Frugality and the long-distance relationship

This is a guest post from Kelly M., who writes about long-distance relationships at Long-Distance Life.

Long-distance relationships can be exciting, challenging, fulfilling, and all sorts of other adjectives…but “frugal” rarely makes the list. And for good reason — the transportation costs alone in maintaining a relationship with someone in a different city, state, or country can pack a powerful punch to your pocketbook. So how do you embrace frugality as a value without devaluing your relationship?

In the past, J.D. has shared his basic law of frugality: “Decide what's important to you. Give yourself permission to spend on these things. Pinch pennies on everything else.”

Most people in long-distance relationships have already determined that maintaining the relationship is important to them, whether they're a long-term couple recently separated by work, school, or the military, or even a relatively new couple who want to see where things go. So once you've determined that the relationship is one of those “important things” in your life, the next logical step is to lower costs on those things that are less important by cutting back on entertainment that you get little value from, or on non-essential services.

But even after all that, how do you romance your two-flights-away sweetheart without blowing your budget?

Transportation

At the beginning of my relationship, we were flying 2000 miles each way to visit each other, and I'd just book whatever flight I could find for a specific travel date. Then in the summer of 2008, I watched as fuel prices rose, and airlines hiked fares and tacked on fees. Costs fluctuated, and the unpredictability of my transportation costs took its toll on my budget — a plane ticket might set me back $300 one month and $460 the next! It was imperative that I educate myself.

If you find yourself in the same position, I encourage you to look through some of the flight-booking tips that have already appeared on GRS to maximize your savings. And if you're flying a lot for your relationship, be sure to sign up for frequent-flyer programs. Those 2000-mile legs added up quickly, and it was a nice bonus to get a free flight here and there and give my budget a little more breathing room.

In addition to hunting around for the best prices, though, plan your visits as far in advance as you can. That way, you can stretch your vacation days by adding them onto days you already have off of work, perhaps substituting one long visit for two shorter ones. It also helps to space out your visits evenly, so you don't end up booking an expensive trip last-minute because you haven't seen your girlfriend for three months and you miss her terribly.

Entertainment

When you are together, resist the urge to fill all your time with movies and concerts and restaurants; instead, choose activities that are less expensive, but still allow you to interact with each other.

Play board games in the park, visit obscure local museums, or just snuggle close on the couch and catch each other up on your lives. When your partner comes for a visit, remember that he isn't as familiar with your city as you are. If it's your hometown, show your sweetie around your old high school and childhood home. Or play tourists for a day and visit all the must-see attractions in your town. (Head for Central Park or the Statue of Liberty if you live in New York, tour the monuments in D.C., visit the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and so forth.)

Take lots of pictures and embrace the cheesiness of it all!

Gifts

It can be tempting to go overboard with gifts in a long-distance relationship — as if an expensive, flashy gift could make up for all those miles between you. But the gifts that will mean the most to your long-distance sweetheart are the gifts that are unique and meaningful to the two of you.

Get prints made of photos you've exchanged on your cell phones. Go to a used-book store and find the books you loved as a kid — Charlotte's Web, James and the Giant Peach — that you can read to each other over the phone. Use your talents to make something that's really from the heart, such as sending homemade treats if you're a whiz in the kitchen, or writing a letter describing the moment you fell in love if you have a way with words. Remember, the gifts that are really you, even if they hardly cost a thing, are the gifts that will bring you closer together when you're far apart.

As much as geography presents challenges, monetary and otherwise, for two people in a long-distance relationship, a big part of what can make such a relationship successful is being mindful about both how you spend your money, and how you spend your limited time together. A little creative planning lets you worry less about your money, and focus on your honey.

Have you ever been in a long-distance relationship? What are some of the creative ways you and your partner managed your transportation, entertainment, and gift budgets?

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LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

Before my wife and I got married, we were 1400 miles away! We decided to see each other at least once a month, which obviously required one of us to travel.

We did it pretty cheap though. Since we didn’t need any specific dates, we just took the cheapest flight for the month. Often times, this was through Spirit Airlines or Allegiant Air – I’d say the average round-trip ticket price was $100 after tax and baggage. Sometimes we flew round-trip for $49! 🙂

SF_UK
SF_UK
9 years ago

What a lovely post! I think there’s a lot here even for those of us without long-distance partners – most of these tips also apply to long-distance friends and family. I live a long way from most of my close friends, and we keep in touch via a private internet chatroom. Most of us have the chat window open on our computer all day, which means that people are always there to give you a hug when things go wrong, or a pat on the back when you do well. It keeps us in touch with the minutiae of each… Read more »

