Digital mating: The costs of online dating

The countdown has begun to Valentine's Day. But for those of you who are still seeking someone to celebrate with, you're not alone. Right now millions people are also looking for love in a very specific place -- online dating sites. And they're willing to spend serious money to find romance. The average online dater dishes out about $240 a year for access to sites like eHarmony and Match.com. But are they getting their money's worth? Dan Slater, author of "Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating" and Kate Bergstrom, creator of the podcast and blog, Dates With Kate, provide their insights into the online dating world.

Sites like Match.com and eHarmony charge a subscription fee while others like OkCupid are free, so why pay for something you can get for free?

"There's something called the 'velvet rope theory.' If you go to a really fancy restaurant or club, the idea is that it's more exclusive and the people that you get access to are of higher caliber. So the Match.com's will say look, yes you pay $20 a month, maybe $40 a month, to belong to the site, but we have better daters. We have folks who are more serious about it."

Bergstrom has mostly used Match.com for her online dating and says that if you have to put a little bit of effort into getting onto the site, like giving your credit card information, daters are likely to take finding a mate more seriously. One site that Bergstrom isn't likely to log onto anytime soon, though, is eHarmony.

"I started to fill out their personality profile and it was -- I give them props -- incredibly extensive. I don't know that I was willing to work that hard. I'm willing to work obviously a little bit, but it's a lot of work," says Bergstrom.

"I met a lot of people who are on eHarmony and the thing I heard over and over again was that if you are the kind of person who's patient enough to fill out 450 questions, there's a chance that you may be compatible with another person who's also patient enough to fill out that many questions," adds Slater.

But one of the issues people have with online dating is that people could be lying about things like their salary or occupation. How big of a factor is lying in online dating?

"The studies that have been done show that the actual amount of lying in online dating is not as big as you think. So men will tend to exaggerate their height by a couple of inches. The women will tend to shave 5-10lbs off their weight. As far as, is money important, is your job important? It's really a person-to-person thing. There are so many people who are doing online dating right now that you'll find as big a mix within the online dating sphere as you will the offline dating sphere," says Slater.

Bergstrom says salary isn't an important factor when she uses online dating sites, though she wants to find someone who is generally within her economic bracket. But she has found in her dating experiences that she has encountered people who have stretched the truth about their salary.

"I don't think that people are generally outright lying, but I think that they are exaggerating the truth and I think that everybody knows that everybody's doing that in a way so [you expect it]," says Bergstrom.

Over the years she has spent online dating, Bergstrom says she has spent over $1,000. "Oh boy, if only I had invested that money, look where I'd be," she says. Still, she's found the experience -- and the spending -- well worth it.

"If nothing else, online dating gives you a kind of confidence. It used to scare me to death to walk into a bar or restaurant and meet a guy and try and strike up a conversation and now, it ain't nothing but a thing. I can do that without being nervous at all," says Bergstrom.


Six online dating tips by Kate Bergstrom

Be Ready -- You should be divorced or over your last relationship and be an emotionally ready dating candidate and not still trying to get over a break-up.

Be Real -- You should look like your pictures and your date should be able to recognize you. They should not be 10 years ago, 50 pounds ago or three hairstyles ago.

Be Relaxed and Receptive -- Avoid "Vending Machine Dating," which means going through dates like they are snacks that you know you can get a whole lot more of. Don't, however, be so desperate to be married or have a kid that your date feels some kind of ridiculous pressure. Just be relaxed and let it happen.

Be (a little) Removed -- The Internet is still the Internet and not everyone you encounter on there is going to be safe and sane. I have been put in a headlock and had hateful emails that had me fearing I had a stalker, so be careful.

Rally Time -- Have a planned, shared exit plan that, if you want to use it, makes it easy for you to get out of the date if you want to. Don't go somewhere so crowded that you can't find your date, be able to hear them or find somewhere to sit. And keep it simple. Plan on meeting for a cocktail and then, if you like your date, you can get dinner, another drink or move to another venue.

Remember to Have Fun -- After all, you aren't trying to create world peace, but just meeting someone who could be really cool and getting to know them. There doesn't need to be any more pressure than that.


As for whether you should sign up for an account on a dating website just ahead of Valentine's Day, both Slater and Bergstrom caution against it.

"The problem with Valentine's Day is it puts so much pressure on people to have a special experience," says Slater.

"I could see why people would want to join around Valentine's Day, but I think you're going to get a lot of amateurs maybe or people that are maybe going to be around for a little bit and then realize they are no longer interested any longer," adds Bergstrom.

About the author

In more than 20 years in public radio, Barbara Bogaev has served as the longtime guest host of NPR’s flagship program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as host of APM’s news and culture magazine, Weekend America and the weekly national documentary series, Soundprint.

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