Dating on the Cheap
or, When I Say You're Priceless, Darling, I Mean that in the Best
by Jami Attenberg
In Amy Heckerling's Loser,
two struggling -- nay, dirt-poor -- college students try to have fun for a day
without spending a cent. They succeed: with their student ids they get into
MOMA for free; they steal a baguette from an
outside stand at a bakery and dash off; they follow in the crowds smoking outside
during the intermission of Cabaret (and
somehow get remarkably good seats). A bright spot in an otherwise dark movie,
but good advice for anyone looking to go on a few dates without taking out a
Some of the best dates I've had in my life have been free ones, and by free
I don't mean that he paid for it, and I sat back and reaped the glory. I mean
that through creative planning on one of our parts -- and sometimes through
fate -- we were able to glide through a glorious night, smiling just a little
bit more because neither one of us got hit in the wallet. And when you push
away all the smoke and mirrors of the big tab, you're left with two people simply
getting to know each other.
Million Dollar Smiles
Another positive of the free date is that it relieves the pressure that sometimes
accompanies the early stages of a relationship. If you're on the guest list
for a rock show, it's an easy way to break the ice: plus one can set a very
casual tone. Or, if it's a sunny day, and you suggest a nice walk in the park,
it can eliminate that one-on-one feeling that sometimes causes awkwardness in
first dates: you can check out the dog runs in New York, or the Frisbee fanatics
in Seattle. Free dates are low-maintenance and low-pressure
In urban environments, like New York, Seattle, or Los Angeles, there's a wealth
of free activities, if, for no other reason than there's an awful lot to look
at. (In smaller cities, there might
be some limitations, but there's still plenty
of free stuff to do and everything is cheaper there, anyway.)
My twenties have been spent primarily in two different cities: Seattle and
New York. The free dates I've had in both places have been dramatically different
and both cities offer different perks. Free New York often means invites to
exclusive parties with open bars. Free Seattle means tulip
festivals and block parties. But the fact remains there are resources out
there, and with a little ingenuity and effort, no matter where you live, you
can spend some quality time without spending a lot of money.
Be a Patron of the Arts
Not everybody enjoys poetry,
but wouldn't you enjoy it a little bit more if it were free? There are plenty
of free readings, of poetry, fiction, and other printed matter, no matter where
you go. In most major cities, the alternative weeklies offer listings of free
readings, such as the Village
Voice in New York, the Chicago
Reader, the LA
Weekly, Seattle's The
Stranger, and the San
Francisco Weekly. Readings are an excellent get-to-know-you date: after
you listen to a stranger pour out their soul to you, you may be more likely
to open up to your date. Or you can sit around and make
fun of how whiny those writers are.
Galleries and museums also offer numerous opportunities for free nights out
on the town. The first Thursday of every month is generally reserved for gallery
openings, and we all know what gallery openings mean.
No, it's not cutting edge art surrounded by interesting people having stimulating
discussions, as is generally believed, but rather: free drinks! Stumble
from gallery to gallery with your sweetheart, and by the end of it all you'll
wonder why you ever bother to throw your paychecks away in those expensive bars.
Again, most free weeklies let you know where to go in their arts sections.
As for museums, whether you have a student ID or not, most museums offer free
or pay-what-you-like nights. At the Guggenheim
in New York, Fridays from 6-8 p.m. are free --a perfect post-work date! Or in
Chicago, Tuesdays are free at The Art Institute
of Chicago. A quick visit to the museum Web site will let you know the best
time to visit the museum, so that you can stroll arm in arm with the object
of your affection.
That's (Totally Free) Entertainment!
Free entertainment events tend to flourish in the summer rather than the winter
(a time when most people should be at home cuddling with their lovers anyway).
Take notes for next year, because there are tons of free concerts no matter
where you live, such as Summer Stage
in Central Park, or at the Petrillo Bandshell in Chicago. Tourism guides in
your town usually list big, outdoor events, like Washington's Festivals
and Events Association Web site, or Chicago's festival
for film festivals can be an interesting experience, with or without a date.
And most volunteer experiences can garnish you a few free tickets. Or, you can
join a film society (which
does cost money), and then you'll receive tickets to events (It doesn't quite
feel so much like spending money, when you spent it months before you got the
tickets, though, does it?)
If you or your loved one is a television addict, a pleasant, thoughtful date
could involve one simple videotape, and I'm not talking about porn (unless that's
your bag, baby.) She likes Sex in the City
but missed the first season? Find a true fan who has all of the episodes taped,
and settle in for a night of watching Carrie chain-smoke her way from bed to
bed. He likes South
Park? Comedy Central often has marathons of old episodes. A little research
on fan sites of popular television
shows can inform you of special events, and even a contact person for trading
More: Going Out in the Outdoors; Best Places to "Park"