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

We did it for 18 months, with varying levels of distance- as close as a 45 min flight or as far as a 48 hour set of flights! One thing that really helped us keep things in the realm of “doable” financially were travel packs. Some airlines have travel packs where you can buy coupons for say, 10 or 20 flights between 2 cities. In exchange for putting the money up front, we got hugely discounted fares with taxes and fees included (no surprises) and free changes. These can be a huge help in keeping travel costs down, but make… Read more »

haemai
haemai
9 years ago

The boyfriend and I have been living in cities about an hour and a half away from each other since we started started dating in January 2009. As he is in school, and I am now in school, we won’t be able to live in the same city for at least another 2 years. We manage to see each other about every two weeks, but we talk on the phone ALL THE TIME. A tip I can suggest for having a smaller phone bill is to try to use the same cell phone carrier as your significant other. Even though… Read more »

indio
indio
9 years ago

I commuted cost to coast for a relationship over 18 months. When you fly as many mile as some pilots do in a single year, the airlines give you free upgrades. Even though I paid for a coach ticket, I often flew first class. A large, comfortable seat was really helpful when I was taking a red eye back and had to go to work in a few hours. Since he moved for work, we made a deal where I did the commuting, but he paid for the tickets. We did a few things that made the commute easier. I… Read more »

HokieKate
HokieKate
9 years ago

I’m in Virginia while my husband is in Mississippi. We’ve been doing this for almost two years, but only three more months to go! It does get expensive, as we pay more to Delta Airlines than either of us pays in rent. I agree about booking trips in advance; my trips are often booked three months out, and longer for holidays. One strategy that works for us is scheduling our vacations for weekends that I would normally go visit him. So instead of a Mississippi trip for me, followed by us going somewhere together, we met up in Florida in… Read more »

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

My sweetie and I had a commuter relationship for about a year (with nowhere near the miles between that some commenters have). Here on the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. there are lots of interlinked rail systems. We found that by skipping Amtrak and taking Southeastern Penna Transit (Philadelphia) to NJ Transit to the Path (NJ to NYC), we were able to save big bucks. The time it added was negligible. And besides, who cares when you have a good book to read on the train and someone you love waiting at the other end? We also used the U.S.… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Back in college we used to turn on a precursor to skype and just listen to what was going on in each other’s dorm rooms while doing things like homework or socializing. We could pretend we were just in the next room.

brokeprofessionals
brokeprofessionals
9 years ago

If you can find a nice regional airline like SouthWest then it shouldn’t be too bad. But sometimes that is not going to work. So long as you think the relationship is worth it and (likely) heading somewhere then I guess people have to do what they have to do. My wife and I use to think it was long distance when I was in law school in Philly and she was in south jersey, since we only saw each other on the weekends. I cannot imagine being apart more then that, it must be really tough and there must… Read more »

Louise M
Louise M
9 years ago

My boyfriend and I finally share a postcode after three years of being apart. We only lived a few hours away but to young teenagers who couldn’t drive and had limited incomes, it was worlds apart. We took it in turns to visit — I found cheap deals on buses between our cities. I found the best thing to do was to find a phone plan that would give you unlimited free calls to a certain number or network. We could talk for hours and it would feel like we were together (and it didn’t cost a cent!). Sleepover if… Read more »

Khadijah
Khadijah
9 years ago

It’s unfortunate when 2 people who meet and like each other then one of them moves 4000 miles away. These are 2 of the most rational people I know, who usually think that long distance relationships are futile, but they’re doing it anyway. The thing about being 4000 miles apart is, I think maybe its cheaper or not more expensive than a regular relationship. Tickets are too expensive to travel monthly or even every other month. SO when we do get together, we rarely ever leave the bedroom, and I miss cooking for him so I will cook and we… Read more »

Heather
Heather
9 years ago

My partner and I did the long distance thing thing several times, with varying degrees of success in dealing with missing each other. We were never in a financial position to visit each other regularly, so we had to look for other ways to keep our relationship strong while apart. I know this might sound odd, and that a lot of people might not agree with it, but playing World of Warcraft ended up helping us deal with the separation most effectively. Instead of talking on the phone and just relating our days to each other, we could meet in… Read more »

Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates
9 years ago

Back in the mid 90’s, I took a job in DC and for three years commutued back and forth to NH almost every weekend. My family stayed in NH as we had a child in HS and did not want to move her. What we found was that I cuold catch a flight out of DC late afternoon on a Friday, switch planes in NYC and get into Boston by 8 PM. I would reverse the itinerary late on a Sunday night. I would use different airlines and would book multiple flights from the same airline when ticket rates were… Read more »

shorty j
shorty j
9 years ago

okay, I’m heavily biased because I actually *love* long-distance relationships. I’m very independent and a little obsessed with my personal space, so for the years my partner and I were apart, it was MUCH easier for me than when we moved in together, haha. Skype Skype Skype! I agree with the “book your trips far in advance” idea. Another thing I’d suggest is to check out mixing modes of transport–I live in NYC, and flights to and from here can be so bloody expensive. I’ve actually found it to be cheaper and easier to take the bus (for the East… Read more »

