Down payment for love: The costs and benefits of online dating
Caryn Blomquist retired early from online dating. Only 24 years old, she has already tried (and subsequently broken up with) JDate, Match.com, OkCupid and Christian Mingle.
Looking back on conversations with potential suitors and a few awkward first dates, Blomquist is uncertain about what went wrong. She said she was frustrated by missed connections and the men who weren't all that their profile claimed they would be.
"I really value transparency," Blomquist said. "I feel like the yes/no/maybe options (dating sites) give you for your profile aren't really fair."
Now, she is trying to enjoy the time she has to be single to get to know herself and what she wants out of life. It's an approach that could have spared Blomquist and likely thousands of others like her who feel they wasted time and money trying to find love and companionship online. Researchers of the online dating phenomenon have found a disciplined consumer strategy, rather than casual browsing, can result in success and satisfaction.
Paul Oyer, a labor economist and experienced online dater, believes the key to feeling better may be feeling less. By stripping away emotion and focusing on facts like time invested and ultimate goals, online daters can get the most out of their online dating experience and make smarter decisions about the money they spend.
"I don't think you have to pay for a site these days to do well," he said. "But if you are really focused on committed, long-term relationships, paying money makes a little more sense."
Dating in a digital age
Match.com's 2014 update to its annual "Singles in America" study highlighted the transformation taking place within American dating culture.
Today, one-in-four relationships begin online, and one-in-five new marriages are between couples who met on an online dating site. The survey, which compiled the responses of more than 5,300 singles ages 18 to 70 plus, also noted that singles now spend, on average, $5.69 each month on matchmaking services like subscriptions to online dating sites.
Oyer touched on the differences between paid and free online dating services in his book, "Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating." Combining his expertise in studying the behavioral science of economics with his online dating experiences, he offers advice on how to make the most of online dating, including how to be smart about subscription costs.
Oyer, a professor of economics at Stanford University, explained that it's important for people to reflect carefully on their online dating choices, asking themselves what they're hoping to get for the money and time they invest.
Following Oyer's logic, Blomquist's dissatisfaction can be linked to more than just a few dud dates. She was also failing to question what each website uniquely offered, spending money for only a fraction of the benefits she sought.
"(Online daters) should spend wisely, asking themselves, 'How do I use this resource to efficiently cull through this very large market?,’ ” Oyer said.
What a subscription signals
Since no site, paid or unpaid, can guarantee a love connection, singles have to change the way they understand the fees. It's not just about what the cost says about the site, but also about what the down payment conveys about the dater, Oyer explained.
In economics jargon, that phenomenon is called signaling. By charging, a site signals that there is high demand for its services. By spending money to join, a user signals that he or she is serious about the pursuit of love.
"Money is useful for separating the posers from the people who really want a relationship," Oyer said.
Justin Garcia, one of the "Singles in America" study's lead investigators, agreed that paying for a subscription indicates a commitment to finding a partner.
"As consumer psychology has long known, when consumers put down a credit card, they are more likely to be invested and committed to the service they are paying for," he wrote in an email.
A shared interest in finding relationships rather than casual flings can also improve the pool of potential daters, Garcia noted. "I think paid services attract a self-selecting community of members who are committed to keeping the quality of the experience high," he said.
Although paid dating sites generally cost only $20 to $30 per month (comparable to dinner for two at a restaurant), Oyer said that singles shouldn't hesitate to be picky about where they spend their money.
After all, dating is already expensive without the added costs of site subscriptions. "Singles in America" reported that singles spend an average of $55.84 per month on dates, for items like sports or movie tickets.
In a manner befitting an economist, Oyer monitored his budget carefully. He'd save money by suggesting something inexpensive for a first date, like meeting for coffee or drinks. And although he met his long-term girlfriend on JDate, a paid site, he said he was happy with his experience on OkCupid, which is free.
Individuals will have to decide for themselves how to allocate their dating budget, Oyer said, who offered some basic guidelines:
Focus on finding a thick market. In other words, online dating is most beneficial when it provides a high number of potential matches. Daters should consider increasing their geographic limits or desired age range.
Allow your friends to read through your profile. "What are people assuming about you that you didn't say?," Oyer asked, noting that a few casual references to alcohol can quickly add up to assumptions about problem drinking.
Time is your most precious resource, even more valuable than money.
"When you go on dating sites, the scarce resources are other partners and your own time," he said. "The problem is I think you never know if you're putting in too much or too little time. You don't really know the alternative."
The potential to be overwhelmed by online dating sites is why Oyer suggests investing plenty of time in comparing sites, creating a profile and envisioning an ideal partner. Being intentional early helps people get the most out of online dating.
Time is exactly what Blomquist needed. After ending her subscriptions and signing off other free dating sites, she said she's enjoyed taking the time to get to know herself and reflect on her experiences.
Blomquist said she'd consider returning to online dating sites when she feels more settled in her career and more confident about her relationship goals.
"Before, I just wanted to go on dates," she said. "Now I think I'm more marriage-minded. I'm thinking more about what I want in a partner."
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