While it might seem like one needs a paycheck with multiple zeroes on the end in order to achieve a happy romantic life, experts swear the opposite is true. “It’s really not what you spend that’s going to make a date successful,” says Steve Smith, the author of Cheap Dates: Fun, Creative and Romantic Dates That Won’t Break Your Budget. “Nine out of ten women tell me that it’s about the thought a guy puts into it.” The dates that follow won’t break the bank, and are far more original than dinner and a movie:

Cheap-but-fun date #1: The beach
If you live near the ocean, paradise is often but a pebble toss away, as an afternoon jaunt to the beach is an ideal way to log quality time without spending a dime. (If you’re not situated near an ocean, a lake can make a mighty fine substitute.) “The water has a calming effect on people,” says Brendan Smith, who lives near the beach in Los Angeles. “It’s a very sensual place, too, because of the rhythm of the water.” Added bonus: a chance to see the object of your desire in a bathing suit.
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Cheap-but-fun date #2: The drive-in movie theater
So they’re not as commonplace as when your parents were dating, but drive-in movie theaters can still be found in most states in America (just check this state-by-state listing online to find one near you). “The drive-in allows you the perfect opportunity to make out,” says C.J. Arabia of San Diego, CA. Arabia says she’s enjoyed watching movies from inside the car, “eating pretzels and dollar hot dogs and other bad food,” as much as setting up folding chairs and sharing the experience. “Either way, it can be really sweet, because you’re watching the movie with a big group of people,” she says, “but you’re also watching it alone.”

Cheap-but-fun date #3: Skating at the roller rink
Forget roller-blading — skating on four wheels will bring even the most cynical of us back to our tender moments of adolescence, when nabbing the boy or girl you liked for the “couples-only skate” was the height of pleasure every weekend. Most roller rinks have a late-night adult-friendly skating option — and some even have gourmet food. Plus, skating is good exercise, which is something you can’t say about wolfing down a pricey meal.

Cheap-but-fun date #4: Bring the café experience to your home
Smith suggests converting a back porch, balcony or roof space into a cozy café. “Move furniture that you have in your place — maybe a table and a lamp — outside and put a music player out there for ambiance,” Smith says. Dress up the meal with little extras, from putting candles on the table to serving coffee in china cups at dessert.

Cheap-but-fun date #5: Go-kart racing
“Go-kart racing is a fun date for just about anyone,” swears Lucy Morgan of Boston, MA. Some tracks offer double-occupancy karts so you can sit in the same vehicle with your sweetie. Or, show your independent spirit by leaving the other person behind in your dust.

Cheap-but-fun date #6: Hiking
Walking around is free, and walking around in nature puts almost anyone at ease. Plus, it provides an environment where two people are given ample opportunity to communicate without any other distractions. “When I went on a hike with the last guy I dated,” says Arabia of San Diego, CA, “we saw a rattlesnake and a tarantula, and he got to be all manly. Plus the view was so incredible it gave us a lot to talk about, so we really got to know one another better.”

Cheap-but-fun date #7: Anything, just add the extras you prefer
Smith has plenty of ideas for transforming an average date-night experience into an extraordinary one. “Maybe you go to a movie, but you slip a little note in the popcorn container with a keychain light for the person to read while the movie plays,” he says. Smith recounts a time when he had a jogging date with a woman, so he went on the route ahead of time and placed two Diet Cokes on ice in a hole in the ground. “She was thrilled,” Smith remembers.

Anna David has written for many national magazines on love, relationships and celebrities.