(LifeWire) -- Anna Hake, 24, and her boyfriend were hunting for some interesting -- and inexpensive -- ways to spend time together. Their solution: making a date to attend the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, touted as the world's largest showcase for S&M products and culture.
Find things you can do locally that take more effort than money.
"We walked by a table with floggers and whips on it, and the guy running the booth encouraged us to give it a try," says Hake, a nonprofit organization program coordinator who lives in San Francisco. "We both looked at each other and were, like, 'When in Rome...' "
Though the couple decided it ultimately wasn't for them, the experience was memorable.
"We may not be into bondage," Hake says, "but it was good for bonding."
And all it cost was a small donation that benefited local nonprofits.
Michael Hotard took the idea of a cheap date one step further.
Like most college students, Hotard, 22, who graduated from the University of Georgia this past May, had limited funds -- a predicament that prompted him to found the UGA Cheap Date Club during his sophomore year. Though the 15-member group disbanded when the majority of members graduated, he still believes in the club's basic philosophy.
"A good date is about spending time with a person and being able to talk to and get to know that person, and I don't think that has any correlation with how much money you spend," Hotard explains.
To guarantee your night will end with plans for a second date instead of a hefty bill, here are four steps to fine-tuning your romantic planning when finances are tight.
1. Work with what you have
Every place has something to offer. Coastal areas boast beaches, while many landlocked cities have parks and greenbelts or are in close proximity to rivers, lakes or mountains. Plan a hike, a bike ride or go in-line skating and pack a picnic. In the winter, if you live in a cooler climate, you can go ice skating or sledding and warm up with hot chocolate.
Hotard culled date inspiration from his student surroundings.
"In Athens (home of the University of Georgia Bulldogs), there's a lot of bulldog statues around town as a public art (project). There's probably 36 of them painted in all different styles," he says. "So (my girlfriend and I) spent one afternoon and went to all the bulldogs taking pictures together with a digital camera."
Not only did Hotard's girlfriend benefit from his idea, others did as well. "Once I posted the pictures on Facebook, people were like, 'Oh, that's something I've been meaning to do before I graduate,' and 'Where's that bulldog? I have to find that one'," he says.
2. Play off your shared interests
Find an interest that you both have -- any interest, really. Let's say you both watch "Saturday Night Live" and loved the episode featuring the rap ode to cupcakes that found half a million viewers on YouTube.
"Knowing that I was obsessed with the 'Lazy Sunday' video from 'Saturday Night Live,' my date tried to recreate it for me," says Kim Daly, 27, a New York City-based magazine editor.
"We met for a stroll through the West Village and stopped for cupcakes at Magnolia. The best part? He wore a coat with a fur collar -- just like the one Andy Samberg had on! It ended up being a totally memorable afternoon and was way more fun than a pricier date would have been."
3. Learn something new together
Rather than spend the night watching a DVD, try something that allows you to interact with each other while exploring a different craft or skill. Local wine tastings can be inexpensive as well as educational, and paddling down a river in a two-person kayak, as you can do in Boston, Massachusetts, is often a low-cost outdoor activity.
If you're looking for something a little more intimate, try "sex-positive" shops like Babeland, which has locations in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, and offers sex toys and classes geared to enhancing your sex life, many of them free.
4. A little effort goes a long way
The home-cooked meal is the standby of all cheap dates, and with good reason: It takes far more effort to slave over a hot stove than to call a restaurant to make a reservation. To up the romantic quotient even more, move the meal outdoors.
"Any chimp can take you out to dinner," says Melissa Chang, 41.
Instead, the Honolulu, Hawaii-based marketing manager's boyfriend took her out for a moonlit picnic in a park on Valentine's Day. Though the spread was safe on all counts -- baked brie, strawberries and champagne -- what was most impressive was the effort that it signified. "For me, it meant more than a 'normal' Valentine's dinner because of the thought that went into it," Chang says. E-mail to a friend
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Jocelyn Voo is a freelance journalist and relationships editor at the New York Post.