The economics of serial dating: A case study
It's a warm Monday evening, and I'm sitting on the couch in Anna Schwartz's* one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment watching her get ready for a date. "Normally I’d wear my tight jeans on a first date,” she says, but tonight she’s wearing a purple tank top and a still-fashionable-but-slightly-more-breathable pair of jeans. “I'm only wearing this because it's so hot out."
Schwartz, who's 33, is dark-haired and pretty; she works at a non-profit. She broke up with her last long-term boyfriend around a year ago. Dating is a major part of Schwartz's life; she goes on two to three dates a week when, as she puts it, she's not trying to "focus" on one of her prospects. She's allowing me — an acquaintance — to shadow her for a while in an effort to quantify the economics of serial dating in New York City.
She disappears into the bedroom again and puts on a different shirt — a black tank top. "This is a standard 'Anna first date' shirt," she says. "What do you think?"
I suggest she wear heels.
"Good idea," she says, and puts on a pair of black peep-toes. She's switching the delicate gold chain she's wearing for a silver one with a diamond pendant, then back to her first choice. The recipient of this attention — we’ll call him Adam — works in television; they met on JDate, and swapped a handful of e-mails, which left Anna mildly underwhelmed. He used too many exclamation points, she noted, and “his pics are just okay. He looks sort of Jewish-generic." Still, she’s willing to give him a chance.
I’ve watched this scene before, dozens of times, with various friends getting ready for various dates. But tonight is different: Tonight, it’s like I’m watching Pop-Up Video, with little price tags everywhere. Because active dating comes with a price, and it isn’t cheap, not for Anna and, I suspect, not for other professional urban singles.
To start with, Anna is signed up on three dating sites — eHarmony, Match and JDate. Each costs around $30 a month. She also had her profile photos taken professionally, at a one-time cost of $200 — and she says the number of guys contacting her has gone way up since getting the photos, “like night and day," she says. In fact, she got an e-mail from a guy who hadn’t responded to an e-mail Anna sent before she’d updated her photo. Occasionally she'll go out on a set-up or on a totally blind date, but that's rare. And she tried speed-dating once ($30) but says it was "annoying." Even so, at the going rate, Anna’s spent $1,310 in the last year just to dive into the crowded pool of eager and available singles.
Then there are the pre-date expenses. A weekly manicure ($13 with tip; $676 for the year) and a pedicure ($27 with tip; $562 for the year) every two to three weeks are part of Anna’s regular grooming routine, not just for dating, she says, but also not optional in the way a manicure can be when you know no one will notice or, if they do notice, care. She also gets a monthly semi-Brazilian wax "in case there is sex on my horizon," which sets her back $50 ($600 for the year). Quick tally: Just over $1,800 for a date-ready grooming routine.
And while Anna didn’t buy anything special for tonight’s date (not worth it, not for too-many-exclamation-points guy), she often considers whether something would be date-appropriate when shopping for clothes, and if there’s a specific need, she’ll buy something new. She recently went on a date to the New York Botanical Gardens and didn't feel like she had the right outfit: "I spent $100 on cute ballet flats, which obviously I have worn to more than just the date, and $50 on a cute shirt that I have also worn a lot.” Is the date an impetus to buy the stuff she already kind of wanted? Of course. But without date-inspired permission, she might not have spent the money. Split the difference, and say Anna’s full social calendar inspires Anna to spend an extra $1,000 she otherwise might not have. She also says she spends more on dry cleaning when she's dating: "Dresses or special shirts need to be dry cleaned." And, she says, her dry cleaner recently pointed out that she has been coming in to shorten some dresses — so she's been spending more on tailoring as well. If, all in, Anna’s outfits run an extra $1,500 per year — well, now we’re at $5,648, and we haven’t even left the house yet.
Even though Adam’s chosen a café that’s just a few blocks away, Anna hails a cab. It’s unseasonably hot and humid, and she’d like to arrive neither frizzy nor sweating. But this is also pretty standard: she never wants to arrive disheveled or sweaty and she’s usually wearing heels.
The café is small and low-key; Arcade Fire is playing on the stereo. The glasses of wine on the menu range from $9 to $13, and when I arrive, I see that Anna's drinking a glass of white and her date has a glass of red. He's wearing a short-sleeve button-down shirt and jeans, and the two of them are already deep in conversation at a small table by the bar. I take a seat at the bar and listen over the din of a group of people having some sort of reunion next to me.
First they discuss their jobs — she goes first, and then I hear him talking about his office. Their body language seems suggestive; their legs are sort of touching, and she's leaning in towards him. I hear them go through the standard first-date litany: where they're from, some details about their families, what they like to do on the weekends, where they've traveled. After an hour or so he comes to the bar and orders another round.
Now, economically speaking, Anna’s faring better. Yes, she’ll spend $20 on a cab tonight, and if she does that twice a week, 50 weeks a year, that’s a $2,000 annual expense. But Adam’s paid for the drinks, which, with tip, come to around $60 for two rounds. Anna says she often offers to pay for the second round of drinks, and she is almost always refused. Now, with cab fare, the estimated annual cost of Anna’s dating life just bounced up to $7,648.
