Close your eyes and picture a couple on a date for Valentine’s Day. Do you see a candlelit dinner at a fancy restaurant? A romantic weekend getaway at a cozy bed-and-breakfast? Or maybe something more adventurous, like a hot air balloon ride?
All these date ideas are pretty romantic, but they’re also pretty expensive. And right now, with many businesses shuttered or operating at reduced capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many aren’t even possible.
Between logistical difficulties and budget concerns, trying to plan a romantic Valentine’s Day celebration can start to seem difficult or even impossible. Will you and your sweetheart have to spend this special day at home eating a heat-and-serve pizza in front of the TV? Absolutely not.
Inexpensive Valentine’s Day Date Ideas
There are plenty of ways to share a romantic evening with your loved one, even on the tightest of budgets. All it takes is a little planning, a little ingenuity, and a few helpful hints.
Probably the most popular Valentine’s Day date idea is a romantic dinner out. It’s easy to do on a weeknight, and any city or large town offers plenty of eateries to choose from.
However, there are two big problems. The first is the cost of dining out. An analysis by meal-planning app Wellio found that even ordering takeout from a restaurant costs about five times as much as cooking a similar meal at home. Dining at the restaurant is even more expensive because of the high markups for drinks and tips for the waitstaff.
Second, even if you can spare the cash, that doesn’t mean you can get a table. In a normal year, restaurants are always crowded on Valentine’s Day, so getting a dinner reservation is a challenge, particularly on short notice. And this year, many restaurants are either closed or reduced to a fraction of their typical capacity.
Still, that doesn’t mean your only alternative is switching from the romantic bistro to McDonald’s. There are several ways to save money on dining out for Valentine’s Day — or dine in and save still more.
1. Go Out Earlier
One alternative to a pricey dinner date is to go out for a less expensive breakfast or lunch. After all, the point of a date is the time you spend together as a couple, not what you eat. And at many restaurants, the lunch special costs as little as half the price of a dinner dish.
Done right, a breakfast or lunch date can be just as romantic as dinner. For instance, you can meet for breakfast at a coffeehouse where the barista serves up cappuccino with heart-shaped froth. Start your day off right by lingering over coffee, pastries, and conversation, and send each other off to work with a long goodbye kiss.
For a lunch date, meet at the restaurant with a single rose in a vase for the table. Decide together on your two favorite entrees from the menu, order both, and share. You might even be able to get away with a little footsie under the table.
2. Just Have Drinks or Dessert
If you can’t get away from work during the day — or if you want to make sure your date lasts all night — go out only for cocktails, either before or after dining in. Many restaurants are happy to seat you and your date at the bar, particularly if you show up later in the evening — after 9pm or so. Sitting at the bar can also help you get a seat at a popular restaurant that’s otherwise completely booked.
Alternatively, dine at home and go out just for dessert. A dessert and a cup of coffee at a fancy restaurant won’t set you back as much as a dinner, and you can soak up just as much of the elegant atmosphere. Or you can go to a place that serves only desserts, such as a coffeehouse or ice cream parlor, and enjoy a delicious treat for even less.
As a bonus, a dessert-only date is likely to put you both in a more romantic mood. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that people who have just eaten something sweet tend to have more positive feelings about their relationships.
3. Bring Your Own Bottle
If you want the experience of dining out on Valentine’s Day, don’t pay more than you need to for drinks with your dinner. According to Web Restaurant Store, restaurants typically charge four to five times as much for a glass of wine as they paid for it. The markup on cocktails is even higher — more than seven times the cost of the liquor. All told, one to two drinks with your meal can easily double your total bill.
To enjoy a good wine for less, search online for BYOB (bring your own bottle) restaurants in your area. Restaurants typically charge a “pour fee” or “corkage fee” for providing the glasses and offering pour service. Before making a reservation, check to see how much they charge. In most cases, even with the fee, you pay less for the wine than you would buying it by the glass.
4. Cook It Yourself
A DIY dinner at home can be just as romantic as a restaurant meal. In some ways, it’s even better. You have complete control over the menu and atmosphere, from the background music to the flowers on the table. And you don’t have to stress over details that could ruin the mood, like lost reservations, overworked waiters — or, in 2021, the risk of infection in a crowded place.
Even a pricey dinner, like steak or seafood, is much cheaper if you cook it yourself. However, these expensive dishes aren’t your only options for a romantic meal. Websites like AllRecipes, Epicurious, and Food Network offer a wide range of recipes to impress your partner on a budget, from chicken to pasta to quiche. You can even make your own romantic Valentine’s Day desserts to top things off.
If you don’t have that much confidence in your cooking skills, you can still show your partner some love with a romantic dinner for two. Just put together a charcuterie platter with store-bought delicacies like cured meats, sausage, pate, cheese, bread, olive oil, and delightful nibbles like nuts and dried fruit. All you need is a bottle of wine, some candles, and a playlist of your favorite love songs to complete the intimate atmosphere.
Going out for a meal isn’t the only way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. You can also bond with your significant other at a movie or concert or go out for a night on the town. However, theaters and stadiums are largely closed right now — and they’re expensive even at the best of times.
To get around these problems, you need to get creative. With a little effort, you can plan a unique and fun date that’s just as romantic, even on a shoestring budget.
