Low-Cost Dates That Won't Look Cheap

Ten ways couples can deliver romance on a budget.

Dating when money's tight can be a challenge. You want to make a big impression on a small budget -- without looking like a cheapskate.

In this era of belt-tightening, you don't have to give up dating or resort to watching movies on the couch every weekend. With a bit of creativity, you can keep things interesting without overspending, whether unmarried or married, new to a relationship or settled in.

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Here are ten ways to plan a cheap date, plus dozens of specific ideas to get you started. Many of these activities are free, and none should cost more than $20 total. From cash-strapped college students to young parents who have to shell out for a baby sitter, there's a fun cheap date here for everyone. (And be sure to share your own ideas in the comment box below.)

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1. Fire up the kitchen. What date wouldn't be impressed by a dinner you cooked yourself? Better yet, make it a shared activity and cook together. It's a great opportunity to talk while chopping vegetables side by side or wrapping eggrolls, for example. If you don't know your way around the kitchen, the meal needn't be fancy. For instance, you could make your own pizzas or an inexpensive pasta dish, or cozy up together to roast hot dogs and marshmallows in your fireplace.

Fondue can be another fun way to make a meal interesting. It can also save you money because you cut the food into individual bites, making a little food go a long way. Or have a group date and invite other couples over for a potluck dinner.

2. Rethink movies. Movies are the old dating standby. However, tickets and munchies can get pricey, and the routine may quickly get stale. Wow your date by being creative. For instance, set up your TV on the patio or in the backyard along with a comfy seating area for a private outdoor theater.

You could even plan an evening around a movie's theme, such as snacking on chocolate-dipped strawberries while watching Chocolat or stringing up lights and watching a holiday movie in July with mugs of hot cocoa. For a free or cheap movie rental, check out your local library or a Redbox DVD kiosk.

3. Go outside. Mother Nature offers a bevy of free or inexpensive activities, and her beauty can set the perfect stage for romance. Plus, "because you're outside, everything feels less claustrophobic," says Joy Browne, author of Dating for Dummies. "It's easy and relaxed."

For instance, pack a picnic and head to the park (I'm a fan of Subway's $5 foot-long sandwiches for a quick and cheap picnic). You could also go to the beach, walk in the forest, watch wildlife, fly a kite, take a walking tour of your town or visit a pick-your-own-produce farm. Local botanic gardens can also be an inexpensive place for a scenic stroll together. Bring your camera to snap pictures of your favorite plants and flowers.

Planning an outdoor activity at night can amplify ambiance. For instance, go stargazing, fish in the moonlight or toast marshmallows over a beach fire. You adventurous types may consider a camping trip, while you less-adventurous couples could camp in your own backyard.

4. Visit the library. Your local library is a trove of free entertainment. Many offer book readings, film screenings, lectures or concerts.

Or plan a date around learning something new and creative together. Check out a book on how to do magic tricks, tie balloon animals, fold origami, sculpt clay or cook an ethnic meal, for instance.

Some cities have libraries in beautiful or historic buildings, and some even have coffee bars inside. If the library closest to your house isn't that impressive, it could be worth a short drive to one in your area with a bit more ambiance for your date.

5. Get in touch with your inner child. Volunteering the two of you to baby-sit for a friend or relative can be a great way to impress a date. Plus, it gives you an excuse to act like a 5-year-old and get away with it. Play catch, dig in the sandbox, lounge in the kiddie pool and make finger paintings with your charges. Or take them to the playground, story time at the library or some other free activity.

If you have kids of your own, join forces with another family and trade off watching each other's kids for free. For example, you and your spouse watch their kids one Saturday evening and they watch yours the following weekend. That way, you can use your money for your date night instead of blowing it on a sitter.

6. Do good. Come together by helping others. You can check out volunteer opportunities in your area at VolunteerMatch, Idealist and Network for Good. Or choose a project of your own, such as doing yardwork for an elderly neighbor.

7. Get moving. When your body is active, it releases endorphins -- hormones that boost your mood. That's a definite bonus when it comes to dating. For a budget-friendly activity to get your blood pumping, try riding bikes, hiking, ice skating, rowing on a lake, fly fishing, sledding, shooting hoops or playing tennis at the local park.

8. Soak up culture. Many theaters, museums, galleries and zoos offer special discount days, such as standing-room-only shows or pay-what-you-can nights. Some even have free admission on certain days. For example, the Modern Museum of Art in New York charges no admission every Friday evening from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Search the Internet for attractions in your town that are free all the time, too, such as the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the St. Louis Science Center and Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo.

Keep a lookout for free concerts in your area during the summer. Museums, farmers markets, parks and outdoor shopping centers are typical locations.

College campuses are also a center for free or inexpensive culture, such as student musical performances, film festivals, art exhibits, theater productions, dance recitals and sporting events. Or head to your town's cultural district and wander art galleries together for free.

9. Show some team spirit. Dating a sports fan? Many professional sporting events can carry hefty price tags. Why not feel like a teenager again -- and save some money -- by taking a date to the local college or high school game? (Just don't get caught kissing under the bleachers.) Or check out your niece's Little League or soccer matches. If allowed, bring your own refreshments, or pack a tailgate lunch for the parking lot.

Look for other ways to score cheap seats to sporting events. For instance, your college alumni card may entitle you to a discount, or your employer may offer bargain seats. Some professional baseball and football teams allow the public to watch them train during the preseason for free, as well as many minor-league teams.

10. Satisfy your sweet thing's sweet tooth. Dinner and drinks for two can be pricey. Instead, go out for dessert at a cozy cafe or bakery. You could even make a quest out of it: Go bakery hopping to find the best cupcake in your neighborhood, for instance.

Or combine this idea with the first activity on our list and make a dessert together at home, such as building sundaes, dipping chocolates or decorating sugar cookies.

Have an inexpensive date idea? Please share it in the comment box below.

Erin Burt
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger.com