Alex
Alex
9 years ago

My significant other and I have been long distance going on two years. I’m in DC, she is in Syracuse. I usually just end up driving up every few weeks or so, unless I can find a flight for under a set amount. Only 3 more months until she is finished with Med School. I admit that I tend to spend a bit more when we are together, but we always cook one meal at her place and go out within reason when getting dinner. However, I skimp on other things when I’m not with her. I don’t have cable… Read more »

PB
PB
9 years ago

My daughter and her significant other are half a country away — she in college, he in the navy. They watch the same movie at the same time on their computers and stay on the phone to comment on it. This is their date night — clever, but confusing to me!

Wade
Wade
9 years ago

The flight tips are great for those visiting family, too. A lot of these tips work well for any relationship. A great post with some good ideas. I personally prefer playing games over going to a movie or show because you can actually communicate and interact with your significant other. It’s just a bonus that it saves money at the same time.

SystemError
SystemError
9 years ago

Back in the day, the late 1990’s, when my now-wife and I first started getting acquainted 1500 apart, AT&T had a special where you could talk unlimited (on the land line, remember those?) to any two numbers for $25 a month. I put her house and school numbers on that, and we definitely got more than $25 worth of calls out of that! We were able to speak every night, and if she called me, we’d hang up real fast so I could call her back real quick to save her dime. Now in the world of Skype, unlimited long… Read more »

Squirrelers
Squirrelers
9 years ago

I have heard of people watching a movie on TV at the same time, while keeping their GF/BF on the line on speaker phone. Supposed to be a low-cost virtual night at the movies:)

It’s also great to plan ahead of time and set up times to visit, while keeping some flexibility for times to get good fares. Often times, great fares can be scored this way, and let’s face it – spending time together in person really beats phone, email, text, chat, etc.

bridgette
bridgette
9 years ago

When we were dating long distance, he used to hop a plane to come see me every 2-3 weeks. He only flew southwest, which worked really well since I lived in Chicago. Flights were 39-$69 each way (in 2008). Fortunately, I worked half days on Friday, and he could come on Thursday night by working extra the 9 days prior, so he would come late on Thursday. Then he could get back early enough for Monday by leaving on the early Chicago flight back to the east coast, so we always had extended weekends. He almost always visited me because… Read more »

Pat S.
Pat S.
9 years ago

Two quick additions for ideas to save some money.
Skype: I know its not the same as being together, but it beats a phone call.
Rewards Credit Cards: Airline miles are huge in trying to commute during a long distance relationship. Checking out the best rewards cards and paying for absolutely everything with the card (and paying the card off each month) the miles can add up quick.
Great post for valentines day.
Pat
http://compoundingreturns.blogspot.com

ali
ali
9 years ago

I’m in a long distance relationship – almost 3 years. We met online and haven’t been able to move closer yet. Like Heather my SO and I spend time playing World of Warcraft together, even if we aren’t playing together it’s nice to be in game at the same time. We actually met in Second Life and that’s a good way (and can be quiet cheap) to spend time with someone. We use Skype all the time and we regularly watch movies and tv shows on Netflix streaming. Our computers and connections are good enough we can do video chat… Read more »

Ru
Ru
9 years ago

Until we broke it off in December, I was in a long distance relationship for a year and a half. When I say distance, I mean it! He was in Seattle and I was in London. In terms of money, I saved and saved to afford my plane ticket out there and he did likewise (we only had 2 visits in the time we were apart). I sent him a letter nearly every week, which cost about £1 for the stamp, he bought me lots of stationary, so that worked out at about £55 a year on letters alone. We… Read more »

Amy H.
Amy H.
9 years ago

Lots of great ideas in this article and the comments. My now-husband and I had the cross-country 3000-mile distance for the first year of our relationship and then San Francisco – Seattle for the next year. It’s always good to take advantage of airfare sales by setting up and purchasing flights for multiple trips when a good one hits. One suggestion for when you just can’t wait until the next planned trip and/or need to try to get somewhere with little lead time: http://www.lastminute.com. This website (which used to be called flight59.com or something like that) lets you book unsold… Read more »

Kelly M
Kelly M
9 years ago

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone! I’ve enjoyed reading all the other tips and ideas. Hope you’re all having a great Valentine’s Day. 🙂

