Your first date couldn't have gone better: The conversation with "Sally" from IT never turned awkward -- it happens you share a passion for The Princess Bride -- and then came the check. Like a relic of some by-gone era, you threw down a coupon along with your stack of greenbacks.
As if struck by a bolt of cut-rate lightning, Sally thanks you icily for dinner and excuses herself -- never to be seen again.
Sally's reaction is in line with many Americans, both single and committed. According to data collected by CouponSherpa.com, women are nearly twice as likely to believe using a coupon on the first date is tacky. For example, 30-year-old Maisie, a married professional and survey participant, interpreted it as a guy slyly claiming, "You're not worth the full price of dinner."
As with any blossoming relationship, there apparently are no mulligans for a first impression.
"Number one: Don't use a coupon on your first date," says Paul Falzone, CEO of the Massachusetts-based dating service eLove. "It's important you come out to that first date on the right foot. Being frugal initially with your money means you're less likely to be generous with your time, affection and emotion."
Experts from around the country agree with Falzone, a 20-year veteran of the dating industry. Many believe the tiny yet telling act of coupon clipping with a first date is often freaky, tasteless and reminiscent of mom.
"Younger people don't look at coupons as lovingly as the older generation," Falzone says. "My wife is six years younger than me and she's never even heard of a coupon."
Tacky vs. Thrifty: Overall Response (70 participants)
The Coupon Sherpa survey addressed this coupon conundrum directly, asking 70 people of all ages and levels of commitment whether they thought using a coupon during the first date was tacky or thrifty. Although twice as many women thought using a coupon was a sign of tackiness, the overall numbers show an almost even split: 35 people claimed coupons were always tacky; 29 called them thrifty; and six believed clipping can go both ways.
Showcasing the importance of a stellar initial impression, 47-year-old professional Tina responded first-date frugality was, "A sign he'll be a pain in the ass and monitor all your spending if you're ever in a relationship together."
While other folks echoed Tina's concern, calling it everything from "trashy" and "cheap" to "ballsy," one man believes being open with coupons debunks what he considers a monetary myth: "Despite popular belief, not all men are super controlling with money," says Tony, a 24-year-old.
Guy Asks Girl...Still
The coupon question is more appropriate now than ever. At a time when printable restaurant coupons and group-buying sites are both trendy and attractive to all ages, dating is still a frugal frontier. It remains one of the most stereotypically expensive activities on many people's social palate. All first-date advice from movies, books and nosy friends screams: "If you want to impress the girl, do it with your wallet!"
Why say impress the girl? Because, by and large, the archetype of man as provider translates easily into the 21st century. A 2007 survey by It's Just Lunch, a dating agency for professionals, found half of all U.S. men spend over $100 per month on dates, while more than two-thirds of women spend less than $50.
"There's huge value for coupons, but there's a time and a place," Falzone says. "You don't have to go to the Ritz, but for the $5 you might save with a coupon, is it going to be admirable? A lot of women feel they're worth it. And they really are."
Participants in the Coupon Sherpa survey tended to agree, but not without some noticeable caveats, particularly between X and Y chromosomes. Guys were more inclined to find using a coupon acceptable, though it didn't stop 40-year-old photographer Pat from posing a date-killing scenario: "Did he pull out a two-for-one coupon and say, 'Here's my half?'"
Tacky vs. Thrifty: Difference Between Males and Females
The key, as many respondents noted, is in the situation. Several mentioned a coupon would be more easy to overlook at an expensive, upscale restaurant as opposed to Chili's or, heaven forbid, McDonalds. Jeremy, a 22-year-old student, says it depends on how well you know the person, but "on a true first date it's a bit tacky."
If your date doesn't catch the frugal slight-of-hand, it's no harm, no foul. Just excuse yourself and slip it to the server, Harry Houdini-style. Tori, a 22-year-old student, says it's "tacky if I notice, thrifty if he can do it without me noticing." A 45-year-old radio DJ, James, agrees: "Tip big, slip the coupon in while she's not looking and bam! Done and done."
