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Dating on the Cheap

We all want to wine and dine the women in our lives—but unless a guy is an entertainment lawyer or the heir to a seafood empire, not every date can be caviar and lobster. If the tax man hit you hard this year (or you’ve already blown your refund at Caesar’s Palace), here are five great cheap date ideas that don’t seem cheap, and will make both your date’s and your accountant’s hearts soar:

Journey Through the Galaxy
Nothing is more endlessly romantic than simply gazing up at the stars together. In more innocent times, high school boys used this as a ruse to get their girlfriends to go parking on Lovers’ Lane—but it’s much more fun now that you’re an adult, and don’t have to return your dad’s car by midnight. Simply drive out to a nice secluded place, bring some folding chairs or a blanket (or if you drive a convertible, this is your time to shine!), and gaze at the stars. Try to find the Big Dipper, North Star, Orion, and keep your eyes peeled for meteorites! If you live too close to the big city to get away from all that light pollution, this can be a great excuse to get away from town for the evening, take a road trip, or go camping. To get a glimpse of the constellations you can see from where you live, so you’ll know what to look for, simply enter your zip code here.

Bargain Date Bonus Tip: If you’d rather plan a daytime date, you can still gaze at the stars in an eternally cloudless sky by visiting a planetarium. Most of these are pretty classy affairs, yet are free or cheap to go to. They’re as quiet and dark as a normal movie theater, but with no real plot to guide you, you can focus more on the hand-holding. Plus, this way you won’t look clueless if you have no idea where the North Star is.

Take a Walking Tour Almost every city has a historic district or three, be they downtown vaudeville theaters or antebellum mansions. And almost every historic district has an aged historian willing to take you on a walking tour and tell you why these forgotten relics have a lot to teach today’s youth. Simply get in touch with your local historical society online, book a reservation (these things often fill up in advance, especially if they are completely free), and then you and your date can spend a whole day strolling through beautiful architecture, holding hands, and learning about businesses and whole industries that boomed and died before your grandparents were born!

Bargain Date Bonus Tip: To really impress your date, read up on your history before the tour. When the tour guide rattles off some questionable tidbit, you’ll be ready to lean over and whisper in her ear “The steam-lathe would hardly have been prevalent in this area during the time—he’s completely glossing over the Paddle-Boat Riots of 1872!” For historical walking tours in the U.S., check here, or simply contact your local library or historical society.

Visit a Local Brewery Unlike wine-tasting, breweries are usually free to tour, and have lots of different steps in the beer-making process that are interesting to watch. Of course, the tours usually end with a beer tasting, but that’s just the icing on the cake (and it’s also optional, if you do not partake): The tour-goers usually saunter from room to room at a pace that allows you to lag behind and get a couple quick smooches in when no one’s looking. If the tour is memorable enough (and the beer is good enough) then later, you guys can gaze into each other’s eyes and share a moment every time you walk past the beer aisle at the supermarket or order your special beer from a bar.

Bargain Date Bonus Tip: Should you choose to imbibe when they pass out all that free beer at the end of the tour, make sure you pace yourself. Nothing kills the romance faster than taking your shirt off in public and dancing on the tables while singing the pledge of allegiance to the tune of “Who Let the Dogs Out.” For a list of breweries in the U.S., visit here.

Take Her to the Dog Park Speaking of letting the dogs out, you’ve probably noticed that even the smuggest of jerks can melt a woman’s heart when he’s ruffling the ears of a shaggy pooch. If you date a girl who gives every pet she sees a cute nickname, and laughs it off when she steps in doggie doo, take her with you to one of the dog parks that are springing up in many towns around the U.S. This will give you a chance to show off your dog, if you have one, or get on the good side of hers (if you can get her dog to follow you everywhere you go, she’ll likely do the same). Even if neither of you has a dog, it’s a fun way to see a cute animal explosion while getting a bit of a walk and some fresh air.

Bargain Date Bonus Tip: If your date really, really likes pets, let her come to the animal shelter with you to help pick out your next dog or cat. For the right kind of woman, this can be an incredibly sweet move that might just make her fall madly in love with you. But make sure you go to a Humane Society where they don’t euthanize, lest death’s hairy paw scratches the romance right out of your date. To find a dog park in your state, check out Animal Planet’s great interactive map of dog parks around the United States. Check out a list of adoption shelters here.

Explore a Museum Together Going to a museum might seem like a no-brainer—but go the extra mile, and make the date special for you both. After you hold hands through the obligatory headphone tour of the Jackson Pollock temporary exhibit, impress her with some extra credit museum exploration. Find out the type of art or history your date likes, and lead her up to the third floor to see the permanent exhibit’s collection of Greek vases (did those guys ever wear clothes?) or paintings of Charles II (aren’t those little Spaniels in the corner of the painting cute?). Or simply lead your date through the section with all the portraits of couples kissing—she’ll get the hint soon enough.

Bargain Date Bonus Tip: Most museums occasionally have free outdoor events, such as concerts and movies, especially when an exhibit is just opening. Stretch your museum dollar and impress your date by planning accordingly. In fact, many museums have free or reduced-price days, when you can get some culture and still have money left over for coffee afterwards. Here is a listing of museums by state.

Work Up a Sweat Many guys are so worried about showering and wearing the right aftershave, they forget that nowadays, ladies are out there sweating and exercising more than we are. Why not take you both out for a little physical activity? Getting your gal-pal’s endorphins pumping is sure to bring a warm glow to her cheeks, as well as make her feel cheery and happy about you! If you both like swimming, jogging, running, surfing, tennis or one-on-one basketball, spend a date doing that together, enjoying each other’s company, and the shared fulfillment of getting some exercise. And let’s not forget the simple act of taking a stroll. You can suit the location to fit both of you: A cliff overlooking the beach, a beautiful city park with a great rose garden, or a ride on the city’s mass transit so you can walk through Little Tokyo and go window shopping. Whatever is particularly of interest to both of you, a walk is a great chance to enjoy a view and some exercise, as well as a fantastic conversation.

Bargain Date Bonus Tip: For a less strenuous time in the outdoors, there’s always badminton, croquet, bocce ball, horseshoes, lawn darts, and a plethora of great sports that allow for sips of lemonade and smooches under the willow tree, without putting a strain on your antiperspirant. There’s no law that says you can’t still wear a cool wristband. Another bonus? Wearing comfortable, casual clothes.

What are your favorite low-cost, high-fun dates? Got a few tips of your own? Share your thoughts below!