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Jeanine Celeste Pang Headshot

If Money Can't Buy Love, What Can?

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I have this friend.

You know the type: effervescent and bright, like California Sauvignon Blanc. La Princesse Charmante.

For the past 10 years, she has also been the centripetal force that pulls me into strange, enterprising, "what-the-hell-are-we-doing" situations, the stretcher and sifter for that elusive thing called character.

Naturally, said friend has begun a dating blog , a lighthearted, strum-as-we-go exposé. She calls me from Los Angeles to regale me with her latest anthropological experiment, "10-20-30 Dating," claiming she's invented the dating trick equivalent to the liquid diet: skimp on the fat, get results fast.

The 10-20-30 approach begins when you meet a new man. On your first troika of dates, the total amount Prince Charming can spend, collectively, is $10 on the first, $20 on the second and $30 on the third.

"Every lady should go on at least three dates with a guy before she decides if she likes him," she reasons. "This interim gives you time to assess a guy over a range of days, moods and (hopefully) activities. Setting this boundary will compel your guy to delve deeply into his simple, creative and fun side."

A chance to finally make good on the idiom, "a cheap date?" I was surprised this wasn't already trending on Twittersphere, Pinterest boards alight.

When a television producer with a halo of bed head curls and a James Franco-esque grin asked me out, I agreed, slipping the one caveat into a text: "I'm trying this new thing. OK to only spend $10?"

The next night, he picked me up in the East Village, wearing a red hooded sweatshirt and Doc Martens, with 20 bucks to his name. (We decided that Manhattan's standard of living merits the extra boost.)

He told me that he had been racking his brain for activities all day, even asking his buddies for ideas. Creativity is a muscle, I teased. Use it or lose it.

We wandered for a few minutes, until we came upon Cooper Union, a privately funded college in the neighborhood. It's also a tightly-secured building in which meticulously selected, supremely intelligent students are busy drafting for the future (or so I imagine), thus making it a focal point of intrigue. He glanced over at me, eyes glinting. The two of us, well into adulthood, conspired to stroll our way in.

We pushed past the revolving doors, only to be stopped by the security guard seconds in.

"Can I see some I.D.?," he asked, fixating on my 31-year-old date's beard.

"Um, we're here to see our friend Mary upstairs," we said. "She's expecting us."

A few attempts to our imaginary friend later ("Hmm. That's strange, she's not picking up"), and we were back out in the cold.

We meandered into a neighborhood book store, home to 18 miles of books. Stopping in front of a desk of paperback novels, we fell back to a PG version of the game, "Would You Rather?"

Red Hoodie would hold up two contenders at once:

Would you rather a Danielle Steel or a Michael Crichton?

Michael Crichton.

A Michael Crichton or an Evelyn Waugh?

Evelyn Waugh.

We considered purchasing books for one another, but decided it would be too lofty a purchase.

We settled for a $.79 pack of candy cigarettes from the counter and headed outside to smoke some sugar.

The typical first-date cocktail den would be extravagant, so we ducked into a coffee shop. This guy was quite the charmer -- he convinced our waitress to offer us a cute (a.k.a. minuscule) slice of mud pie topped with an even cuter dollop of whip cream, on the house. Over mugs of hot chocolate, we did a cursory round of "Hi, I'm ____" questions. Let it be said, a great date hinges not on the flash, but the connection: We both order Neopolitan shakes off In-N-Out's secret menu; we both were reading David Brooks' The Social Animal; we both loved and loathed Manhattan.

My date took out our remaining cash for the night. Our Jackson had whittled down to $13 dollars. We were hungry, so after a breeze through the video store next door, he took me to a pizza joint hole-in-the-wall, lit by red neon. We ordered one slice of pepperoni pizza and a root beer.

"Just one slice?" asked the man behind the counter.

"Just one," said Red Hoodie. "We're tight on cash."

We watched as the sympathetic man wheeled our slice in half. I have to say, sharing a slice of pizza is incredibly sexy. Plus, you're allowed daintier bites and half the calories.

Only after we had walked out did we realize that they never asked us to pay. It was like fate was smiling down on us, and the zsa zsa zu too.

"You know, we still have some money," he said. Conveniently, his favorite dive bar was just down the street. Moreover, his good friend was the bartender. Two whiskeys, two beers, and four rounds of Neil Young on the juke box later, it was one in the morning.

"How much do we owe you?" my date asked the bartender.

She paused to look at us, two gleefully buzzed kids out on a school night, and said, "How much you got?"

We left our remaining crumpled bills at the bar, and he walked me back to mine, where we ended our five-hour date with the perfect goodnight kiss.

The next day came his follow-up text: "That was the best $20 I've spent on a date, ever. You should write about it."

And so I did.