Here's a confession from a closet romantic: I haven't had the most romantic Valentine's Days during my collegiate career. Last year was spent in a Student Government court hearing; this year will be spent at a Model Arab League conference in Houston. I don't have a habibi, but if I did, it wouldn't be all roses and chocolate.
What I mean is that on Valentine's Day, you can't go off of love or casual crushing alone. These days, you'd better have something prepared. There's plenty of fish in the sea for college dating, but don't let the pressure swallow you up.
I get it: You don't have the time or energy to write a love poem (unless you're a liberal arts geek) and you're not made out of money (unless you're a check-writing Greek). Rest assured that after this Valentine's Day, you won't have to eat ramen to cover a dinner for two at Texas de Brazil.
Here's ten ways to show your sweetheart that you're not made of money but love.
1. Mixtape or playlist
Ah, the mixtape. Didn't know people still made these? I didn't either until my friend revealed she was secretly a mixtape DJ. According to her, there's an art to making the perfect mixtape: the selection, order and flow of songs reveals an intimate knowledge of the recipient. This lovely tradition was lost when the tape was, but you can modify it to modern media. Burning a CD or even sending a Spotify playlist will show just as much soul-savvy. You don't have to stand outside of anyone's dorm and blare your mixtape, but you may be the best valentine/John Cusack impersonator ever if you did.
2. Share a banana split (or froyo)
Chappelle has not only mastered a cult comedy show but also the perfect cheap date. It's not as bananas as it seems: I did it and savored the experience. There's plenty of ice cream and banana to go around, and sharing is caring. The collegiate version of this may be to mix some froyo flavors. That way, you can tailor the flavors and toppings to your liking. Or you can just sample all the flavors, that's always fun too (I'm looking out for your wallet here).
3. Watching the sunset/sunrise in a scenic spot
Really? Why don't you just take a long walk on the beach, listen to a Michael Bolton CD and call it a day? Hey, you can never watch the same sunset twice, which is exactly the sap you'll need to get your date to agree to this. Seeing as we're in college, seeing the sunrise after an all-nighter may be more realistic. Change it up a bit by going to your favorite spot on campus or in town. At LSU, I'd head to the levee to watch the sun set on the mighty Mississippi. Think romantic in the 19th century sense.
4. Borrow a collection of love letters from the library
I get it: you're not an English major. Even if you are, you probably don't have time to write a love letter. Luckily for you, I'm sure your college library has an anthology of them. When your valentine questions why you're professing love from someone else's pen, reply with -- wait for it -- "because I couldn't have said it better myself." Mr. Big pulled this one and it worked on Carrie, a New York journalist, so it'll probably impress your valentine. If you're an English major, you should probably come up with an alternate excuse.
5. Have a House of Cards watching marathon/snuggle session
Haven't seen House of Cards yet? Here's something else to obsess over (besides your sweetheart, of course). This is one of those television shows buzzing around campus, and conveniently enough, season 2 premieres this Friday. Netflix-binge with your boo and catch up on the juiciest secrets from The Hill. For all you budding romances/nervous freshmen: this is a great time to work in some cuddling. Or if you're in junior high-mode still, you might start making out during the show. Netflix does have a pause button so your lip-locking doesn't have to.
6. Show him/her/the world it's "official"
The best gift you could give may be to just tell that person you want them as your valentine. Take it a step further and let everyone know that's your valentine. Here at LSU, we have a time-honored tradition of kissing in front of the Memorial Tower at midnight on Valentine's Day. Once you do this, you're officially considered an "LSU couple." If that's not your style, you and your valentine can troll such couples. If your university doesn't have such a tradition, you could always profess your undying love in the student union or quad.
7. Tell someone how you feel in a different language
Sometimes you don't even have the right words to express how you feel -- so try another language. The first time I told someone I loved him was by writing "Je t'aime" on his palm. I didn't explain what it meant, but I told him to look it up when he got home. With all the mixed signals that come with courtship, this is a way to say what you mean and leave the rest to Google Translate. Whether you use the "language of love" or not (I suggest you do), this is a chic way of letting your amour know how you feel.
