Not everyone is a big fan of Valentine’s Day. My husband and I, for instance, see it as an excuse to sell greeting cards and boxes of chocolate. When February 14th rolls around, you won’t catch us at a fancy restaurant or on a romantic getaway.
But as cynical as we can be, we still make a point to celebrate in some way every year. Valentine’s Day is a great excuse to spend time together, create some memories and maybe even exchange a gift or two. We just try to do that without spending too much money.
Over the years, we’ve perfected the art of the cheap date. Here are some of our favorite options for budget-friendly ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Cook a Nice Meal Together
I’ll never forget the first Valentine’s Day that my now-husband and I spent together. We were broke college students and couldn’t afford a nice dinner, but we still wanted to mark the occasion with something special.
We decided to cook a meal together, with lasagna as the main course. I can’t remember whose idea it was, but we found a recipe on the evening of February 14 and went to shop for ingredients.
We quickly realized that making lasagna was more of a time commitment than we’d predicted. Boiling the pasta, cooking the meat, assembling the layers – the whole meal took at least an hour to make and almost as much time to clean up.
The recipe made enough lasagna to feed a family, and it tasted like sour meat pudding. It took us five days to force ourselves to eat it all, and we haven’t made it since. Almost 10 years later, we still joke about how much we hate lasagna.
But despite the end result, that was probably the best Valentine’s Day we’ve ever celebrated. As a young couple, the thrill of making a meal together for the first time – and screwing it all up – was worth the yucky leftovers. It was exciting, funny and ultimately memorable.
If you and your significant other don’t live together, consider attempting a fancy meal from scratch. It costs much less to buy a salmon fillet from the grocery store than it does from a restaurant, and making the meal yourselves will add an extra layer of bonding.
If cooking isn’t your thing, you can still have a food-focused celebration by visiting a local specialty store. My husband and I love to go to a nearby market and splurge on items we’d never buy otherwise, like charcuterie and fresh pastries. It feels indulgent, but doesn’t usually cost more than $30-$50.
Do a Winter Activity
Unless you live in a tropical environment, spending Valentine’s Day outside probably sounds awful. Freezing temperatures, blustering wind and sidewalks full of ice are no one’s idea of a romantic date. That is, unless you’re the special kind of lunatic who loves winter weather.
If you and your significant other thrive in the cold, embrace the season and be frugal with a winter-themed Valentine’s Day celebration. Check out your local ice skating rink, where admission and skate rental is usually cheaper than a movie ticket.
If you’re more outdoorsy and adventurous, you can go sledding, snowshoeing or even cross country skiing if you have the equipment. Afterwards, you can warm up with hot cocoa or hot toddies at home.
Act Like a Kid
One of the most unique (and fun) Valentine’s Days my husband and I have shared is an afternoon at the arcade. We played air hockey, Pac-Man and other games from our childhood. After we were done, we grabbed a couple slices of pizza. I think we each spent about $20 for the whole day.
We were by far the oldest people there without kids, but we didn’t care. Arcades are a hidden date night gem because they’re affordable, interactive and nostalgic. If you spent time in arcades as a kid, going there with your significant other will provide ample opportunity to reminisce about your childhoods.
Other fun, cheap activities include bowling, hitting up your local roller skating rink, playing miniature golf or riding go-karts. Usually these places are targeted for families with kids, so they’re more affordable than typical date night destinations.
Go to a Flea Market
My husband and I frequently go on dates to flea markets and thrift stores. We love the hunt, the ridiculous merchandise, and most of all, how cheap everything is. Since we moved in together years ago, we also use it as an opportunity to find unique knick-knacks for our home.
Huge flea markets usually take hours to get through, making them a frugal way to spend Valentine’s day. You don’t actually have to buy anything to have a good time – just seeing the crazy stuff on sale is great for conversation and memory-making.
Be a Tourist in Your City
If you’re like me and have lived in your city for a while, you probably take for granted what other people like about your town. As they say, no one who lives in New York actually goes to the Statue of Liberty.
This Valentine’s Day, look up the best attractions in your city and find out which ones are the most affordable. It might surprise you how many museums, monuments and landmarks are free or very cheap to enter.
Get a Cheap Couples Massages
Want to spend your Valentine’s Day with a relaxing massage? You could spend between $50 and $90 for a 60-minute session, so booking time with a masseuse is not usually the most frugal choice.
That’s why I recommend trying a local massage school, which often have discounted prices. Your masseuse will be a student trying to get enough hours for their certification, but likely with more than enough experience to give a great rubdown. The massage school near me only charges $30 an hour for a regular or hot stone massage.
They may even run specials for Valentine’s Day. For the cost of a cheap dinner, you could each have an afternoon of pampering and relaxation.
Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A former reporter, she has covered murder trials, the Final Four and everything in between. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. Read about how she paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years at Debt Free After Three.