Starting Out


20 Cheap Dates That Call for More Thought, Less Money

Caitlin Dewey

Be it Valentine's Day or any other day, it's the thought that goes into a date that counts, not the expense.



No offense to the various men who have wined and dined me, but the best date of my young romantic life didn’t cost a dime. It was a few months ago, in the fall, when the D.C. weather still felt warm enough for outdoor activities. A friend of a friend invited me to bike to a lesser-known presidential monument. Once there, we walked around and talked. It felt personal. It seemed like some actual thought went into it. Best of all, I didn't have to worry if he'd pick up the check.

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"I'm the type of person who would be more impressed by planning than by the amount of money you can spend," the gentleman in question told me last week, when I asked him how he chose that particular date. "My thought was, I'm going to put a little thought into this, and in theory that will show."

Be it Valentine's Day or any given Saturday, a lot of young folks have impressing that special someone on the mind. But as your thrifty grandmother would likely tell you, a Hallmark holiday is hardly worth breaking the bank.

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For one thing, few twenty-somethings can afford it: 20- to 34-year-olds still suffer the nation's highest unemployment rates, and even gainfully employed college graduates earn less than $42,000 a year. Moreover, there's a lot of research to suggest that young people are less impressed by extravagance than they once were. A recent Match.com study found that most women actually prefer less-expensive dates.

Twenty-five-year-old Ryan Kelly, who works in ad sales in New York, perhaps sums up the sentiment best:

"I think for our generation, knowing where to go on a date has more cachet than spending a lot of money on one," he says. "It's less about spending money and more about having a culturally interesting experience."

Culturally Interesting Experiences

So how do you translate that sentiment into a budget-conscious outing? You've probably heard the typical roster of vaguely pretentious, culture-themed dates: free concerts at the local symphony, Shakespeare in the Park, museum discount days. But for an occasion such as Valentine's Day, Meredith Goldstein -- the lady behind the Boston Globe's "Love Letters" column -- suggests digging deeper into the "Events" listings of your local alt-weekly. Think book readings at your favorite bookstore or the classic movie screenings at your public library. You can still take your date out for a big V-Day dinner, she says. But you successfully dodge the "dinner-and-a-movie" bullet.

If your date is a theater type, try calling around to local shows to see if you can snag tickets to a dress rehearsal. Many comedy clubs host amateur nights that run a bit less than regular shows. And for you hipsters out there, see what local bands are playing the bars, coffee shops and basements of your neighborhood. Nothing says "I love you" like cheap beer and mild to moderate hearing loss.

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If your date is more of a foodie, fear not: There are plenty of options besides whatever frilly, five-course meal your local "fancy restaurant" is serving. A recent survey by reservation site Open Table found that more than half of respondents plan to spend $100 to $200 on Valentine's Day dinner. But if you can use Google, you can find a meal for less.

"A lot of restaurants have specials and set menus for holidays," says Goldstein, the “Love Letters” columnist. "Do your research. Go online. Find out which restaurant has $1 oyster night and take your date there."

Your local newspaper will probably be your best friend in this search, but a little flexibility helps, too. Consider cafes, food trucks and other nontraditional venues. In my neighborhood, a church is hosting a $12 charity dinner on Valentine’s Day. And by all means, show a little love for lunch -- prices are usually cheaper then, even at truly classy restaurants.

If a full-blown meal is still outside your budget, consider non-restaurant options. When we put the cheap-date question to our Facebook fans, for instance, they suggested a picnic or wine in the park. Some wineries, breweries and food factories offer free tours and tastings. Personally, I can think of nothing sweeter than hitting up a chocolate factory tour. Future boyfriends, please take note.

Another alternative is to simply eat at home, though Goldstein cautions against it. When you total the cost of spices and groceries, the price can be prohibitive. If you are determined to cook, however, consider this cute idea from Malaka Gharib, the amateur chef behind food zine The Runcible Spoon: "Stay in and create a movie-themed menu, then watch the movie," she told us on Twitter. Her pick? Hawaiian food and “50 First Dates.” That should spice things up.

Make a Date With Mother Nature

Thanks to global warming, many of us can still venture outdoors for our Valentine's Day dates. You're probably familiar with the ol' bike ride date that worked so spectacularly for my friend and me. Walks and star-gazing are also popular, if a little obvious. Goldstein suggests looking for a park that's particularly nice in winter or Googling nearby spots that have low light pollution. For $2.99, you can also nab the super-cool Star Walk astronomy app for iPhone, which will let you impress your date with your knowledge of the cosmos. In the words of a recent Sh*t Girls Say tweet, "Wow, look at all these stars!"

In colder climes, consider ice-skating or snow-shoeing. I don't ice skate well, myself, but I was once very grateful to a guy who taught me. (And -- bonus points! -- he bought hot chocolate afterward.) If it's too cold to go outside, our Facebook pals suggested everyone's childhood favorites: bowling and roller-skating. Both promise low overhead, deliciously caloric snack-bar fare, and the chance to pretend you're in a mid ‘90s rom-com.

Not all of these date ideas will suit everyone, of course. And even if you love picnics, bowling and “50 First Dates,” they can seem a little too small, a little too ordinary, for a great holiday of holidays like Valentine’s Day.

But remember this: You are young, and many February 14s await you. So instead of spending outside your means, spend some time planning ahead. Your wallet will probably thank you. And in the words of my bicycling friend, the thought will definitely show.



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