How to Have a Great Date on a Budget

A date on a budget can be a walk in the park.
A date on a budget can be a walk in the park.
John Foxx/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Five months after he'd taken office, President Barack Obama took his wife Michelle on the date to end all dates. The First Couple flew into New York City on Air Force One, travelled to a Greenwich Village restaurant by motorcade, and then took in a Broadway play. A jet and helicopter ride later, the couple was back at the White House. The final price tag? About a million dollars, according to some critics [source: White].

It was a far cry from 20 years before, when a 28-year-old Obama asked coworker Michelle Robinson out for their first date. They watched a movie, took a sightseeing walk around Chicago, and capped the evening off with a pair of ice cream cones [source: Obama]. The entire night couldn't have cost more than $20, but according to Michelle, "I was sold" [source: Weiner]. Although Obama can now swoon his lady with the full might of the United States executive branch, all he needed to win her heart was an ice cream cone.


"You gotta make the money first. Then, when you make the money, you get the power. Then, when you get the power, then you get the women," says gangster Tony Montana in the 1983 film "Scarface" [source:]. The line may be iconic, but it's also woefully wrong. You don't need money or power to impress a woman. Whether you've got a pocketful of change or exclusive use of the presidential jet, all you really need to know is how to show her a good time. Romeo and Juliet's first date was little more than a few minutes of rhyming couplets on a balcony. Adam and Eve fanned the flames of their budding romance by wandering around and picking fruit.

Anybody can hemorrhage money, but it takes a special kind of cunning to pull off a good date on the cheap. And, in the end, who's the more desirable mate? The guy with deep pockets or the guy who can turn a $20 bill into a night out? You may make your fortune eventually, but while you're waiting, you can while away the weekends with these low-priced -- and very fun -- romantic encounters. Just because you're scraping by doesn't mean you can't pitch woo with the best of them.

Keep reading to find out why wait staff should be your favorite people in the world.



Inexpensive Date Ideas

A date doesn't need to be an elaborate affair. You can find romance with a walk in the park or even a night of board games. But we'll get to those later. This section is all about dates with class: Shirt and tie, dresses, dinner, and maybe a round of dancing. It sounds pricey, but if you do your homework, you'll be able to paint the town red for next to nothing. These are some cheap dates with elegance.

Showing up at her door with a bouquet of flowers may seem old-fashioned, but it's always a good bet. A dozen roses is pricey -- and frankly, it's a little intimidating. Slash your floral costs by opting instead for one big flower, like a lily or a sunflower. Or better yet, grow your own flowers: If you can show up on the threshold with something that's fresh from your garden, your date conversation just got a huge kick start.


And instead of whisking her off to a high-end (and high-priced) night spot, take her somewhere with a little more character: an out-of-the-way Mexican place, a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant or a gourmet pizza joint. To zero in on what she enjoys best, try doing a little research: Quiz her friends and skim her Facebook page. If she recently posted a message about her undying love of obscure tapas bars, your evening is already half-planned.

Do you have a waiter friend? A bartender sibling? Is your cousin a cook? Keep on good terms with these people at all costs, because they can pay huge dividends come date night. They can get you a good table, sneak in a free dessert and maybe even ring in the bill at a staff discount. The date will be fun and personalized, and you'll look connected and mysterious. Of course, this only works once. The magic will quickly dissipate if you keep taking her to the same place.

Nothing beats the glitz and glamor of taking in a theater show -- red curtains, glossy playbills, tuxedoed ushers. But unless you can pick up free tickets on a radio contest, you could end up shelling out as much as $50 a ticket for a professional stage performance. Opt for a local, amateur show instead. It'll be a fraction of the price, and it might even be good. If not, you can just spend the rest of the night making fun of the awkward actor who flubbed his soliloquy. When the temperature gets hot, keep your eyes peeled for free outdoor performances: For less than the cost of theater parking, you can spend your summer showing your date everything from fire jugglers to folk musicians to Shakespeare.


Cheap Romantic Date Ideas

All right, you've done the fancy date. She's seen you with gel in your hair and you've seen her in makeup. Now it's time to slip into something more comfortable and do something with a little less pomp and circumstance. Here are a few romantic outings that you can do in jeans.

