watching book and/or check with your local Audubon Society for where to spot your feathered friends. Keep track of what birds you’ve seen and what species remain elusive. Or check with your local ranger for a guided walk on the wild side. If it’s a midnight walk to spot the nocturnal species (i.e. owl watching) bring a reliable flashlight and be prepared to hold hands.
Spur of the Moment Dates
• Be a cultural connoisseur. Local symphony, opera, or theater in town? Almost all offer free programming, often in the summer and often in a park. Pack a picnic for two, throw in a LED candelabrum for style, and let Beethoven, Puccini, or Shakespeare do the rest. Arrive early for best seating and don’t forget your blanket and umbrella (just in case)!
• See it again. Many communities have second-run movie houses that feature films that are past first release. Admission is usually half the cost of regular movie houses, leaving the rest of your budget for popcorn and soda. This is the perfect opportunity to plan a date to see a favorite movie on the big screen a second time, or see a movie you both missed.
• Watch the sunset. This is an old and true dating favorite, but there is nothing more romantic than watching the sunset together. Pick a spectacular overlook in the public domain or find an inexpensive outdoor takeout with picnic tables where you can take in the view as well as some quality calories.
• The starry-eyed date. Everyone loves to gaze at the stars or wonder if the moon is made of cheese. Find your local observatory and ask about their public viewing nights. For no more than a modest donation or in some cases free admission, you can take your date to view the constellations, the moon and if the gods are on your side, you might even spot a falling star.