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 scenarios are pretty romantic, but they’re also pretty expensive. If your personal budget can’t stretch to accommodate any of them, trying to envision a Valentine’s Day you can afford gets a little depressing. 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. There are plenty of ways to share a romantic evening with your partner, 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 type of date for Valentine’s Day is a dinner out. It’s easy to do on a weeknight, and any city or large town offers plenty of eateries to choose from.
The only problem is the cost. An analysis by Priceonomics 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 big markups for drinks and tips for the waitstaff.
However, that doesn’t mean your only alternative is switching from the romantic bistro to McDonald’s. There are several ways to dine out for less on 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 an 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 for buying it by the glass.
4. Cook It Yourself
A 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 the 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 crowds, lost reservations, or overworked waiters.
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 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 Valentine’s Day desserts to top things off.
If you don’t have that much confidence in your cooking skills, you can still serve up a romantic meal 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 and some candles 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 — if you’ve got the money for it. If you don’t, substitute creativity for cash. With a little effort, you can plan a unique Valentine’s Day date that’s just as romantic, even on a shoestring budget.
5. Check Local Listings
Don’t assume theater or concert tickets are out of your reach just because your budget is tight. Maybe you can’t afford to take in a Broadway show or see your favorite artist, but you can still have a great time watching a performance that isn’t as big a draw.
Check out the listings for smaller venues in your area to see what’s playing in February. You might catch an up-and-coming performer on the verge of going big or an amateur production with lots of raw talent and energy. If you live in or near a college town, don’t overlook student productions and performances. They’re usually quite cheap, and there’s always the chance you could be seeing the stars of tomorrow.
Local calendars of events are also an excellent place to look for free and low-cost entertainment in your area. For instance, museums and cultural centers sometimes stay open late for Valentine’s Day, offering exhibits and performances either for free or at a very reasonable price. You can also look for a showing of a classic film at a public library, a food and wine tasting at a gourmet market, or an open mic event at a local bar or coffeehouse.
Pro Tip: If tickets to a show are no longer available, check out StubHub the day of the event. Tickets frequently drop in price the closer to the event you get.
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, a dollar store, or even a 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 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.
Even if it’s cold and snowy where you live, that doesn’t necessarily have to spoil your outdoor fun. You can simply turn your walk into a winter activity, such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or skating. You could even relive your childhood and build a snowman together.
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 out to the movies isn’t such a budget-friendly date these days. However, staying in and renting a movie through Redbox, watching one on Netflix, or checking one out at your local library is still cheap or even free.
In many ways, watching a movie at home 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 cell phone throughout the movie.
Best of all, instead of sitting in theater seats with an armrest between them, you can snuggle up together 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 like The Spruce’s to find 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 and Noble 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. 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 day special if it means sabotaging your whole financial future. Saving up 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.
What other ideas do you have for affordable Valentine’s Day dates?