Money College: The master chops of the cheap date

dateFew things in life can feel as stressful as asking someone out on a date.

Think about it (or maybe it's better if you don't): You're proposing to a fellow human being that they accompany you on some sort of planned activity at an appointed date and time for the sole purpose of determining whether kissing should occur, because it is your belief that said kissing would result in a relationship that includes more kissing, further planned activities, and, if things go well enough long enough, shared, lengthy episodes of flatulence, a good deal of television viewing ... and arguments about money, who has the money, and why you didn't admit you didn't have any money.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The point? It's hard enough to get the ball rolling on the whole dating thing, and when you don't have much experience going on dates with people, well, frankly, it's easy to stink at it.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make on dates is spending too much money. Dropping a hundred bucks on dinner really just isn't as impressive of a first or early date as you might think. Take note: You're much more likely to create a really fun and memorable experience if you play to a shared interest.

Luckily, a flipside exists to all that date stress: If the date goes well, the two of you will remember it forever. Of course, the same can be said for a date that goes horribly, but let's try to stay positive here.

Use some of these ideas below -- with examples culled from my hometown, Chicago -- and before long you'll be sitting at home, watching TV together while wearing sweatpants and wondering why you don't do any of these fun things anymore. Ah, love!

Get out there and be interesting!
Movie megaplexes, fast food, ultrapopular coffee chains -- all are safe, predictable and boring. Find something off the beaten path and surprise yourselves. Make a choice to support a small, local business and get some exposure to a film, performer, or type of food you didn't know about before.

It's so easy, people: the more you know, the more impressive you are, and as long as you aren't a boor or pretentious about what you know, the better date you'll be. Use resources such as your local alternative weekly paper, or word-of-mouth.

Indie movies

Look for an independently owned movie house in your town. Often, there will be a film or two that's more interesting than the mainstream fare at the bigger places. These little places are often cheaper than the big chains, and often converted from old theaters with the original decoration and architecture still intact. Something about seeing a small film at a small theater feels like an adventure, and that's what you want in a date.

In Chicago, for example, Facets Multimedia allows you to stimulate your inner cinema buff. You and your sweetie can simply see a film, or attend a $5 midnight lecture about subjects such as zombies in cinema or the history of exploitation films.


Many cities have a comedy club where big name comedians breeze through, do their shtick for a night or two, and move on to the next city, pockets stuffed with the cash from those $25 and up tickets. You can laugh just as hard for a lot less at the local improv theater or open mic, and go back and see your favorites week after week. Support a local business and watch someone learn their craft. It's win-win.

Chicago's Playground Theater is a non-profit co-op theater that hosts nightly events, from improv troupes to standup comics, and sometimes invites audience members to play along. Shows range from free to $10, and the theater is BYOB.


While people will argue until the end of time about what's art, it's really hard to mess an art date up: Museums and galleries are always a good bet. In fact, as long as you don't head out to a convention center when the Hotel Velvet Art Expo comes through, you should be in good shape, although that would be kind of fun as a potentially hilarious, intentionally bad date.

All the same, try to find the smaller, specialty museums in your town, or attend an "art walk" event where a large group of artists get together and showcase their works with an open house.

Real life example: Museum of Jurassic Technology. Nope, it's not a dinosaur thing. This utterly bizarre museum features rotating exhibitions, such as miniature glass figures crafted on the head of a pin, a collection of letters written to a mountain, or a look at the dogs of the Russian space program. If it sounds weird, that's because it is, and the suggested donation is $5 -- which is not weird at all, but nice and cheap.

Entertaining at Home: The dinner party
Rather than break out the charades or freak them out by suggesting a round of Twister too soon, you should show off your skills in the kitchen. Everyone loves dinner parties. A group of good friends, laughter, hilarious anecdotes, a few bottles of wine, and hopefully a potluck vibe (They can get pricey if you're hosting the whole thing, after all).

First: Have something interesting to say. National Public Radio's DInner Party Download podcast has a few short anecdotes, funny stories and interesting facts guaranteed to keep conversation rolling, and is specifically geared to dinner parties.

And of course, walk your culinary talk: Knowing your way around the kitchen and producing good results makes any potential date think twice about you. If you've never made anything more complicated than a microwave grilled cheese hot dog sandwich, well, stop making those wretched things and pick up some new skills.

Local kitchen stores such as Chicago's Chopping Block often offer classes, some of them with student discounts. Your local Learning Annex or Discovery Center is a great place for cooking classes as well.

Is it a date, then? Parting thoughts
Hopefully, with this inspiration, you should be able to find something to do in your town or near your campus that's interesting and different. If you and your date are a match, nearly anything the two of you do together should produce a few sparks, and by taking some of the advice above, those sparks should stay bright for a good long time.

Then you'll have the one thing money can't buy, right?
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