Dozens of cheap, but romantic, date ideas
Dating isn't just for singles. Everyone needs a little romance. Busy couples – parents, especially – need date nights to keep relationships fresh amid the demands of everyday life.
Money stress can take the fun out of dating. But if you use your imagination, energy and planning, there are lots of budget-friendly options. Here are some to get you started:
Clean the house – or just one romantic corner – and set the stage for romance. Good grooming is sexy. Greet your date freshly showered. Dress up just enough to show you care.
- A special meal: Cook an imaginative dinner by trying a dish that's new and adventurous. Or make something you know your date adores. Set the table, put on the music and light candles to create the mood.
- Takeout and dancing: Set a romantic table for a dinner of takeout food. After dinner, cue up music from your own collection or use a free service like Pandora and dance your hearts out.
- Dates on Skype: Don't let geography get in the way. Date across the miles by Skype. Eat dinner together or share a candlelit drink and chat. You can even stay connected while viewing the same movie.
Go out on the town
Going out adds excitement and tells your date you aren't a total homebody.
- Comedy night: Check local listings for cheap comedy club tickets or search online for them. For more cheap laughs, learn when local clubs hold amateur stand-up comedy nights.
- Concerts and events: Keep an eye on deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial for low-cost tickets. Learn how to score last-minute deals by calling box offices and searching local entertainment websites. Use discounts if you're a student or senior.
- Open mikes: Cafes, pubs and jazz clubs often use slow nights to give local talent a chance at the stage. Some performances will be stunningly good, others awful and many in between. The unexpected is part of the fun.
- Art walks: Monthly art walks or gallery walks are catching on everywhere. Some cities call them First Friday (of the month) or First Thursday, etc. In art districts, galleries open the doors to the public for free. Some may serve refreshments. Dress up and stroll from one gallery to the next. Search online for your city's name and "arts calendar."
- College events: Check events at a nearby campus, including community colleges. You'll find plays, lectures and concerts, many of them free or cheap.
- Museums: Call a museum to find out about free or low-cost days or evenings.
- Go local: See what your local theater company is offering. Go to local street fairs, parades and county fairs. Browse the public library's bulletin board to see what other low-cost local events you can find.
Americans tell Zagat's pollsters that they eat in restaurants — not including breakfast — 4.5 times a week, on average, and spend an average of $36 per person. But you can cut costs and still have a romantic meal with these strategies:
- Culinary academy restaurants: Many cities have culinary academies with restaurants where beginning chefs test their skills, serving up fine dining at lower prices. Check community colleges' culinary programs too.
- Coupons and promotions: Use Restaurant.com, Coupons.com or the Entertainment book for coupons and promotional offers on cuisine at fine dining establishments.
- Happy hour: If you're 21 or older, some of the best meal deals are on happy hour menus. Look in magazines and newspapers for reviews of the local bar scene. Search online for "best happy hour" and your city's name.
- Ice cream sundaes: After dinner at home, go out for ice cream sundaes. More romantic still: Share a banana split. Or buy ice cream, sauce and the works for making sundaes at home. Afterward, walk it off with a long stroll while holding hands.
Play cards and games
- Wii: Choose a game neither of you has tried that you're both likely to enjoy. Ideas: Wii Sports Golf, Wii Fit Plus Yoga, The Last Story, Boom Box Bash Party and Xenoblade Chronicles. Games Radar's Best Wii games of all time has additional inspiration.
- Board games: Try a new game for two players. Ask friends for their favorites. Consult Board Game Quest's 2015 list of best board games. Suggestions: Ticket to Ride, Tides or Time, Noir, Carcassonne and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn.
- Card games: Cards are making a comeback. Set up a card table or use the dining table. If you don't mind mixing food and cards, put dishes of chips, pretzels, berries and grapes on the playing table along with napkins. Otherwise, keep cards clean by serving drinks and snacks before playing. Two games for two players that you could try: Piquet or Hola (here are instructions). Find rules and instructions for more games at Bicycle Cards' site. For adults, strip poker heats up a date in a hurry. (And after all, who is stopping you?)
Catch a movie
- Movie night at home: The trend in movie theaters is to create a living room atmosphere, with comfy chairs and food-and-drink service. Re-create that at home with a chilled bottle of inexpensive champagne and bowls of seasoned popcorn and peanut M&Ms. Rent a couple of flicks or borrow them from the library. Pick a title together or find something you think your date will love.
- Work your way through a list of old movies: Keep the romance going by making a list of old movies you want to watch together. Challenge yourselves to find intriguing places for viewing them — on a laptop on a camping trip, in a car parked in a romantic lookout, on a blanket under the stars or in a motel room you've rented for the evening.
- Discount theaters: Tickets are cheaper at theaters specializing in recent films that have left the larger movie houses.
- Matinees: A daytime movie feels like a mini vacation. Pass up the snack bar. Have popcorn at home after the film to stretch out the date.
- Drive-in movies: Pack up pillows, blankets, lawn chairs and snacks and head to a drive-in movie theater.
Plan ahead for outdoors adventures. Bring water, a map, a phone, a small first aid kit, and snacks or lunch. Think about protection from sun, cold and bugs.
- Ride bikes: Rent them if you don't own them.
- Go bird watching: Bring (or borrow) binoculars, a thermos of hot chocolate and bird identification books.
- Hit the beach: Bring towels, a beach umbrella and a picnic. Stop for ice cream on the way home.
- Get on the water: Rent or borrow kayaks, a canoe or a small sailboat.
- Ski: Strap on cross-country skis or snowshoes in winter.
- Swim: Find a lake, beach or pool. Bring a picnic.
- Hike: Take a long walk or a hike.
- Play miniature golf or ride go-carts.
Book a morning date
- Coffee and cinnamon rolls: Read the Sunday papers or do a crossword puzzle together.
- Get breakfast: Find a small, funky local restaurant.
- Visit a farmers market: Shop together in the morning and make dinner together that evening with your purchases.
- Scavenge: Explore garage sales and flea markets. Hit sales early for the best finds.
Try an out-of-the-box adventure
- Star-gazing: This requires planning (and clear skies), but it's so worth it. Gather up binoculars or a telescope, star maps or a smartphone star-gazing app, plenty of warm blankets and jackets, and a thermos of your favorite hot beverage. Do research in advance to learn where the sky is sufficiently dark. Bring a picnic to enjoy while waiting for the stars to come out.
- Jeopardy night: Plenty of pubs and taverns hold weekly Jeopardy game nights. Usually these involve regular teams. But you can sit on the sidelines and whisper answers to each other. Or learn what it takes to join a team.
- High school athletic events: If you've never been to a high school basketball or football game, you don't know what you're missing. If you have, you know what fun you'll have.
- Volunteer together: Bond over shared experiences while you work to help others. VolunteerMatch links people with local volunteering opportunities.
Make a picnic
A friend told me about her date with a guy who invited her on a picnic and gave her a menu of options, asking her to select her favorites. The list included breads, deli items, condiments, cookies and desserts, wines and chocolate. He selected a park, spread a cloth on a picnic table, poured the wine and unpacked the basket. It was a cheap date for him and an unforgettable experience for her.
If you're a cook, try one of Food & Wine's top 10 picnic recipes. But you don't have to go to a lot of work to make an impression. Pack takeout food, sandwiches or just a nice presentation of whatever is in the fridge. Put it in a cooler, a basket or a box.
Take a picnic to the zoo, or bring candles and jackets for an evening picnic at the beach or on your building's rooftop. Plan ahead: Will you need bug spray, blankets, sun protection, hats or music?
What are your all-time favorite cheap dates? Share a comment below or on Money Talks News' Facebook page.