8. Use your guitar-playing abilities for serenades (like you do the other 364 days of the year)
When my cousin was at Indiana University, he mentioned playing his guitar for girls and instantly making them swoon. As a female, I can attest to its appeal. Okay, so no one has serenaded me on guitar (yet), but it would be pretty fantastic if someone did. If you have some guitar or instrumental skills, here's the time to shine.
9. Order a pizza with a heart made out of pepperonis
You're probably thinking, "Wow, she's just running out of ideas here." Maybe so. But tomato sauce, mozzarella and pepperonis in a heart-shaped formation may be the best ways to express your feelings this Valentine's Day. After all, this day is about love. Happiness. Destiny! All nouns that come to mind when eating pizza. I'm not a math major, but I'm pretty sure pizza + Netflix = true love.
10. Use your campus cash for gifts
At LSU, those who purchase a meal plan have an allotted amount of Paw Points, which is essentially lunch money locked onto your student ID. When I was a freshman living in the dorms, I liked to refer to this as "free money." It isn't, but you can't spend it anywhere else, so why not splurge? Maybe you can treat you and yours to some fancy Chick-Fil-A or Starbucks. Here, you can actually buy filet mignon with Paw Points. Whatever your campus cash can get, I say go for it. Your sweetie knows it's the love that counts -- but the on-campus treats don't hurt either. If your valentine isn't a freshman or on-campus resident, you can start planning ahead for next year.
These should keep your heart and wallets overflowing this Valentine's Day. I recommend combining at least three of them for maximum effect. I know I'd fall for any guy who ordered me pizza, sent me a playlist and watched House of Cards with me. Whether it's been one week or one year, you can skimp on the cost if you compensate for it in thought.
Restaurant.com sells $25 gift certificates for $10 or $50 gift certificates for $20. The site also has sales throughout the year, and I've snagged $25 gift certificates for $5. I keep a stack of these things in my wallet at all times. Most places have a minimum purchase requirement (from $35 and up) but you can generally use the gift certificates any time. But there are drawbacks: They're for dine-in only, they're nonrefundable, and they can only be redeemed once per month per restaurant. Still, the site has become so popular that you can double dip - buying Restaurant.com certificates through an airline's shopping portal in order to earn frequent flier miles, for instance.
If you're not already using Groupon and LivingSocial, start now. Both sites post daily deals that will give you 50 to 90 percent off at different restaurants. You'll have to act quickly, but you'll save a bunch. I just got a dozen cake pops (regularly $17) for $8 through Groupon. If you don't want to spend hours sifting through all the offers, Money Talks News deals diva Karla Bowsher has culled the very best on our deals page.
If you have a smartphone, some social networking apps will get you free stuff and discounts. Last weekend, I got free guacamole and a free flan for checking into the restaurant on Yelp. Here are a few apps that score you deals: Yelp Check-ins - After you check in, mention Yelp to your server to get the goods. Foursquare - Many places offer discounts and buy-one-get-one offers to people who check in. SCVNGR - Every time you check in, you accumulate points. You can redeem your points for a discount on your bill or a free item depending on the restaurant.
Every restaurant in town knows when my birthday is. Last year, I got three half-price meals, six free desserts, two free entrees, and about a dozen free cocktails - and all I had to do was sign up for a birthday mailing list and turn a year older. Many restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club. Signing up is free and they'll send you a coupon around the date. Ask your server how to sign up - and even if they don't have a mailing list, he'll tell you what you can get for free or cheap on your special occasion. There's even a site devoted to listing restaurants where you can eat free on your birthday: eatfreeonyourbirthday.com
Social media-savvy restaurants post special deals on Twitter. Some even post code words. If you tell your server the code word, you'll get a discount or a freebie. Last month, I got a free dessert for saying "Free Sean Payton" to my server. (I live in New Orleans, and the code words referred to our NFL coach who has been suspended by the league.) To find a restaurant's Twitter info, visit its website and look for the "Follow Us" links. One should be for Twitter. Another should be for Facebook. Speaking of which...
