Saving Money

Going On a Date Without Breaking the Bank

photo: Shayne Kaye

According to one economist, the true cost of a date is around $250. That includes dinner, a movie, and the opportunity cost of time spent on a date. I’m not sure I buy the “cost of time” part, but I agree that the whole “dinner and a movie” routine can get pricey pretty quickly.

That’s why I tend to suggest other activities. My go-to activity for a cheap date? Browsing an independent bookstore as my date and I chat about our favorite books, take turns reading book jackets, and search for the silliest titles. With summer approaching, there are plenty of low-cost ways to have fun on a date, both indoors and out. Here are eight ideas you may want to consider.

1. Explore a museum.

One of dating coach Sandy Weiner’s favorite low-cost first dates was going to a museum in New York City.  “It was so much easier to talk to each other while viewing art, rather than over a table, sipping lattes or eating dinner,” she says. The exhibit sparked interesting conversation and Weiner and her date revealed a lot about each other through the art: intelligence, observation skills, background.  Better yet, many museums designate a certain night of the week for free admission. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, offers free admission on Friday evenings between 4 pm and 8 pm.

2. Visit a flea market.

Lizzy Shaw, a Los Angeles public relations professional, had a great first date at the Santa Monica Airport flea market. “I think you really get to know a lot about a person by seeing what they buy, how they interact with the sellers, if they’re patient or not with what you’re looking for, if they like what you’re buying,” she says. That person turned out not to be “the one,” she adds, but “it really was a great, illuminating date.”

3. Watch an outdoor movie.

Many cities and towns host free outdoor movies during the summer. Writer Mikey Rox says he and his fiancé have had a blast at outdoor movies in NYC and Baltimore. “We packed a picnic, put down a big blanket and settled in on the grass or the pier – wherever a good movie is playing – to lay back and enjoy the show,” he says. “Afterward, a nice walk hand-in-hand puts the cap on an inexpensive, fun-filled, intimate evening.”

4. Pack a picnic.

What could be more romantic than a picnic blanket, the great outdoors, and some home-cooked finger food (or sandwiches from a local eatery)? A picnic did the trick for Denise Winston, a money & time saving expert based in Bakersfield, California. “We are now married,” she says. “It was the thought and effort that went into such a simple yet romantic idea.”  Winston’s now husband packed an ice chest full of fast food. “I would have loved it just as much if it was a PB and J sandwich,” she says.

5. Take a hike.

Even if you can’t get to a hiking trail, city walks can be fun, too. James Cholke, of San Diego, suggests having a “doggy date.” (Don’t have a dog? Offer to walk a friend’s.) “And if you both love dogs in general, you’ll have a great conversation starter, nice day or early evening out, and something to help ease the tension if there are awkward pauses during the date,” he says.

6. Eat cheap ethnic food.

Forget five-star dining! Annie D’Souza, the Twin Cities community manager for review site Yelp.com, says hole-in-the-wall restaurants can be even more fun (not mention easier on your wallet). “My fiancé took me to a cheap hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant for our first date,” she says. “He used dodgy restaurants to ‘test’ his dates and weed out the unadventurous eaters. Someone broke into my car while I was passing the test inside, but we have a great story to tell for the rest of our lives!”

7. Go stargazing.

Emma Merkas owns the website $30 Date Night and says she and her husband go on dates each week using one of the ideas from the site. Stargazing is one of their favorites. “Wait for a clear night, then get online and download your area and date-specific sky chart for the night,” she suggests. “Then spend your night picking out the different constellations and wishing on shooting stars.”

8. Rent a canoe.

Susan Tordella, an author and parenting expert in Ayer, Massachusetts, says, “one of the best dates I’ve ever been on was a week-long canoe-backpacking trip to the wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park, north of Toronto. We paddled, portaged, cooked, shared a tent and bared each others’ bottoms and souls amid moose-sightings, bear tracks and getting hopelessly lost, wet and muddy.” The experience was a great way to get to know the man she eventually married and see if he was up for a challenge. Not ready for a week-long adventure? You can always start out with a day trip.

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.