When I first met the guy I was going to marry, he told me he had a book called “Dating for Under a Dollar.” I didn’t believe him until he showed me. His parents had raised him in a lifestyle he cheerfully called “frugal” rather than “cheap.” Most of the ideas in the book were things we would never do — for example, camping in the TV display area of an electronics store for the free movies. We kept the spirit of the book alive, if not the letter. Some of our very best dates have cost us little or nothing to go on, and we never run out of good ideas.
His favorites have been literary dates. Once, we went to the public library and picked out our favorite books for a set of ages. We picked books for kindergartners, for 10-year-olds, for 16 and for high school graduation. We pulled our three current favorites. We talked for a long time about what we loved and why, compared how much we had read out of each other’s stacks and basically decided what books we would give as gifts for years to come. One year, for his birthday, we spent the whole day in a huge and friendly used bookstore where the owner didn’t mind if we hung out and read books. At the end of the day, we picked one book apiece and walked to a place where we could get a slice and a Coke. Total cost of both those book dates: less than $10.
My favorite dates have been a little more varied. Most galleries and a large number of museums are free. Viewing art of all kinds for free is one of the incredible benefits of a society that values expression. We’ve seen music, poetry, paintings, sculpture, performance art and dance performances at no cost. We’ve walked into galleries where owners treat everyone like a potential buyer, put glasses of wine in our hands, tell us about artists and processes of production and ask for our views. I keep tabs on the calendars of nearby community colleges and universities, watching for spoken word events, author readings and performances. The ones that aren’t free are usually cheap. We’ve always been able to go out and find culture without giving away all our cash.
Stay-at-home dates and staycations have also become more popular. It’s always cheaper to cook at home than to go out, and it’s something you can do together. Trying out a new recipe from the Internet or attempting to recreate a childhood favorite always starts conversations. When I introduced my husband to my mom, we had a stay-at-home date with an Italian theme. We cooked pasta and made salad together and watched “The Godfather,” which he had never seen. We’ve had other themed parties centered around movies, including whipping up competitive batches of butterbeer during a Harry Potter marathon and a rum-tasting arranged to accompany the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.
It goes without saying that drinking at home is cheaper than going out. If you’ve ever seen those obscene bar tabs posted on the Internet, you know there are people out there who drink their tuition in a single night. Learning how to mix cocktails and figuring out what you like is a process best undertaken among people you trust in an environment you can control. Plus, bartenders may laugh at how much grenadine you want in your drinks — your significant other will think it’s cute. Drinking at bars and clubs only seems more fun because of the crowds and music and low lights. Hit the switches, invite some friends over and turn it up.
Game night is the old standby. People have been doing it since Monopoly was new, but it doesn’t have to be dull. Look up alternate versions of games you have, or make up your own rules for a more interesting time. Ever try strip Jenga? There are fantastic game stores within walking distance of campus. Need something new? There are great game reviews on YouTube, including shows like TableTop. If board games aren’t your style, download cheap or free games on your cellphone and try to beat each other at Fruit Ninja or Candy Crush. Then you can help each other through rehab for your terrible addiction.
Lots of people think that you can’t have fun dates without a lot of money. Some even hold back on asking people out because they can’t impress them with cash to burn. Dates aren’t about money, and relationships won’t be stable if you base them on what you’re willing to buy. Even if you’re broke in Berkeley, a fun night depends more on your creativity and sense of fun than what you can pay for. If you’re as lucky as I have been, cheap dates can pay off — with interest.