Here at Money Talks News, we take surveys, hold contests, and give out freebies on our Facebook page as a way to keep in touch with you. Many restaurants do the same thing. By "liking" the restaurant page, you'll get access to special deals not mentioned anywhere else.
I've made it a habit to open a few apps before I walk into a restaurant. There are several free apps that post deals to local and chain restaurants. Most places will apply the discount to your bill if you show them the app - no need to print the coupon. Here are a few apps worth downloading: Dining Deals LocalEats The Valpak App
Many restaurants in my area extend their lunch hours until late afternoon. By eating dinner early, I get the lunch prices, which are often 25 to 50 percent cheaper than the dinner prices for the same entrees. Before you try somewhere new, visit the restaurant's website and see if they have a lunch or early bird special.
It's uncommon, but some restaurants let you bring your own beer or wine, which is usually cheaper than the cost of paying per glass. Before you go, call ahead and ask if the establishment is BYOB. If they're not, skip the cocktail and have one somewhere else. Some places will charge a "corkage fee" if you bring your own wine, but even at $10 per bottle, it's still often cheaper than buying the same bottle in the restaurant. Most restaurants in my area overcharge for alcohol. For example, my local bar charges $3 for a mixed drink, but the restaurant next door charges $6. I save 50 percent stopping by the bar for my after-dinner drink.
Restaurant meals are over-proportioned, so split your meal in two. You'll eat dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow for one price. It may seem like obvious advice, but it's harder in practice. If you're not careful, you'll end up eating everything on the plate. To beat the extra calories and save money, I divide my plate in half before I start eating. I only eat from my "now" half of the plate and ask for a to-go box for the rest.
Knowing the different steak cuts and how they're prepared will save you money. For example, my friend always goes for the filet mignon because it's well known and tender. It's also one of the most expensive cuts you can order. Meanwhile, I ask if the hanger or flank steak was marinated. If it was, I order that. It's the cheapest steak on the menu, but it's also flavorful and tender - if marinated. MSN says sirloin, flank, skirt, and hanger steaks are really underrated. Give them a chance.
If I've learned one thing being a local in a tourist town like New Orleans, it's this: Tourist traps are alive and well. Many of the famous restaurants tourists want to visit are overpriced and not the best dining experience. If you want an authentic experience and a better price, check out a review site like Yelp or Urban Spoon before you visit a vacation spot. Pick a few places the locals rated highly and check their websites for menu prices. You can save a ton by planning ahead and skipping the hot spots.
I'm fortunate to have very cheap friends. "I don't care where we go as long as it's cheap," is a common refrain on a Friday night. But I also have some less-than-frugal friends who visit from out of town. Since I know they'll want to try that expensive five-star restaurant they heard about on the Food Network, I jump the gun and suggest a similar but cheaper place. If you're dining out with a group, suggest reasonably priced places ahead of time. It will keep you from having to choose between a $25 salad or a $30 piece of chicken.
Around here they call it lagniappe - the little something extra you get for being a great customer. Like the free cup of gumbo I've gotten every time I visit a diner in my neighborhood. I get that little something extra because I'm a regular. Trying new places is great, but you can get a discount (or a lagniappe) by building a relationship with the servers or owners of local restaurants.
With iDine, you can earn 5 to 15 percent back any time you eat out. Just sign up on their website. Within 30 days of your meal, sign on and complete a quick survey. For every survey you take, you'll earn cash back. When you reach $20, iDine will mail you an American Express gift card. It takes some effort, but it's free money. See? Dining out doesn't have to mean going all in - or staying in.
Follow Aryanna Prasad on Twitter: www.twitter.com/aryannaprasad