Image: Couple at a museum
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A visit to a museum often is an inexpensive or even free alternative to a night out at a theater or club.
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msnbc.com
updated 10/24/2008 4:09:34 PM ET 2008-10-24T20:09:34

Earlier this year, Elvert Howard wined and dined women at fine restaurants in Chicago. Now, he's treating gals to happy hour appetizers and drinks at T.G.I. Friday's.

Since Howard's work slowed in March, the advertising account executive isn't willing to shell out as much on dates. Rather than whisking women to the theater after dinner, he began opting for The Art Institute of Chicago when admission was free after happy hour. He says that by being creative, he can cut costs and still show dates a good time for an entire evening.

"If you approach them with a good personality and you get excited about the museum … [and] if a girl has the same interest in the museum, she won't mind" that the museum is free, said  Howard, 35. "I won't mention the fact that it's free."

The economic downturn and tumbling stock market have forced many singles — especially men — to reconsider the gesture of a costly splurge on date night. While a few are taking a break from dating until their financial circumstances improve, more seem to be opting for less costly options.

"Everybody is anxious about the economy," said Anna D'Agrosa, director of consumer insights with Zandl Group, a trend-spotting agency. "Even if you're not personally affected, it's not as fun to throw down a ton of money — but do something interesting."

A recent survey by Zandl of 300 people in their 20s and 30s found that singles are less interested in spending money on a night out, with almost half saying they are partying more at home.

Singles are trading down from Whole Foods (nicknamed "Whole Paycheck" for its steep prices) to Trader Joe's. More are passing up posh clubs for convenient bars, happy hours or house parties, D'Agrosa said. Romantically, singles are turning down swanky restaurants for casual rendezvous or even homemade dinners, she said.

Breaking away from the formal dinner date
Rachel Sarah, 36, returned to the dating scene as a single mom a few years back. She regularly met men at gourmet restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area until about a year ago.

Since then her dates have been more casual, if more original. She has bowled, roller skated  and hiked with guys. Besides the chocolate, fruit and water she and her date split on their three-hour hike, the only other price she paid was getting poison oak.

Sarah sees benefits in removing money from the dating equation.

"It can be so much less awkward than sitting at a fancy restaurant and worrying about the bill and how you can split the bill," she said.

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One reason for her view is that Sarah is adamant about covering her chunk of the bill on dates. Finding herself grappling with layoffs in her regular jobs, the freelance writer has nixed upscale restaurants from her dating budget. Sarah is pitching more casual date ideas to avoid winding up at a pricey place she can't afford. She would feel uncomfortable just letting a guy pay, she says.

Looking good comes at a price, too. To save money on dating outfits, Sarah and some of her gal pals came up with The First Date Skirt. Each woman buys a single, sexy skirt to be worn on her first dates. Recently, Sarah had to buy a new first-date outfit — a $40 blue, tight-fitted dress she picked up at a boutique — to replace the skirt.

"It got so frayed, I can't wear it on a first date anymore," she said.

Guys looking to cut back more than gals
While women may be trimming back their spending on apparel, men are particularly keen on cutting the cost of dating, likely because they often pay initially. A recent survey of 2,286 singles by online dating service True.com found that about half of men said they would curb their romantic expenses in a hard economy, compared with more than a third of women.

Jake Harrison, 27, sees reasons to cut back on his dating budget even though his work as a furniture designer is going well. His anxiety about the economy and rising prices have combined to make him more frugal. He's taken to cooking dinner at his apartment — even on first dates.

"When you bring somebody into your home, there are a lot of things around that can initiate a conversation," Harrison said. "The problem with the movies: You're sitting speechless for two hours and then maybe afterwards you talk about it a bit."

Harrison, who's gay, also finds it a good test to ask guys out to a favorite hot dog joint in in Brooklyn — something that hasn't appealed to everybody.

"It's a good sign when somebody on a first date can have as much fun at a local hotdog stand as a four-star restaurant with expensive liquor," he said.

The costly dinner date has been an American tradition at least since the 1920s. But Jamie Turndorf, a psychologist and creator of drlove.com, says money isn't necessary to spark a connection. So what is?

"Spending the time and listening to each other — whatever enables you to do that, it doesn't have to be at a fancy restaurant," Turndorf said.

But traditions die hard. Howard misses taking gals to gourmet restaurants. He used to plan his formal dinner dates during off hours to avoid the prime-time hustle and bustle, allowing him to get better acquainted with his dates. Unfortunately, the racket at T.G.I. Friday's can interrupt the flow of conversation, Howard says.

But he's recently come up with new dating ideas that may stick after his freelance advertising work picks up. Howard and a date recently grabbed coffee, took a stroll through Lincoln Park and window-shopped.

"When my income returns to the normal level, I'll do that but incorporate other activities like nicer restaurants and move, on the first date, to the theater to see 'Rent,' 'Wicked' or 'Mamma Mia,'" he said.

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