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Love and money: Queen of Free offers savings tips


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With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, couples all over Johnson County are gearing up for the most romantic night of the year.

Fancy meals of steak and lobster will be ordered. Champagne toasts will be raised. And in many cases, hundreds of dollars will be spent.

Valentine’s Day is known for red roses, pricey jewelry and expensive dinners. But celebrating with your love doesn’t have to mean breaking the bank.

Greenwood resident Cherie Lowe, known by her online persona the Queen of Free, specializes in helping people live their lives for less. A cost-effective date night can be just as much fun, if not more, as the wallet-busting variety, she said.

The Lowe File

Name: Cherie Lowe

Home: Greenwood

Family: Husband Brian; daughters Anna, 10, Zoe, 5

Blog: The Queen of Free

Web address: queenoffree.net

Her credentials: Since she and her husband, Brian, dedicated themselves to a frugal lifestyle in 2008, they have paid off more than $127,000 in debt. More than 5,800 people are fans of her Facebook site.

“Just be as creative as possible, and set a budget before you leave is the best thing you can do. Otherwise, you’re out in the midst of things, you decide to do these different things, and it adds up,” she said.

Lowe has built a national reputation for her ability to be thrifty-minded without sacrificing enjoyment. Her Queen of Free blog has a loyal following of readers looking for giveaways, two-for-one offers and advice on financial planning.

In December, she was featured in the Wall Street Journal and on Yahoo! Finance’s Web site.

She and her husband, Brian, spent almost four years paying off more than $125,000 in debt. They worked through credit card bills, student loans and car payments before reaching their debt-free goal.

Lowe has parlayed the strategies she used into a road map to financial freedom for her readers.

One of her favorite subjects is helping couples, whether married with kids or just starting to date, find fun activities for date night.

Whether making plans with your spouse or meeting up with someone for the first time, always have an idea ahead of time what you want to do and what you’re prepared to spend, she said.

“That’s the key to all of these things — take a few minutes, plan with what you’re going to do. Instead of doing it all on the fly, that’s a trap a lot of us fall into that can cost a lot of money,” she said. “As with anything with finances, if you don’t plan, you won’t make it.”

One of Lowe’s favorite date-night “games” is when she and Brian scour their house for all of the loose change they can find. They flip over couch cushions, look under the car seats and empty their pockets. Whatever they find sets the budget for their date.

“It’s hokey and it’s silly, but it’s fun. It takes some thoughtfulness and creativity,” she said.

Often the priciest part of Valentine’s Day is the meal. In Lowe’s experience, a few tricks and tips can help cut the bill in half or more.

At the restaurant, split an entree with your date if the restaurant will allow. Some restaurants offer a package deal, where you can get an appetizer, entree and dessert all for a fixed price.

Most servings at restaurants are more food than you need anyway, so no one will walk away hungry, she said.

Many restaurant websites have clubs that you can sign up for online. Doing so usually qualifies you for extra coupons or special deals that you can take advantage of.

Skipping alcohol and soft drinks also helps keep the tab in check.

“You can have a drink at home or buy a bottle of wine later, rather than coughing up four times the amount in the restaurant,” she said.

If you still want a high-end dinner, often the best option is to make it yourself at home. Grocery store steaks, seafood and sides can be purchased at a fraction of the cost that just one meal would cost at a fine restaurant.

Copy-cat recipes can be found on websites such as CopyKat and Recipelink for special desserts or signature dishes.

“It was just as good as going out to eat. You can still get a high-end meal, and you get the joy of cooking together, which can be fun,” she said.

For an after-dinner activity, Johnson County and central Indiana in general are blessed with free events, such as concerts, poetry readings and movies.

On Valentine’s Day and the weekend following it, a number of free events are options for cheap date nights.

Take a wine tasting at Mallow Run Winery, tour the gallery at the Southside Art League or sit down for a vocalist concert at His Place Coffee and Ice Cream.

The Visit Indy website also has a free events calendar throughout the year to pick and choose fun things to do that don’t cost anything.

Lowe stressed that these are simply things that have worked for her and her husband. Other people might mix and match the tips or not feel comfortable pushing for deals or free activities at the risk of looking cheap.

But Lowe recommends that, rather than trying to impress a date with a night of extravagance, simply be honest about your budget and what you can afford.

