The Champagne Life on a DIY Budget Since 2007

$30 Date Night Challenge: 12 Ideas

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Last week, on June 10th, officially marked 12 years since my husband and I first went on our first date and shared our first kiss. Now that we’re married almost half that, we jokingly call it our “smoochiversary.” (Go ahead, gag a little. We’re totally aware of the shmoopieness.)

Every year when it rolls around — more so than our wedding anniversary — it makes me think about the importance of date nights for a lasting partnership. Not just doing something together as a couple, but putting ALL of the screens and distractions away, focusing on, really listening to, and putting in the effort to be your best self for each other, at least a few times a month. Without a doubt, it’s absolutely the best investment you can make in your relationship. (Single? The same exact thing applies to friendships. Regular quality time spent with your closest friends, alone or as a group, is just as important to keep those close friendships thriving.) Social media and texting are nowhere close to enough. Real, present, people time, people. It’s where it’s at. (Or care packages. I’m a huge fan of care packages, but more on that later.)

Which is why I just loved this idea from Food Network chef Damaris Phillips, host of the show Southern at Heart, focused on how to do date nights RIGHT. Phillips and her “gentleman” (gawd I love that) have put themselves up to a $30 Date Night Challenge:

Each date night must last a minimum of five hours, must include a meal, and shouldn’t cost more than $30.

Some of the super cute, unique ideas featured were: dressing up like an old couple for a $12 Groupon photo session; putting together a multi-course picnic, including cocktails: and other fun things, like taking a class at a dance hall. It kinda made me want to double date with them, not gonna lie.

A few years ago, when our budget was really tight, my Christmas gift to Ginger was a calendar in which I had planned out an entire year’s worth of fun and different date night ideas. I put them right into a shared Google calendar (called “Operation Better Date Nights”) so that we’d each get notifications when one was coming up and so that other commitments, or accidental double bookings, couldn’t get in the way, as happens more often than not with couples, amiright? We barely made it from New Year’s to Valentine’s Day sticking to the calendar, but by then it didn’t matter — making time for date night, and finding unique yet affordable ways to enjoy it, had become a habit.

And remember — dates don’t have to be at night, either! Mornings and afternoons count, too. Here are my 12 favorite $30 Date Night ideas, one for each year that Ginger and I have been together. They’re not the sexiest ideas, or the most unique ideas, but the ones that are quality and actually doable on the regular!

1. Flip the tables on cooking dinner, and make it restaurant-worthy.
Task your partner with cooking a 3-course meal at home (salad/appetizer, entree, dessert). One of my favorite cookbooks of all time, Matt Moore’s Have Her Over for Dinner, is an indispensable guide for even the most helpless of cooks — whether they’re male or female. It’s fun to flip the tables and have the one who does all the cooking be the one who gets served for a change, and they will be thrilled with the spoiling (that is, if they can sit back and restrain themselves from supervising). Read my 2010 interview with Matt for how to get that 3-course meal under $30, including all the recipes you’ll need to get it done, and pick up a copy of Matt’s new book, A Southern Gentleman’s Kitchen, while you’re at it.

2. Tackle a DIY project together.
Nothing can test a marriage quite like assembling IKEA furniture, but starting with smaller projects and learning how to visualize, plan, and execute them together can definitely make a marriage stronger. Ginger and I are still working on this, and realizing just how much it can test and improve your communication skills as a couple, but have thoroughly enjoyed the process of making benches for our deck out of cinder blocks and wood beams, of gardening and planting fruit trees, tomatoes, herbs, and mosquito-repelling flowers, and of building an IKEA-hack dry bar for our living room together (all DIY posts coming soon!) It can be grueling work, but when it’s finished there’s nothing like that high five of pride and celebrating together afterwards with some comfort food and the earned calories of sweat equity.

3. Go for a hike.
One of our favorite things to do is to get outdoors, going for hikes and check out new trails together, all year round no matter the weather. Bring the dogs if you have them (or volunteer to walk a shelter dog with you for the day!). Hit the beer garden after. Being outdoors and breaking a sweat together, spotting random things in nature like freaky plants you’ve never seen before or an errant small creature you may not have seen since you were a kid, is a definite bonding experience, and one during which you’re almost sure to have your phones put away. Plus, it can literally cost nothing to do. If you’re not active, get the same outdoor together time by going to a free outdoor concert or taking in a free showing of Shakespeare in the Park or an outdoor movie series. Pack a picnic.

4. Volunteer with a charity you both care about.
For the past two Thanksgivings since moving to Austin, Ginger and I have volunteered with Operation Turkey to help assemble & deliver turkey dinners to the homeless, and we also volunteer together on a more regular basis hosting monthly meet & greet adoption events for our local greyhound rescues. It’s a great way to deepen your relationship by selflesslessly giving to others, and sometimes after our meet & greet events we go grab margaritas & enchiladas with other couples in our greyhound rescue community, which is a great way for us to gush about our passion for the charity in the company of others who care about it and each other as much as we do!

5. Do something fit together for the first time.
With varying results, Ginger and I have tried playing tennis, two-stepping, kayaking, shuffleboard, and other active endeavors together for the first time over the last dozen years, and it’s always brought us closer, even (or especially) when it might be frustrating or humbling that it’s not something one or either of us are any good at. Groupon and local deal books like Austin Passbook or GoLocal are a great ways to find thrifty new things to try — and new places to grab a bite afterwards. We’re psyched about upcoming dates to go zip-lining, rock climbing, and wakeboarding this summer, but if you’re not a super active person, there’s always bowling, mini golf, the batting cages, an arcade, or finding a new swimming hole!