As for others in the over-30 set, Falzone's sense that coupons are viewed more kindly by older generations is less than straightforward. The responses were almost evenly split between freaky and frugal. Jean, a 60-year-old writer, believes, "it depends on the (amount) due, the restaurant and the coupon," while John, a 42-year-old professional, questions the first date connection, asking, "Why is it only tacky on the first date? Wouldn't it be tacky all the time if it was once?"
Despite initial reactions, both sides of the coupon crowd would concede to someone who used coupons as long as they waited until the third or fourth date. In heart-warming defense of personality over pocketbook, respondents were more concerned with the actual date -- surprise surprise -- than they were with a crumpled piece of paper. Jen, a 21-year-old student, sums up the argument saying, "If you're so high maintenance you can't appreciate a man looking to save a few bucks, that's your problem, not his."
Money, Your Mate and a Good First Date
There's some promise for eligible penny-pinchers. A recent survey by ING Direct, the banking and investment firm, asked 1,000 men and women what comes to mind when a first date is described as frugal. A healthy 49 percent described this potential partner as "smart," perhaps a sign our money-weary times are taking a toll. At the same time, only 3.7 percent thought "sexy," while a combined 42 percent predicted the same smart person to be "boring" or "stingy."
"We're in a recession and people are looking for deals everywhere," says Thomas Edwards, a Boston dating maven whose advice has been featured by CNN, Maxim and The Wall Street Journal. "We don't necessarily think about that when we're dating. It's not just an emotional investment, but an economical one as well. Dating is expensive."
Numbers and knee-jerk first impressions aside, the tango between coupons and dating is more complicated than frugal or freaky. The first date is always a harrowing experience, and most professionals agree the traditional route of dinner and a movie -- two activities reliant on money -- is not impressive. At best, it's stale and predictable. At worst, it conjures up cash-colored demons.
"Coupons aren't the real issue," says Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of the dating consultant business Art of Charm. "Having any sort of monetary tension distracts from the mood. Money is one of the best ways to introduce tension in any relationship, whether it be friends, family or people who've been married for 50 years."
Harbinger notices early daters often "screen" each other by scoping for red flags. If a date playfully ribs you for using a coupon, chances are there's no threat to your frugal nature. On the flip side, barely-restrained disgust means a prospective sweetheart likely questions the worth of your wallet -- and always will.
Let's replay the workplace dating scenario from the beginning of this article. Rather than ask Sally from IT to dinner at an Italian restaurant -- a passé move, as nearly half of all Americans choose a pasta joint for the first date -- why not venture off the beaten dating path and introduce a touch of swagger into the evening?
Harbinger opposes clichéd haunts like cafes and coffee shops, preferring to invite dates on activities he already had planned, whether it be a stroll with the pooch or a ballgame with friends. Such impromptu first dates offer a chance for freshness and spontaneity while erasing the awkward tension of a sit-down meal, Harbinger claims.
In a similar vein, Edwards recommends matching the date to the season. Towns of every size plan concerts, museum showings and civic activities based on the time of year. Think here of Oktoberfests, ice skating or summer Shakespeare performances. No matter where Edwards is, he hits the books by researching local city websites, a valuable font of ideas for free and off-the-beaten-path first-date ideas.
Another burgeoning resource for tech-savvy deal-diggers, the group-buying phenomenon has made bargaining cool once again. Groupon, Living Social and similar outfits often feature locally-owned and occasionally quirky businesses, most of which remain off the radar until featured online. Even if you don't cough up cash for the daily deal, a group-buying coupon could spark ideas for future dates. The most popular entertainment Groupon so far was a half-priced ticket for an architectural boat tour in Chicago, hard proof the dating landscape is more lush than the local Olive Garden.
"Think of it logically -- who would forgo a deal on an item if they're afraid of being cheap?" Edwards says. "You still have it and she'll be happy you thought of her when you bought it."
A first date is uncharted territory, no matter how many you've been on. An evening with Sally from IT is probably not your first rodeo. Rather, it's a chance to forgo spaghetti and garlic bread for more unexpected alternatives. Whether that involves coupons or not is your choice, but dating experts and expert daters know any successful first get-together is more about the person than the paper.
"Money is a small hurdle. The bottom line is 'What's your endgame?'" Falzone says. "Do you look for a serious relationship? If a coupon is who you are and you're open, hopefully they will understand. Just be creative and listen to what the person is telling you."