So how do you keep a marriage strong while weathering the ups and downs of parenthood? I’m no expert, but I can tell you what we’ve learned over the last few years of raising our little tykes. The importance of date nights cannot be understated.
Why? For one thing, finding the time to have healthy conversations with your spouse to bond and to simply “check-in”, is not easy.
Making time for date night bonding can be a struggle when you have babies and/or little kids to attend to, on top of day jobs, side hustles, and, oh yeah, household chores (oh so glad we have a small house!)
Mrs. Cubert and I use date nights to escape from “parent mode.” For a short window of time, we focus on each other, instead of the kids.
Granted, a lot of what we talk about on date nights revolves around the kids. We typically get out on a date night once every other week, when we can find a sitter.
In a perfect world, we’d have a date night weekly, but finding volunteers to look over highly precocious three-year-olds is a tough sell. They are potty trained if you’re interested?!
Date nights are big events for us busy-bee parents. We look forward to them with a lot of anticipation. It’s a change of pace from twin-toddler-mode: Slower, calmer, quieter, easier.
A common date night for us involved dining out. That’s where our date night habit clashes head-on with our early retirement goals…
Date Nights Can Be Costly!
For the first time in history, Americans are spending more on dining out ($55 Billion) each year, than on groceries ($52 Billion). Whoah! Millennials are leading the charge in the shift to menus over carts, prioritizing experiences over material things.
And wouldn’t you know it, among U.S. cities, Minneapolis is the fastest-growing for restaurant spending. We’ve got some work to do if we’re going to escape from that cubicle anytime soon!
In a larger metro area like ours, the number of restaurants can make the decision process quite tricky. We’re like kids in a candy store with the explosion of chef-driven restaurants here in Minneapolis. Many of these date night magnets are within walking or biking distance, enticing us even more to a table for two.
There is a sizable cost to dining-out that for folks aiming to retire early, presents some important trade-offs to consider. According to Zoosk, if you live in New York City, dates nights run about $174 on average. On the low end, Indianapolis date nights run about $83.
- Weekly budget for dining out (and happy hours, assuming you’re not dating or married), and assuming you start the habit right after college, at age 22: $100
- Monthly: $433
- Yearly: $5,200
- From age 22 to 65, non-adjusted (using 65 as it’s a common retirement age): $223,600
- Now pay attention here, folks: From age 22 to 65, if you put that money into index funds, and assume 5% returns, inflation-adjusted:
That sure puts a dent in our enthusiasm for restaurants. You can easily see the impact of dining-out on any plans you may have to retire early, help pay for your kids’ tuition, or travel the world after the kids move out of the house.
We’ve budgeted $100 a week for our dining out expense (date nights and family outings). We recognize this and expect it to affect our long term savings, but remember, it’s a discussion about trade-offs…
So how do we find the right balance? Let’s go back to that ominous number, $780,744. Going the extreme side of spending:
What if our habit also included lunches out every work-day for Mr. and Mrs. Cubert?
What if we both added in a daily cappuccino at Starbucks, and had a nice weekend brunch to cap off the week?
Easy to do this with or without kids, trust me. Your weekly tab shoots up to $280 (shaving off a few bucks for not having to buy as much lunch and brunch food at the grocery store).
So, then, how much does a weekly $280 eating-out budget cost a couple, over a typical lifetime of work?
$2,186,082.16 (keeping the 16c for digit count effect). That’s a lot of tacos, my friends.
Now let’s turn the dial back a little, and assume you’d like to retire early, at age 40. Over 18 years of a career, that same $280/week expense is worth $430,087. Assuming you have a paid-off mortgage, that’s plenty of dough (about $32,000 per year) to live off of between 40 and 60, at which age you can start extracting funds from your 401K.
Rationalizing the Importance of Date Nights
Money is certainly not the sole factor in this analysis. If you were serving a ten-year prison sentence and had an opportunity to take a two-week vacation to Hawaii at year five, for the cost of adding the eleventh year to your sentence, would you take the trip?
The simple math says “Hell, no!”, because who in their right mind would add a full year to a prison sentence?? But realistically, I’d predict a lot of convicts getting on that plane to Honolulu.
The point is that you can’t go “full-throttle frugal” without considering the impact on other aspects of your life. I’m not arguing that a frugal life is anything remotely like prison life.
But if you fail to appreciate that life happens even while you’re busy squirreling away for early retirement, you’re missing the point. And you just might have some regrets at the finish line.
Date Night Ideas for Frugal Parents
Does it have to come with a high price tag or any price tag at all? I put the question out on Twitter to Mrs. Money Mustache. Her response:
“Since we’re retired, we just have an afternoon latte at the kitchen table and chat. Or go for a walk together. Or go biking. :)”
Excellent ideas, right? Low or no-cost activities that ooze romantic. For us, an ideal date night is first and foremost, about being together, just us two.
Maybe our date night doesn’t have to be coupled so closely with the restaurant scene, but we’re pretty sure our options will grow as the kids get a little bigger and more self-sufficient.
Our recipe for a successful date night:
- Get out of the house! This is especially important for Mrs. Cubert, who carries most of the childcare duties in addition to her part-time work schedule. Getting out is an impetus to put some effort into it; shave that 5 o’clock shadow! Primping you’d expect of yourself and your partner when you’re, well, dating!
- Go out on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. It helps to feel like you’re part of the dating community when you’re out on date night. Besides, restaurants often staff their B-team cooks on low-volume nights. Also, you’re just plain ready to blow off steam towards after the workweek.
- Dine out. The simple reason is this. The Mrs. puts a lot of work into picking up food from the market and Costco, preparing homemade meals throughout the week for picky kids and paleo/vegetarian adults. This is her chance to not have to slave away in a kitchen for at least one meal out of several in any given week. Also, dining-out is the cornerstone of dating. It’s the venue we used to get to know each other at the beginning of our relationship, and it recreates some of those awesome early romantic vibes. (Cue the Sinatra!)
- Keep it close-by. We have the luxury of many restaurants located within a one, two, or three-mile radius of our home. This allows us to spend more time facing each other in the restaurant, as opposed to facing traffic and rushing home to relieve the sitter. The second benefit is we can usually walk or bike to our destination.
- Use coupons! We’re not especially good at coupon-clipping since we don’t shop a lot, and when we do, it’s primarily for quality organic groceries. It seems 99% of coupons are for processed foods or products. For restaurants, we rely on a $15 annual subscription to the Chinook Book, which features countless local coupons for our dining scene, many of which are 2 for 1 entree or better. Oh, and Chinook Book also has a few bike shop coupons too…
- Be there for each other. Bad days happen, and so do bad weeks and bad months (Minnesota winters) But we try to remember to be there for each other in a positive way on date nights. Make date night fun and leave your troubles at the door. Try to keep it light, remembering you’re on a date, and keep that cell phone tucked away!
Yes, we certainly do. Could I retire even earlier if we hunkered-down, and kept date nights a low-cost affair (picnics, for example)? Sure could.
There are plenty of money habits that we’ve fine-tuned and will continue to hit hard, to help us reach our goals. Like I hinted at above, during the baby/toddler years, your options are much more limited and consequently, date nights are much more a necessity.
Date nights for us are a sacred line item on the mighty spreadsheet. When we look back in our later years, we’ll remember fondly many of those special escapes that allowed us to recharge our batteries.
Please share your thoughts on the importance of date nights for frugal couples in the comments below.
Featured Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash