When I entered the dating world again — as the 32-year-old single mom of a toddler — my time constraints and frumpy wardrobe weren’t the only things that stressed me out. It was also money. Dating can be expensive — even before you’ve said “hello” to a prospective mate. The monthly online dating fee was worth it, but it was already a stretch for me. How was I going to pay for dinner and a movie, too? Eager to get out, I was forced to be creative, and soon I discovered that even when your money is tight, it doesn’t mean you have to sit home alone and watch Grey’s Anatomy.

Make that first date an unusual one
Forget the expensive Italian restaurant or impressing your date with center row theater tickets. Doing something unusual can make it easier to socialize, and also take financial pressure out of the equation. According to Diane Mapes, the author of How to Date in a Post-Dating World, it’s especially important to keep first-date expenses down. “Money can be such a huge sticking point,” Mapes says, and there’s no reason to start things off awkwardly. “A cheap first date is an important way to sidestep that."

Besides, free can actually be fun. Fly a kite. Feed the ducks. Take a ferry ride. All it takes is a little ingenuity, like when Limor Farber of Kauai, HI, met a blind date at her local swimming pool. “It took a while before I got in the water,” Farber admits, but once she got her feet wet, the date went, well, swimmingly.
Browse Local Singles at Match.com
Seek out places with props
OK, so you’ve made it through the first date inexpensively enough to afford a second. Now what? A café is always a safe choice for early dates. But too many coffee dates in a row — with both of you staring into your lattes — can get dull. That’s why Mapes suggests meeting in places with props, like at a bookstore. “You already have something immediate to talk about, such as, ‘Have you read this book?’” says Mapes. Plus, she adds, bookstores often have interesting events going on, like book signings, lectures, or cooking demos — all of which are both fun and free.

Flea markets are another prop-laden alternative to a humdrum café. “It doesn’t cost you a penny if you don’t want to buy anything,” says Mapes. “And there are lots of props that might spark a discussion. He might tell you about his mother’s collection of buttons, which would be a natural impetus to get to know each other better.”

Look like a million bucks, but spend less than fifty?
Think you need to spend a lot to look great on a date? No, you don’t! My own wardrobe lifesaver is simple and practical: I bought just one “first-date outfit.” Remember that your first date has never met you, so he or she doesn’t know that you wore the same outfit last weekend (and the weekend before, and the weekend before). Admittedly, I’ve never met a guy who has a “first-date outfit,” but my friend Alan says that looking sharp on his dates — wearing a nice belt, ironing his trousers — can make a low-budget outfit look more impressive.

Get some fresh air
Fresh air isn’t just free, it’s invigorating. Beth Gracely, of Boulder, CO, loves to hike with her dog, so a first date for her often means meeting “on a great trail 10 minutes from my house, one that doesn’t take you to remote places.” (While there were no sparks on a recent hike, Gracely and her date became friends and have since swapped dog-sitting.) Mapes also recommends exercising together on a date, but she’d prefer to take an urban walk than to venture out on a hike. “He could be really annoying,” she says of a potential date, “and then you’re stuck in the woods for hours with him.”

Don’t shell out for high-priced babysitters
When you’re a single parent, dating on a budget comes with an additional challenge: babysitting. Here’s how I keep the cost down: Every Wednesday night, I meet my two closest single-parent friends — and our daughters — for dinner at one of our homes. Every so often, I’ll take this opportunity to dash out the door to meet a date for an hour. If you don’t have a built-in network, most cities have single-parent groups, which is a great way to meet people to swap childcare. For older kids, the YMCA and local gyms often have special kid nights on the weekends that might buy you a few free hours for a date.

And if you and your date both have kids, this commonality might actually work in your favor. Jill Mason, who blogs at www.datingwithchildren.net, recalls one of her favorite first dates, when she and a divorced dad met to go Christmas shopping for their respective kids. She used the money she might have spent on an expensive date to buy the gifts and, as a bonus, she was proud of the fact that she had a ball and finished her holiday shopping. The cost of the two-fer? Priceless.

Rachel Sarah’s dating memoir, Single Mom Seeking: Playdates, Blind Dates, and Other Dispatches from the Dating World, is available now. Visit her at www.singlemomseeking.com.