5. Check Local Listings
Many performance venues have found ways to continue holding events during the pandemic. They’ve held drive-in concerts, livestreaming shows, and socially distanced outdoor performances with the audience wearing face masks. These adapted events aren’t the same as being in the theater, but they’re a chance to see live performances — often for less than you’d usually pay for theater or concert tickets.
You can find entertainment in your area — both live and virtual — by checking your local calendar of events. If you live in or near a college town, you might find streamed or outdoor student productions and performances. You could also catch a free or low-cost exhibit or performance at a local museum, a play reading hosted by your public library, or a drive-in show at a cultural center.
Pro tip: If tickets to a show are no longer available, check out StubHub on the day of the event. Tickets frequently drop in price the closer you get to the event date.
6. Have a Shopping Date
To turn a mundane activity into a romantic date, go shopping together for Valentine’s Day. Pick an inexpensive store you both like to visit, such as a used bookstore, dollar store, or even grocery store. Browse your way along the shelves together, looking at unusual or appealing items. Even if you don’t buy anything, you can have fun looking — and if you do find something you like, you won’t have to pay too much for it.
You can also combine this activity with gift shopping. Instead of buying Valentine’s Day gifts for each other, make hunting for them a part of your shopping excursion. You can cruise down the aisles together and treat your partner to anything they happen to admire or split up and try to find the best gift for your sweetheart within a set time limit. Then meet up back at the cash register, pay for your purchases, and formally present them to each other.
7. Go for a Walk
In many parts of the country, February isn’t the best time for a romantic walk outdoors. However, if the weather is nice enough, you can enjoy strolling hand in hand through your favorite setting, whether that’s the woods, the beach, or the city streets. Or if you both have bicycles, you can enjoy a leisurely bike ride through a pretty area.
Even if it’s cold and snowy where you live, that doesn’t necessarily have to spoil your outdoor fun. You can bundle up and turn your walk into a winter activity, such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or ice skating. You could even build a snowman together as a fun way to revisit your childhood. Then head back home to chase away the chill by snuggling up together under a blanket and sipping hot chocolate with marshmallows.
Sometimes, staying in on Valentine’s Day is more romantic than going out. Instead of coming home from work and hurrying to get dressed and head back out again, you can just settle in for a romantic date night at home. On a cold February day, a night at home is a lot more cozy and companionable than a night on the town. And it lets you devote all your attention to each other.
8. Watch a Movie
Unfortunately, going to the movies isn’t possible in many areas right now — and it’s not such a budget-friendly date anywhere these days. However, staying in and renting a movie through Redbox, watching one on a streaming service like Netflix or Disney+, or checking one out at your local library is still cheap or even free. Pair it by ordering takeout through DoorDash from your favorite restaurant.
In many ways, watching a movie in your living room is much more romantic than going to the theater. You can choose any movie you like — an Oscar winner you’ve always wanted to see or an old favorite that holds sentimental memories for the two of you, like the one you saw on your first date. Instead of paying a fortune at the concession stand, you can enjoy your favorite snacks, sip hot chocolate, or pop open a bottle of wine. And you don’t have to listen to some jerk behind you yakking on a cellphone throughout the movie.
Best of all, instead of sitting in theater seats with an armrest between them, you can snuggle on a cozy couch. And if you want to stop the film and go to bed early, the rest of it will still be there for you the next day.
9. Play Games
Playing card games or board games together is an inexpensive way to spend an evening in. If you and your sweetie are already board game fans, you can spend the evening playing one of your old favorites or trying out a new game that’s been on your list for a while.
If you’re both new to the world of tabletop gaming, check out lists of the most enjoyable games for two players. If you don’t have any of the suggested games in your collection, head out to a local store like Target or Barnes & Noble — or if you have time, browse the adult-friendly game section on Amazon — and pick up a game that appeals to you. Or just grab a deck of cards and look up the rules for two-player card games on Pagat.com.
If you want to give your game night a spicy twist, choose a game with a naughty component, like strip poker or dirty-word Scrabble. Or you could invest in a romantic game designed specifically for couples, such as Talk Flirt Dare or Truth or Dare. Games like these are an alluring segue into more private romantic activities later in the evening.
10. You Know What
Talking of private activities, when Luvze asked men what they really wanted for Valentine’s Day, the No. 1 answer was sex. And while it wasn’t the top answer, almost 50% of women said the same thing in a New York Post survey.
So if you’ve wanted to try something a little adventurous in the bedroom, Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to do it.
One nice thing about this activity is that it doesn’t have to cost a penny. However, if you have a little cash to spare, there are all kinds of things you can buy to make your evening extra spicy, from lube to lingerie.
A week or so before Valentine’s Day, casually ask your partner if there’s any kind of intimate toy or activity they’d like to try. Then pick up the necessary goodies and give your sweetie a very special Valentine’s Day surprise.
There’s a lot of cultural pressure surrounding Valentine’s Day. For weeks leading up to the holiday, store displays and ads send the persistent message that the only way to make your sweetheart feel special on this day is to spend a wad of cash. It’s easy to feel like anything short of a 4-star extravaganza is just letting your partner down.
Remember, though, Valentine’s Day is only one day out of the year. There’s no point in blowing your budget and racking up debt to make this one night special if it means sabotaging your whole financial future.
Saving your money to build a stable future with your partner — whether that means planning a wedding, starting a family, buying a home, or retiring in comfort to enjoy your golden years together — is a much better way to show your love.