“I would tend to think most women would resound with that, rather than thinking you just don’t want to spend money on them,” she said. “Honesty is more attractive than someone who’s up to their eyeballs in debt.”

Limited budget for that big date night? These 5 ideas can get you through it:

Tropical escape

What: Sweets for Your Sweetie

When: 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 14

Where: Garfield Park Conservatory, 2505 Conservatory Drive, Indianapolis

Jetting away to the tropics probably isn’t possible for most local residents this Valentine’s Day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a romantic evening surrounded by tropical plants in 80-degree weather.

The Garfield Park Conservatory will stage its annual Sweets for Your Sweetie. Couples can tour the conservatory and its collection of ferns, orchids and palms.

Waterfalls will add to the serene nature of the tour, as will walking beneath towering banana and sweet-smelling citrus trees. Chirping zebra finches will fill the air with song.

Rich chocolate, coffee and other tropical treats will be served, all by candlelight.

Cost: $15 per couple

Share a sip (or two)

What: Wine tasting

When: Noon to 6 p.m. daily

Where: Mallow Run Winery, 6964 W. Whiteland Road, Bargersville

Few things are more romantic than sitting in front of a roaring fire enjoying a glass of wine. Mallow Run Winery offers that perfect setting, in addition to allowing customers to try a sampling of their collection of 22 wines.

Those in the mood for a nice, deep red can try the Zinfandel for its bold, blackberry flavor. Those with lighter tastes might like the seyval blanc or the pinot grigio.

To truly get in the mood, sparkling wine and bubbly pink moscato are available as well.

The winery will have its Winter Warmer Weekend Feb. 16 and 17, serving bowls of homemade chicken noodle soup and featuring free music from Acoustic Catfish and Bloodshot Moon.

Cost: Free for tastings; individual bottles and wine by the glass can be purchased.

Cooking for two

What: Indy Winter Farmers Market

When: 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays

Where: West Wing of the Indianapolis City Market, 200 E. Market St., Indianapolis

For those who are gifted in the kitchen, nothing makes a meal quite like fresh ingredients. And the freshest local herbs, meat and leafy vegetables can be found this time of year at the Indy Winter Farmers Market.

More than 50 vendors are on hand to sell everything from organic, free-range chicken and beef to greenhouse-grown greens to homemade sauces.

Simpson Farm, based in Martinsville, can provide organic T-bone steak, tenderloin or pastured chicken breast. Vegan Tahini carrot salad from Indianapolis’ Raw Gourmet Delight would make an ideal meal starter.

For dessert, try the peppermint, champagne or Starry Night flavored artisanal marshmallows from Columbus-based 240sweet.

Visit the market in the morning with your date, then cook dinner together that evening for a perfect day together.

Cost: Free admission

Touch of mocha

What: Concert by Special Moments

When: 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 16

Where: His Place Ice Cream and Coffee, 337 Western Blvd., Greenwood

On weekends at His Place, couples can hit the cheap-date trifecta under one roof. The Center Grove area store sells a wide variety of coffees, lattes, cappuccinos and specialty drinks. Sip on a warming cup of milk chocolate caramel latte, or get hyper with the kamakaze, a shot of espresso in a cup of coffee.

For those looking for an after-dinner dessert, the shop is also a full-service ice cream parlor, offering dozens of sundaes and flavor combinations. Split a banana split, on which they’ve built a reputation.

And every weekend, bands and performers set up on the intimate corner stage for free concerts. The weekend after Valentine’s Day features Special Moments, a central Indiana vocal group focusing on romantic and faith-based songs.

Cost: Free admission

Touch of mocha

What: Concert by Special Moments

When: 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 16

Where: His Place Ice Cream and Coffee, 337 Western Blvd., Greenwood

On weekends at His Place, couples can hit the cheap-date trifecta under one roof. The Center Grove area store sells a wide variety of coffees, lattes, cappuccinos and specialty drinks. Sip on a warming cup of milk chocolate caramel latte, or get hyper with the kamakaze, a shot of espresso in a cup of coffee.

For those looking for an after-dinner dessert, the shop is also a full-service ice cream parlor, offering dozens of sundaes and flavor combinations. Split a banana split, on which they’ve built a reputation.

And every weekend, bands and performers set up on the intimate corner stage for free concerts. The weekend after Valentine’s Day features Special Moments, a central Indiana vocal group focusing on romantic and faith-based songs.

Cost: Free admission

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