Lucy
Lucy
9 years ago

What a sweet topic for Valentine’s Day! <3 I was living 9900 miles away from my boyfriend for two years (just looked up the distance). We each visited the other once a year. Apart from those hugely expensive flights, I found it really easy to save when he wasn't there because I wanted to keep my money for when he was, and would just cook myself dirt-cheap meals and do cheap hobbies like drawing, reading and running in the park. It felt like I was only half-alive but I learned a lot about my interests during that time. We also… Read more »

E
E
9 years ago

When my boyfriend and I started dating 5 yrs ago, I was in college and he was in grad school. At that time I still lived with my parents and wanted to go out and eat at more expensive restaurants with my bf. Once I got into grad school, I started to value money more seriously. Now I still live and go to grad school in Nashville, while he lives in Chicago. I love Nashville because there is so much free stuff you can do. I enjoy cooking at home whenever he comes visiting me on the weekends. Of course,… Read more »

Erin
Erin
9 years ago

My husband has been truly on the other side of the world for a year now and it was so difficult at first. I have had to pay to have things done that he would normally be able to do for us. I also spend money to send him care packages. On the flip side, we don’t pay to feed him at home and we don’t have commuting costs. His leaves are expensive, but since they’re only once a year, it is still not a huge line item in our budget. We’ll probably do this for one more year, at… Read more »

Tazz
Tazz
9 years ago

Favourite topic! Maybe because this year will be my 4th year being in a long distance relationship! I live 12000 miles away from my boyfriend. I’m in SE Asia, he’s in the US. Between the usual separation and missing each other, we also had to deal with two deployements. Inf act, he was in Iraq when we first met. Last year he was in Afghan for a year. The first year, we went out a lot when I visited. Put-put golfing, softball, movies, eating out but now, we spend most time at home, hanging out watching movies or playing video… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

Oh man this reminds me of my days as a member of the poverty jet set, when aerograms still existed and all the internet had to offer was email and chat through school mainframes, and phone calls were $$$ (but worth it). I tried this scenario several times, and even as technology progressed (cheap phone cards, and webcams began to proliferate), none of these relationships worked for me, in the end. Too much desperation and pent-up hormones, limited visas, lack of work permits, and all manner of love hell, including, once, being unceremoniously dumped– she simply stopped returning calls and… Read more »

H
H
9 years ago

My boyfriend and I live 900 miles apart so we can finish school. We were together for 2.5 years before the distance started. At first, it was really hard, but we’ve been apart 1.5 years now and it is doable and so much easier now than it was when we started out being apart. I don’t see him very often, not even once a month. We can’t afford frequent visits and my school is very demanding so I don’t want him to visit when all I would be doing is studying. I think we are actually more frugal now that… Read more »

JT
JT
9 years ago

Ahh, this post brings back so many memories. 🙂 My hubby and I met in the stone ages of the internet, and we maintained a long-distance relationship between California and Europe for five years. FIVE years of people telling us that it wasn’t going to work, that it was a terrible idea, and couldn’t we just find someone locally? There wasn’t Skype, Hulu or unlimited calling plans. We didn’t even have Gmail chat because Google didn’t exist yet. But airfare was more affordable (Xmas flight to Europe for $400!!), and prepaid calling card rates were pretty good (1-2 cents a… Read more »

Naurhir
Naurhir
9 years ago

I live 5827 miles away from my girlfriend of 3 years, 4 months and 6 days. It can be very difficult, but we see each other every 6 months now. She lives in a country that as a middle-class makes half as much as I do as a middle-class citizen in the US. Due to this, I pay for the flights for both of our trips, and then we each pay in our respective countries for our travels there. This makes the cost more bearable for her, and we also tend to go to parks, museums, and the beach when… Read more »

Caitlin
Caitlin
9 years ago

Hey! We named this article one of our favorite finance posts of the week over at College Money Mag: http://www.collegemoneymag.com/2011/02/this-week-on-the-web-february-18-2011/

Our readers are mostly students, so a LOT of long-distance loves in that crowd. We’re hoping your advice helps them out!

Jon C
Jon C
8 years ago

My girlfriend and I did it all the way through University. I was in Scotland, and she was in Toronto. It was very inexpensive because, as a hopeless romantic, I wasn’t paying for entertainment together, or paying for drinks at bars, I would just send her wee gifts instead. The use of the internet such as Skype made it ridiculously easy and free to talk to each other. And then with a bit of research, there are lots of Skype type services which use the data on your phone. It was normally cheaper than a regular bill!

Sandra
Sandra
7 years ago

Hi there, just wanted to tell you, I enjoyed this article. It was funny. Keep on posting!||

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