6. Go visit the place where your favorite things are made.
Factory tours, winery and brewery tours, and other places dedicated to favorite things are a great way to bond over shared experiences and to learn more about makers and manufacturers. Plus, the tours usually come with free or discounted samples, so win-win! We’ve visited local wineries and breweries in Massachusetts, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, Nashville, and more, and love the Taza Chocolate Factory Tour back home in Somerville. There’s also always home & garden tours, local architecture tours, and more! Get creative.

7. Take a day trip to a nearby town or city you’ve never been to before.
Even if you’ve both lived in the same region for most of your lives, there’s guaranteed to be a place within a few hours’ drive that you’ve never visited. We’re making the most of our adventures in Austin by trying to take as many day trips to nearby cities and towns as possible, and researching them together on local blogs and publications and planning the best time to go to each one is half the fun! Find weird little local festivals and events (rattlesnake roundup, anyone?) or destination activities, like a much-hyped restaurant or store, and build out a fun few hours together checking it out. We spent our honeymoon weekend checking out Texas Hill Country, and are looking forward to an upcoming Saturday morning taste-testing the best barbecue in Lockhart. Back in Boston, we’d drive up to the North Shore for (gluten free!) fried fish at Woodman’s in Essex, antiquing, and a walk around Halibut Point, or a picnic at Wagon Hill and then shopping in Portsmouth.

8. Stream a show together.
Sure, this might be something that most couples do on the regular, but if you really make a night of it, finding and streaming a new series or less-hyped movie for free while cuddling on the couch is definitely date night material. Be sure to put the phones, iPads, and laptops away, and put some effort into planning it a few days in advance. Make a themed or nostalgic TV dinner together — the first meal I ever made Ginger when we were 24 was hot dogs and smiley fries, I like to pull that out from time to time, and this Downton Abbey-inspired menu has been a huge hit with my Boston.com readers.  Pop some fresh popcorn with a cool new DIY (or buy) popcorn seasoning, like these Doritos copycat blends we recently tried. Getting cozy and creative is the key! We might be a little too excited about the return of Orange is the New Black tomorrow…

9. Take advantage of First Fridays & Free Museums.
Many cities now sponsor first of the month events to highlight local businesses and creative communities, and they can be a great way to spend a night out together without spending much cash. Stroll the local strip checking in on favorite shops or galleries (and their complimentary drinks/snacks) during First Thursdays or First Fridays walks, or find out when local museums are hosting their first of young professionals events, generally free for members (or about $10-$15 per person for non-members) and include live music, free cocktails/nosh, maybe even a free panel, lecture, or speaker/signing of some sort. We loved going to SoWa First Fridays and ICA First Fridays back in Boston, like meeting Os Gemeos at an ICA summer First Fridays reception a few years ago, and can’t wait to check out upcoming SoCo First Thursdays and young professionals parties at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Laguna Gloria art museums here in Austin. Check local nightlife guides, local small business and artists communities, and local museum websites to find events near you!

10. Get involved with local government or community pride projects.
Say what? YES. Civic engagement can be a great way to bring you closer together as a couple, especially when you’re taking part in policy making or panels discussing things that really matter to you, like improving public transportation or community resources on your block, in your neighborhood, or across your city. We’ve been going to local political events together for our entire relationship, like Somerville Local First, Boston World Partnerships, and ONEin3 back in Boston, and there’s nothing quite like seeing each other’s passion or watching your partner’s leadership for improving the quality of life of your community. Since moving to Austin, that’s really involved being highly vocal and visible at Austin Monitor events around public transit, and we’re looking forward to being more involved hyper-locally with our neighborhood association and volunteering with the Austin Parks Foundation and Trails Foundation (so we can continue to enjoy all those free hikes!) It sounds nerdy, but it’s a necessary thing for improving quality of life locally that just happens to also be a great way to share your values and to bond together as a couple!

11. Take a class together & learn something new.
Whether it’s learning a new language as part of a staycation or preparing for an upcoming trip abroad or just going to one of those ever-present paint nights, learning something together is always a bonding experience. For years, we’ve talked about taking a massage class together — something we could then use in our daily lives to bring us closer together (and save tons of money on all that post-fitness soreness) — and free lectures or classes on something you’re DIY-ing together are another great date night idea. We’ve been looking at the free gardening classes offered by the Sustainable Food Center here in Austin, and the Boston Center for Adult Education was always a fantastic resource for cool things to do as a young couple on the cheap — especially when they offer their Take for $10 schedule! and even major retailers like Whole Foods or Williams-Sonoma are now offering free classes and workshops you could take advantage of as a couple. If you can’t get to a free or cheap class locally at the same time, there’s always the online class offerings from places like EdX, Coursera, Skillshare, Creativebug, and others, which you could take independently when time allows and share notes/discuss together when you…

12. Spontaneously hit Happy Hour.
When all else fails, and you’re sorely in need of some time off together, find a local happy hour and spend some time decompressing together over discounted cocktails and dinner. I love that Austin has a Happy Hour app that geo-locates the best happy hour specials going on around you at any given time, and we’ve really embraced happy hour culture since moving to the south. Sometimes, it’s just what the doctor ordered! If you can’t make it to happy hour, there’s always the option to try out making a new craft cocktail at home. These spicy watermelon margaritas have been a huge hit in our house and such fun to make together! Our next deck drinks DIY is definitely going to be recreating our favorite avocado margaritas from Curra’s at home…

OK, your turn! What are YOUR favorite regular date night ideas? We’re always in the market for something new and switching it up, and I would love, love, love to hear from you about what brings you together as a couple! ~Melissa

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