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Free Love:
Dating on the Cheap
or, When I Say You're Priceless, Darling, I Mean that in the Best Possible Way

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 loan.

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 listings.

Volunteering 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 tapes.

More: Going Out in the Outdoors; Best Places to "Park"


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