Date Ideas on a Budget

Everyone has had that fantasy of impressing a boyfriend or girlfriend with a fancy five-star dinner and Broadway show, only to remember that they couldn’t actually afford to plan “the perfect date.” Here’s a newsflash: Dates don’t have to be fancy and expensive to be enjoyable. In fact, sometimes casual, inexpensive dates are the most fun and give you the best chance of getting to know a person or actually talk.

So here’s the question: Would you rather be dressed up in your best clothes eating a prix fixe meal that is serving small plates of escargot, paté, and frogs legs in a restaurant where you are the youngest by 60 years OR would you like to be in your favorite pair of jeans or your favorite sundress, relaxing on a blanket, munching on whatever foods you actually like, and getting to know one another?

Check out a few of the cheap date ideas listed below for your chance at true romance.

"If we're going to pay this much for crab it better sing and dance and introduce us to the Little Mermaid."

Date Night / Giphy

Cook together.

Cooking together makes eating fun. If you totally screw up, you can always go to the dining hall together, and you end up with a pretty good story. If you aren’t proud of your cooking skills and need something simple, try a breakfast date. This avocado toast would go really well with an assortment of fruit. Or, make huevos rancheros. You just need to fry up a couple of eggs, serve them on corn tortillas, and top them with salsa. If you’re feeling adventurous, try it homemade.

The Swedish Chef dancing in the kitchen

The Muppets / Giphy

Have a picnic.

Whether you go to the local park or just camp out on the quad, picnicking can be the perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon. Pack up some finger-friendly foods: firm cheeses, veggies and hummus, fruit, olives, hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, or cookies. Add some sparkling cider, bottled water, or juice boxes, and you’ve got a great date. Bring a blanket, a frisbee, and any utensils you may need. Don’t forget to pack the sunscreen!

A couple enjoying a picnic by the lake

Twin Peaks / Giphy

Go to a sporting event.

Even some of the smallest colleges compete. Go to a football, basketball, or volleyball game on campus! If you go to an NCAA Division I school, getting student tickets to games may be challenging or expensive, but if your school is smaller or unranked, you may not have to pay anything at all and seating probably won’t be reserved. Go, team, go!

Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber on the Kiss Cam

Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber / Giphy

See on-campus performances.

Check out the theater, music, and dance departments at your school. Colleges often have student performances, and tickets are cheap (or free) for students. You may get the chance to see a student-led version of Les Miserables or Swan Lake or hear the men’s a capella choir. College campuses also often host bigger, more famous people. Maybe there’s a talk by a former politician or your favorite band is doing a show. Events should be listed online, and you’ll have plenty to talk about over coffee with your date after you go!

Cinderella and Prince Charming walking together

Cinderella / Img Flip

Take a hike.

Get outside! Explore what nature has to offer in your area! You can look up local trails using this website. Be sure to bring plenty of water, wear appropriate shoes, and take precautions against any native wildlife. For example, if you are hiking somewhere with rattlesnakes, wear tall, thick shoes and long socks. If you’re hiking in bear country, carry bear spray. Be sure to tell someone where you’re headed before you go, and then have fun!

"The air is too fresh. It's disgusting. I can't breathe."

Parks and Recreation / Giphy

Work out together.

There’s nothing that brings people together like sweat. As a student, you can visit your school’s gym for free, so why not make it a date? Challenge each other to stationary bicycle races. See who can plank for the longest. Spot each other when you lift weights or use weight machines. Or, take a run outside. You can see a little bit of scenery, spend time with your person, and get fit in the process. After you’re done, don’t forget to stretch! Then, walk to a place that sells smoothies or protein shakes. You’ll still be full of adrenaline and endorphins, so take advantage and continue the date!

A male and female working out next to each other.


Visit the bookstore.

So many romantic comedies have the main characters meeting in a bookstore: Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally, and You’ve Got Mail to name a few of them. Since you’ve probably already met, a meet-cute like in the movies is a little unrealistic, but browse around the shelves together. You’ll learn a lot about another person by the types of books that grab your date’s interest. Visit the travel section and talk about where you’d like to go someday. Pick out books for each other and have a miniature book club. Plus, most bookstores have coffee shops if you need a break from all the pages.

Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant see each other for the first time in a bookstore.

Notting Hill / Giphy

Look up free local events.

The National Museum of Art in Washington D.C. holds free live music events every Friday night during the summer. Some cities have free art, culture, and science museums, and some offer free admission on certain days of the month. Consider attending street festivals or art shows, or visit a farmer’s market and sample some of the things being sold. Miami offers free yoga classes in Peacock Park three times a week. A quick internet search will return plenty of free options, guaranteed.

A Ferris wheel in front of fireworks


Explore your city.

Have you ever played the game when you pretend to be a stranger in your hometown? Try it with your college town. It’s fun, it’s cute, and it gets you off campus. Visit all the sites, walk through the streets of downtown, browse local shops, and stop for a photo with local statues or public artwork. You could even bring some bread and feed the ducks at the cemetery. You could stop for a snack at the local old-time ice cream parlor or see free exhibits at the public library. The possibilities are endless!

A couple walking together


Whatever you do, leave the phone off (unless you’re snapping photos)! Dates are for spending time together, not for spending time with your electronics. You’ll be glad you did!

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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