A dozen roses. Dinner at a dimly-lit restaurant. A weekend at a Victorian bed and breakfast. My husband has given me all of these things at one time or another over our 18 years together—in fact, we have a tradition of getting away for each anniversary, and that usually entails at least one night at a romantic inn.
But at times in our marriage these big-ticket romantic gestures were just not possible. A few years ago we were flat broke. We were both unemployed and living solely from what we'd tucked away in our checking and savings accounts. Each month, as I subtracted in our checkbook register—never adding a thing—the quivering pit in my stomach grew. Especially as our anniversary approached.
I realize it was selfish even to think about bed and breakfasts at a time like that—as my girls each rotated three outfits for school, and we dressed extra warm in the house to avoid jacking up the furnace. Still, I wondered how we'd manage to make the day feel special.
The morning of our anniversary, I awoke with a heaviness in my chest, saddened that things had to be so different this year, and fearful of how long this uncertainty was going to last.
When I went to wash my face, I found something odd sitting on my hand towel. It was a tiny white scroll, tied with red satin ribbon. I slipped off the ribbon and unrolled it, holding my breath.
On the scroll, in a fancy, cursive font from our computer, were the words to one of my favorite love poems. It was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her husband, Robert. Only the pronouns had been changed so that it was meant for me.
I couldn't rush down the stairs fast enough to find my man and shower him with my grateful, affectionate tears. He didn't spend a cent on that anniversary gift. But it was, quite literally, priceless.
In times of economic hardship, it's easy to think that we have to discard or at least suspend our attempts to pursue romance with our spouses. But the challenges can force us into a level of creativity that was lacking before. While I'm not one to turn down a dinner at my favorite Greek restaurant, it certainly doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to put that evening together.
Here are some ideas for romantic evenings that are either free or nearly free.
1. Location, location, location.
You don't have to go to a restaurant to make your dinner romantic. Do you have a porch, a sunroom, or even a little space in front of your fireplace? How about shoving some sofas around and clearing a place in the middle of your apartment's living room? Grab a little patio table and throw a cloth over it (or throw the cloth on the floor with some pillows!), and serve dinner there—by candlelight, of course. Add a favorite CD and some flowers or greenery from your yard. Better yet: don't tell your spouse you're planning this—just have it ready when he or she arrives home from work or running errands.
2. Memory Lane
For a bit of gas money, take a nostalgic trip to the places that have meant a lot to you. If you still live in (or near) the town where you first met and started dating, you can make little stops at each of those places. Don't even get out of the car—just stop for a few minutes and tell your loved one what you remember about that place, and what you were feeling when you went there together for the first time.
If, like me, you've moved thousands of miles away, you can still go back to some significant memories that you've made in the place you're living now. Where did you go to dinner the night you moved in? Did you get lost in the rain, or wind up with a flat tire somewhere, but things turned out all right in the end—all because you were able to sort things out and laugh together?
3. When You Gotta Go …
Sometimes you feel the need to get away from the house for a few hours, let someone else cook and clean, and just focus on that beautiful face across the restaurant table. It's possible to pull this off for less cash than usual. First, Google the restaurants in your area to look for free coupons (or you can purchase them through MooLala, Groupon, Living Social, Restaurant.com, or your local Entertainment books). The best coupons are the ones that don't require a certain dollar amount for the coupon to be valid. Then it's easy to split your meal—get an entrée to share, and perhaps an appetizer or dessert. Or do one of my favorite things: split your appetizer and dessert and skip the entrée. Less expensive, more whimsical. If the coupon requires that you buy one entrée, you've still saved nearly 50 percent off your meal (remember to tip on the pre-discounted price). Save on beverages by sticking with water—you can fancy it up by asking for lemon or lime slices.
4. Supporting the Amateur Arts
If you and your spouse like plays, musicals, and concerts, you don't have to miss out because you're short on cash. Peruse community calendars in your local newspapers or online. If you're in a college town, you'll likely find oodles of recitals to choose from in the springtime (vocal, instrumental, and dance). These aren't your typical recitals—they're required for music and dance majors and graduate students, so the talent will be well worth your time. Some schools feature the professors themselves. For a more dramatic evening, you can take in a play at the local college or high school. Many large communities have concerts in the park throughout the summer. Whether these events are free of charge or close to it, they'll certainly be less of a strain on your wallet than a night at the symphony hall.
Mandy Houk is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Kyria's Marriage Partnership. She lives with her family and matching Adirondack chairs in Colorado. Check out her blog at http://forbetterforworseforlife.wordpress.com.