About a year into being married, my husband and I decided to invest in a weekend away at a marriage conference. It seemed extravagant at first, especially living on less than $35,000 a year, but this was all part of our commitment to invest in our marriage every year. At that conference we really learned about the importance of building rhythms of communication, enjoyment, and rest into your marriage – in other words, they told us we needed to have regularly scheduled date nights.

Making It Happen

Even though we live in the top 1% income range globally, a date night weekly, or even biweekly, can seem like an extravagance when you a) aren’t living on a budget and are barely scraping by or b) are living on a budget and feel bad about the “non-essentials.” But what we learned at the conference was that date night, for married couples, is an essential.

We don’t expect our cars to go more than 5,000 miles without any maintenance and, for the most part, people don’t run their cars into the ground, so to speak. But something so much more valuable and precious, what should be our most intimate human-to-human relationship, often suffers sad neglect.

Maintenance almost always costs money, but just like planning for your regular auto costs, you should be planning for date night. I know, even with that great pep talk, it can seem like adding a line item to your budget is a huge stretch, but we learned how to have a great time without spending much at all. So here are a few tips we learned living on a shoestring:

Principles for Great Dates

  1. Know who you are: The first key to not spending too much (and spending on the right things) is really knowing who you are. Do you love to craft? Does your husband love to play basketball? Do you enjoy nature? Are you movie buffs? Figuring out the things you love to do together will help you make a list of date options so you aren’t having to come up with something new every week. Here are a few free dates that we went on that first year that were based on us and who we are as a couple:
  • Painting by the waterfall in Hahn Horticultural Gardens
  • Playing basketball at the local rec center
  • Biking into downtown together
  • Stargazing
  • Watching the sunset with a picnic dinner

Sounds pretty romantic, right? And they were! Not only that, but they didn’t cost us a penny. My husband wouldn’t call himself an artist, and I’m definitely not a star athlete, but we did what the other one loves, simply because we love each other and we want to be part of every area of each other’s lives.

  1. Don’t underestimate the power of time together: Much of the time, what made a date special to me was the time we spent together, the conversations we had, and the memories we made. There are lots of ways you can stretch just a few dollars to make that extra time extra special – here are a few that we tried:
  • Making dinner together: We love to be in the kitchen together, so instead of spending $40 for dinner when we couldn’t afford it, we would spend just a little extra, like $10 on a bottle of wine that was on sale, to make the meal special. We might also break out a cookbook to see if we could use the ingredients we had on hand in a new way!
  • Hiking: We love the outdoors and exploring new places. Gas isn’t free, but we had that budgeted in already, so with $4 for trail mix and $5 for a day pass to the local trailhead, we could have an all-day date for under $10 when we packed our own PB&J!
  • Road Trip: While we didn’t have time or money to do weekend getaways for most of that second year, we could go on little day trips to enjoy exploring new places – like small towns or tourist destinations – that didn’t cost a thing! We’d often “dress up”  these dates with a special snack, whether it was $4 fudge at a country store or a $2 bag of our favorite potato chips!
  1. Twice as nice, for half the price: Use coupons, discounts, and deals! We used Groupon and Living Social for some of our “fancier” dates. When getting dinner every two months or so can be squeaked into the budget, using a coupon makes it truly guilt free! Restaurant.com and Brad’s Deals also helped us out a few times – just make sure you read the fine print!
  1. You don’t have to go “all in” every time: Sometimes simple is best. Even now that we have two incomes, we still have simple dates that are our weekly go-tos just because we love them! Some are cheap, others are free, but all of them make us smile. I should mention before I jump into the ideas that part of what makes these special is we don’t do this all the time. Just like working full time is what makes vacation and a break from the routine sweet, we can have coffee dates because we don’t allow ourselves to stop at Starbucks every morning (or even every week)! A little discipline goes a long way, not just in your budget, but in your enjoyment of the “special” things too.
  • Frosty date! This year Wendy’s came out with little key tags in January that you can buy for a dollar or two that will get you a free Jr. Frosty with any purchase. We’ll buy one or two of these (the proceeds from these tags usually go toward the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption) and then buy a thing of fries each and have a Frosty and Fry date for less than $5.
  • Coffee date! It took years, but I will occasionally enjoy a good coffee now. While living in England, our very favorite thing to do on a Saturday was to walk through the cobblestone streets to our favorite bookshop, head up to the cafe on the third floor, and perch there for a few hours sipping our latte or hot chocolate and losing ourselves in a good book.
  • Coldstone date! If I had my druthers, I would pick a local ice cream shop rather than a chain, but Coldstone has been the most commonly and readily available where we have lived. Sometimes we would do froyo since, as much as I love ice cream, it doesn’t love me. But instead of doing dinner and dessert out, we would eat dinner at home and just do dessert.


Even for coffee and dessert, even now, I am a mega coupon clipper. I just don’t see why I should pay $10 for ice cream when, if I save my grocery receipt, I can do buy one, get one for $5. Same with coffee; our local paper delivers an ads insert every quarter with deals from local businesses. The local coffee kiosk always puts a few coupons in there and we usually get one free drink and a buy one, get one from that ad. I’ll talk more about never paying full price in a future post.

All you need is a little imagination…

I hope some of these ideas have stirred your imagination. A lack of funds might seem like a downer, but if you look at it as a way to get creative, it can end up being even more fun than if you could do whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. The creative juices can have a drought sometimes though, so we recommend making a date jar, like the one below (credit: BudgetGirl.


Just take an evening to brainstorm some date ideas that are within your budget. You can do it a bunch of different ways – make a his, hers, and ours list and paint your sticks accordingly; rank your ideas by cost and paint your sticks accordingly; whatever system works for you, use it and rekindle the fun and the romance of a night (or day) set aside for just the two of you!