Inexpensive Dates (That Don’t Seem Cheap)

Couple eating dinner at rooftop restuarant.
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Inflation has hit Americans hard, and they’re cutting corners everywhere — potentially even on the most important thing of all: love. 

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A new survey by LendingTree found that inflation is affecting dating, with nearly 1 in 5 Americans saying they’re going on fewer dates because of higher costs. Pulling the reins on dating makes sense when considering the expense; according to research by The Balance, millennials spend an average of $69 on a first date. That adds up quickly when you’re going on multiple first dates in search of the perfect partner. 

But must one really sacrifice romance in order to get by? Not if they’re creative and willing to think outside the spending box. Here’s a look at 10 affordable — and even free — date ideas. 

Practice Virtual Dates

“The pandemic had its consequences, but it surely left us normalizing some pretty healthy dating practices,” said Callisto Adams, Ph.D., a certified dating and relationship expert. “One of those dating practices is virtual dating.” 

So, get on Zoom or FaceTime before you start making IRL memories. This is also a safe way to scope someone out and to make sure you’re not wasting your time. 

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Go to Game Night 

“An activity date is an affordable option, and it gives you more of a chance to create chemistry than a boring dinner,” said Amber Lee, a relationship expert and co-founder of Select Date Society. “Find a local cafe or bar that has a board game section. Playing games together will create an opportunity for conversation, laughter and competition — all things that lead to a memorable date! Instead of trying to impress your date with your bank account, focus on impressing them with your wit and great sense of humor.” 

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Have a Picnic

“Pick a sunny day and set up a picnic outside,” said Adam Garcia, founder of The Stock Dork. “For this, you only need two B’s: a blanket and a basket, preferably with some homemade snacks and fruits. This will set you back some $10 to $20 for the whole afternoon.” 

Find a Free Event

No matter your location, you can almost definitely find a free event to attend. Maybe it’s a trivia night, a crafts fair or even a farmers market (perfect if you’re making dinner for two). If you’re looking for something free and fun, check out any local magazines (like Time Out) for happenings in your area, or just head over to Google to scope out the goings-on about town.  

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Go Alcohol-Free

A drink or two is a frequently sought out way to break the ice on a first date, but adding some wine to the tab can quickly drive up the bill. Unless you’re having a beer at a cheap happy hour, it’s wise to ditch the booze. Going alcohol-free also should help you navigate the situation as your true self — and enable you to decide whether this person is right for you, without the haze of a buzz. 

Take a Hike 

Nature is not only beautiful and relaxing, it’s free to enjoy. Take your potential new partner for a trot through the woods or down to the river. Even a walk around the nearest park is the perfect way to get acquainted — and maybe even cozy — on a first date. 

Volunteer at an Animal Shelter 

“Want to win a partner’s heart? Suggest you both visit the local shelter to volunteer together to play with the felines and walk the canines,” said Tammy Shaklee, founder of H4M Matchmaking, an LGBTQ+ matchmaking service. “Be a foster walker for the day, and you will find plenty to talk about during your experience, helping animals and getting to know each other.”

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Do a Little Something for Someone Else

“Nothing feels better than helping an elder,” Shaklee said. “Why not bake some cookies or buy some inexpensive flowers … and deliver them together to a local nursing home or senior care facility? You might even ask if you can visit those who don’t usually have visitors and surprise them with a little gift of something from the dollar store that might brighten their day. It can lead to great stories of your childhood and memories from your own elders who have passed.”

Cook for Your Date 

“Making your own meal at home and staying in to watch a movie can be a lot more meaningful than going to an expensive restaurant with mediocre food,” said Derek Sall, founder of Life And My Finances. “Or, the food is good but just not worth the money. Putting in the effort and thought to cook someone else a meal, or even cook one together, is an awesome bonding experience that can easily become a core memory.” 

This idea may be better for a later date, when you are comfortable and trusting enough to spend time in one another’s home, so pocket it for a date down the road. 

Host High Tea

Another great second or third date is to host high tea. 

“With all the ceremonial tributes as of late, it is a nice time to talk about the royals and host a nice hot tea, a couple of bites of sweets or sandwiches and treat your date to a cultural experience,” Shaklee said. “You might even dress for the occasion with a hat or tie and enjoy an afternoon being silly and taking couples selfies.”

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About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.
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