The picnic is the economy date standard. It's outside, it's romantic, and it gives you a chance to show off your skills at portable cuisine -- which means that a handful of fruit snacks probably isn't going to cut it. Roast a chicken, pick up some good cheese and pack a selection of sweets: Cut apples, strawberries, grapes and fine chocolate.


If you live in an apartment building, cajole the resident manager into lending you a set of keys to the roof. Gravel and tar paper may not make for the best décor for a picnic, but she'll probably be distracted by the knockout view of the city. If it's too cold (or too hot) to picnic outdoors, head instead to the atrium of a local library or museum.

A Friday night trip to the bowling alley used to be standard date fare in the 1950s -- usually followed up with a drive to lover's lane. Today, bowling is largely out-of-date. So out-of-date, in fact, that it's cool again. You'll probably be surrounded by potbellied senior's leagues, but your date might appreciate the sheer character of the venue. Throw a few gutter balls and plunk in a few songs on the jukebox, and you'll be awash in vintage delight before you know it. The jury is still out on whether you're supposed to let her win.

If you live in colder climates, you might be able to pull a skating date for free -- provided you have an extra pair of skates in her shoe size. Otherwise, you'll need to plunk down a few dollars at your local rec center. It's well worth it, particularly if she can't skate well -- she'll be clinging to you for support. Top off your ice time with a pair of hot chocolates, and your romantic descent into a winter wonderland will be complete.

Keep reading to find out why you should buy an umbrella.


Free Date Ideas

Well, you're flat broke. Your paycheck didn't clear, your car needed an unexpected overhaul, or you dropped your wallet down a storm drain. Either way, you're going to have to pull off your next date for a grand total of zero dollars. It's going to take a bit of skill, but she'll be too busy enjoying herself to notice the moths flying out of your pocket. After all, the best things in life are free.

For centuries, the outdoors has been a popular low-cost destination. You can take a hike or a bike ride, or you can pack some bread crumbs to a nearby duck pond. If the weather looks cloudy, you should always make sure to pack along an umbrella -- there's a certain appeal to any man who can keep his date protected from the elements. Spice up your outdoor date by taking along a dog: They're cute, they're cuddly, and their Frisbee-catching skills are a sight to behold. If you don't have your own canine companion, borrow Fido from a friend.


Lots of orchards will offer weekend deals where you can pick your own fruit for a fee. But why pay to forage for fruit? If you know where to look, you can probably find some sweet crab apples, blackberries, wild blueberries or wild raspberries at a local park. Or you can try the urban equivalent: Free sample day at the local supermarket.

If you can't afford the $10 to go watch a movie, why not compromise by watching the majesty of the universe? Most astronomy clubs will host regular "star parties." Located in rural areas, these gatherings feature dozens of telescope-packing, amateur astronomers who are more than happy to show you their latest interstellar discovery. It's intimate, it's outside, and you'll literally be able to give her the moon and the stars.

A classic romance film isn't complete without a rowboat ride, and for good reason: She gets to sit in the back twirling a parasol and you get to look strong and manly while working the oars. Rowboats can be a bit hard to come by, but you should be able to pull off the same effect with only an inflatable dinghy. If the water's warm enough, you could cap off the afternoon by diving in for a quick swim.

Most museums or art galleries will offer free admission at set times. Some will open up their doors an hour before closing, some will offer free admission on Tuesday nights, and others will have a "free day" once a month. Keep tabs on all the free museum days and plan your dates around them.

If you live close to a university campus, you're within the vicinity of a freebie mecca. Log onto the university's Web site and check out their daily events calendar for any upcoming free activities. A free screening of obscure Italian cinema? A book signing by her favorite celebrity biologist? A host of intellectual wonders await you at the university. Don't worry if you're not a student: As long as one of you is wearing an indoor scarf, you should blend right in.

A trip to an exotic foreign destination is obviously out of your price range at this point, but you can offer her the next best thing by cruising the town for ethnic festivals. Whether it's a pierogi sampler at the Ukrainian Cultural Center or a dragon festival in Chinatown, entrance fees are usually nil, and unique experience is usually high. Make a habit of reading local bulletin boards to see what's going on.

If ethnic flavor isn't her bag, maybe she's more into time travel. If you're lucky enough to live close to a Renaissance fair, you should schedule a date with your favorite damsel post haste. Without any spare cash, you probably won't be able to enter the axe throwing contest or buy her a roast turkey leg, but at least you'll be able to see jousting knights and staged sword fights.


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