The date that turned John Owens' girlfriend into his wife didn't cost much. He filled a cooler full of beer and sandwiches and took her on a night-fishing trip with another couple.
"It was a great night and it cost me a couple of bucks for bait and that was it," said Owens, now head of marketing for ING Direct USA in Wilmington, Del.
In a still-dragging economy, Owens thinks more people should follow that example. But a new study by his company indicates that cheap dates might be dicey for guys. The reason: When asked what words they associate with a frugal blind date, women said a guy would be stingy and boring, while men thought a frugal girl would be smart and sexy.
The tough news for guys is that this smart and sexy girl is probably going to expect her male counterpart to pick up the check, said Evan Marc Katz, a Los Angeles dating coach and author of "Why You're Still Single." That used to be because women earned considerably less than men, if they worked at all; now it's because women find a generous man nurturing.
"It's not about money per se," Katz said. "The appearance of generosity in a date is very important to women."
But the date does not have to be expensive. Particularly in a big, vibrant city like Los Angeles, great dates can be cheap, Katz said. In fact, going to inexpensive events can be more engaging than the traditional dinner and movie, no matter who is footing the bill.
Katz says he and his wife check out the weekly festivals around Los Angeles, which offer a variety of ethnic foods, art and athletics. A recent Google search for "festivals in Los Angeles," for instance, turned up bountiful entries, including the free Abbot Kinney Youth & Family Court festival with live music and 300 vendors.
Many park and recreation departments put on outdoor film festivals. One recently screened "The Princess Bride." And there were vendors on site to sell food.
"If you are paying a cover charge and you're buying funnel cakes or whatever they're selling, it's going to cost you something, but it's not going to break the bank," Katz said. "These are great dates and you're going to get out for less than $40."
Owens also recommends taking a picnic to the park or beach or using the downloadable FourSquare application on your phone to find local happy hours and other restaurant deals that you can "accidentally" stumble onto without looking like you're trying to be cheap.
Coupon websites such as Groupon, Living Social and Restaurant.com can also help you buy a meal for a fraction of the retail price. Restaurant.com typically sells $25 restaurant gift certificates for $10; Groupon and Living Social deals are all over the map. Groupon recently offered a three-course meal and flamenco show for $15 (a $36 value) while Living Social was advertising 57% off cupcakes.
If your date is active, the possibilities are endless, Katz added. It could be rollerblading or bike riding in the mountains or at a lake. You could go hiking, and if you don't know the local trails, search the Web. Local Sierra Clubs sponsor night hikes all over the country.
You could also play one-on-one basketball or go fishing, Katz suggested.
Museums and botanical gardens are also a deal. Some are free. Others charge a small entrance fee. If you go frequently, an annual pass can save a few bucks.
After several dates, you can offer to cook dinner, Katz added. But cooking too soon is considered bad form, partly because it sounds like a line to lure your date into your lair.
To be sure, you may want to schedule an elegant evening here and there, but planning bargain dates for a good portion of the time is practical, not stingy.
"If a man goes out on two dates a week, and 50% of the women don't want to see him again, he's spending a lot of money on strangers," Katz said. "There's no correlation between a good date and an expensive date. If she thinks there is, she's probably not the right person."
Besides, he says, those cheap, active dates are often better and low-pressure.
"You're not just sitting across a table interviewing somebody for the role of your future spouse."