After moving to San Francisco our dates included going to the taqueria in the Mission or hitting up the BYOB Indian restaurant where we could get an entire meal for less than $20. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was fantastic.
Over the years, we somehow lost that. Not only did the costs of our dinner dates balloon, so did the cost of going out with friends. Suddenly a casual Wednesday evening with a girlfriend would include dinner or drinks that would have made the old Erica anxious.
There’s nothing wrong with going out to expensive dinners, but it felt like it was becoming our default. Neither of us was particularly excited about this and we wanted to be more creative with the activities we chose to do with each other and with friends. But it always felt like a lot of work to research something new to do and we’d end up with our default of pricey – yet easy to plan – evenings out.
While we’re aggressively saving this year, we didn’t want that to come at the expense of enjoying our time living abroad. Really, what good is saving money if you’re absolutely miserable while doing it?
We started brainstorming a list of creative nights out that wouldn’t break the bank and were more creative than our default dinner and drinks. Once Henry was born, we committed to Friday night date nights, but since we can’t always hire a sitter, we’ve expanded our creative date night list to include fun nights in.
As a bonus, we’ve been able to use this list when spending time with our friends. These date night ideas are cheaper, yes, but also much more fun.
A recent favorite date night:
A few weeks ago we had a sitter lined up. It had been a long week, we were both exhausted, and part of me just wanted to park myself at the Lebanese restaurant down the street and stuff myself full of baklava and wine.
Instead, we strapped on our sneakers and went for an evening hike. We did a 4-mile hike which took us through our downtown, across a river, along farmers fields and horse pastures, and in a gully overgrown with trees. We ended the hike at a 16th-century inn and restaurant where we ordered drinks and sat outside in their cozy beer garden.
It was the perfect evening. We were able to explore what is in our backyard and gain a new appreciation for how beautiful our neighborhood is. After a long week of being sedentary behind a computer, it forced us to do something good for ourselves. And we watched a gorgeous sunset that we would have missed had we been inside.
Aside from the sitter, the date was cheap. I stopped by a craft beer store and a market earlier in the day to pick up snacks for our hike. We rewarded ourselves with a few drinks at the inn at the end of our journey and called an uber for the quick ride home.
2 bottles of craft beer: $8
Appetizers (olives, cheese twists, chocolates): $7
Drinks out: $19
Babysitter for 3 hours: $50
*Note: I’ve converted our cost to dollars
Ready to change up your date night – whether you’re spending time with your significant other or friends? Here’s a list of things we’ve done, or are planning to do.
For a fun night out:
Museums: we’ve been lucky living in London that entrance to many of the amazing museums is free. And most museums have one night that they are open late. We used to pop by the Victoria and Albert Museum on Friday nights. They’d stay open until 10 with a DJ, a bar, and free entry. Even if museums in your city aren’t free, it’s usually a less expensive option for a night out. For example, night entry to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is $5 and night entry to the California Academy of Sciences is $15.
Walking or biking tour: just because you’re not a tourist doesn’t mean you can’t tour your city. Hop a bike tour or join a walking tour. Some of my favorite walking tours have been historical neighborhood tours that are free (donations appreciated).
Hiking: perfect any time of the day, but summer night hikes are my favorite. Pack a picnic and bring drinks if you legally can (watch those open container laws).
Art gallery: another free way to get some culture on a night out. Plus, you might just get a glass or two of free wine.
Lectures and speaker series: live near a university? You likely have access to an amazing selection of free lectures. For example, this list of 8 free lecture series in the San Francisco Bay Area. Go get your learn on and grab a coffee after to discuss and sound oh so smart.
Movies or performances on campus: adding onto the free campus activities, check out other events on campus. They usually have unique movie screenings or performances either by students or by traveling artists.
Community theater: no university nearby? Check out your community theater. Jordan and I paid $20 for tickets to a play in a pub and it was one of the most memorable evenings in London that we’ve had.
Dance class: before our wedding Jordan and I went to a community dance class and it was a blast. The fee was just a few dollars and we spent two hours fox trotting with the senior crowd. Honestly a great time.
Bookstore events: I’m a total nerd at heart (in case you can’t tell by this list) and one of my favorite things is to go with friends to bookstore events. They’ll often bring in speakers and you can attend for free.
Old movie theaters: forget $15 tickets. Head to the old school movie theater in your town to watch a classic. Tickets are usually cheap as chips and this feels even more special than going to your standard AMC theater.
Last minute cheap seats: have a decent theater selection in your city? Check for last minute cheap tickets. Ticket prices will often be 50% off for performances the night of.
And if you still prefer eating out to anything else on the list, try these options:
Lunch date: take advantage of lunch specials at restaurants that have a pricier dinner menu. We regularly find deals that include two courses plus a glass of wine for $14 a person.
BYO: alcohol adds quite a bit to the final bill. Skip that extra cost and find a BYO restaurant that doesn’t charge a corkage.
Seated app: ok so this doesn’t actually make your date cheaper, but you can get a gift card just by making your reservation through this app. Download the app, make a reservation, meet the minimum spend requirement, and get a $20-$60 gift card from Amazon, Starbucks, or Lyft. This can be a great option just as long as you don’t spend more than you normally would just to meet the minimum spend requirement.
Groupon: my mom and I once spent 3 days in New York and ate out almost entirely with Groupons. And guess what? Every meal was great.
Restaurant week: save your list of the most fantastic restaurants in your city and visit them during restaurant week. You’ll find a lot of restaurants offering prix fixe menus at a discounted price. Do some digging though – not all restaurant week menus are a good deal.
I’ve always appreciated a good night in, but now that babysitters can kind of blow the budget, I’ve become even more appreciative of a fun evening at home.
Game night: Jordan and I had friends in town last year and rather than going out one evening, we stayed in playing games. It was a highlight of their visit and reminded me that a good old game night is incredibly fun. Our current favorite game: Yahtzee.
Stargaze with SkyView: at home on a clear night? Download the SkyView app for free and head outside to spot the different constellations. Kick it up a notch with smores or an adult hot chocolate.
Dining al fresco: who says dinner needs to be eaten indoors? Definitely not me. Take your meal into the backyard and make it fancy. Light a bonfire (Jordan and I bought a cheap fire pit), or string up some twinkle lights. When we can’t get a sitter and get out of the house, this has been an easy way to feel like we’re escaping.
Try a new recipe: forget your boring weeknight staples. Open a bottle of wine and sharpen your cooking skills by making a new recipe at home. Get adventurous and roll your own sushi or make pasta from scratch. And don’t forget to focus on restaurant quality presentation to make it feel much more special.
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Erica Gellerman, CPA
Erica Gellerman is a CPA, MBA, personal finance writer, and founder of The Worth Project: a weekly money newsletter you actually want to read. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Money, Business Insider, The Everygirl, The Everymom, and Lifehacker. When she’s not writing about personal finance you can find Erica exploring Europe from her temporary home base in London.