When they left the café, Adam walked her home, and they kissed outside her apartment building — even though she says she wasn’t necessarily feeling any sparks. “He leaned in for the kiss, and I kissed him back — but not really enthusiastically,” she says. When we talk a couple days later, she’s confident that he’ll ask her out again.
If there had been more chemistry, Anna might have invited him up, a possibility she’s always prepared for. It’s not just the bikini wax. She keeps condoms on hand. “In your thirties, it's expected that women will have some in their apartment," she says.
Plus, she says, sex aside, she has noticed that she keeps "hosting" items in her apartment. "Like, I always have wine, beer, Pellegrino, hummus, crackers, ice cream pops, in case we end up back at my apartment, so I guess that factors into my head when grocery shopping. Other people might just have this because they are responsible adults!"
Throw in another $150 per month for snacks and whatnot, and Anna’s total annual dating budget totals nearly $9,500. It’s a lot of money, for a string of first dates. Some of them progress — Anna and her last boyfriend, an eHarmony match, dated for a few months, about a year ago — and when they do, the economics subtly change. The first date is drinks, for which Anna rarely pays. The second date: casual dinner, again paid for by the man, potentially followed by drinks. Third date: nicer dinner and/or some kind of event, paid for by the man, but the woman should offer.
If it all seems sort of exhausting and Rules-like — well, that’s because it is. Even today, in 2010, even for people in their 20s and 30s, raised by feminist and post-feminist moms and dads, the economics of heterosexual dating are still pretty traditional, especially when people are doing the online dating dance. In this context, the bill comes with plenty of subtext. No, paying for drinks or dinner is not an assumption that she is living on a meager secretary’s salary, while he runs accounts at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but it does have plenty of meaning in modern courtship.
Paying for a date is a flirtation, says Laurie Davis, who runs a website called eFlirtexpert, a way for the man to signal his interest. “If he splits with you,” she suggests, “then perhaps he looks at you as more of a friend.” The split check also keeps a date on level economic ground — neither party owes the other anything, be it another round, a kiss goodnight, or a second date. Depending on what you want, that can be a good thing or a very bad one.
Now, then, might be a good time to consider what this looks like from Adam’s point of view. He’s paid for JDate, too, though judging from Anna’s reaction, he hasn’t professional photos taken. He’s probably not spending money on pedicures, bikini waxes or ballet flats. And let’s assume that, because he’s not wearing heels, he has more affordable transportation options, so his annual taxi bill might be half Anna’s. What he is buying, however, is drinks, and even a mediocre date usually involves two drinks. In Manhattan, that can be about $40 to $70, depending on the place. If Adam dates at her two-per-week pace, he might end up spending $6,000 a year on drinks alone. If half of those drinks become dinner, his annual dating tab could run closer to $10,000.
For the future of a relationship, the third date can be a turning point, says Anna. She's had guys who, in an attempt to impress her, take her out to a dinner that's overly extravagant. And in fact, says dating guru Davis, the third date is often where men signal their financial security (or lack thereof). “It’s shown by the venues that they choose for dates,” she says. A man who wants to show you he’s well-off might take you to a really nice restaurant on a third date — a special occasion place, not a typical third date place.” Consciously or not, those men know what they’re doing. Both men and women prefer partners with higher incomes, according to one study of 23,000 online daters in Boston and San Diego, but “the preference is much more pronounced for the women.”
But the third date is also where the woman should, according to tradition spoken or otherwise, offer to pay. And perhaps this is where it’s okay for the man to accept. No one is really sure, least of all Anna. Certainly, when she things were more casual in her 20s, Anna didn’t think twice about offering to pay or going Dutch. Now, though, she is looking for someone who is finally successful and relatively successful in his chosen career. And one way of demonstrating that is to pay for the first few dates.
On the other hand, financially secure doesn’t necessarily mean “rich,” and as stipulated, dating can get expensive. "Personally, I view going Dutch as okay, especially if both parties are in the same field — if both are social workers, educators, grad students," she says. "But if someone is a grad student and the other is a big time banker, it's like, pay for the date, buddy." (The expectation, of course, is that it's going to be the guy who's the big-time banker.)
Does it always have to be so complicated? Not necessarily. On the opposite end of the third-date spectrum, Anna’s bought a bottle of wine and invited her date over to her apartment for dinner. "If I order in with a guy at my apartment, I pay. I also know women who cook for guys at their apartments on, like, a fourth date, and I would assume they spend around $50 to $100 on groceries, wine, etc."
For reasons that have nothing to do with dollars and cents, Adam never contacted Anna again. But she’s only mildly bummed. While she felt like they hit it off, she didn’t feel an overwhelming amount of chemistry. “I think it was because he tried to kiss me, and I felt sort of weird about it,” she says. And then she did something she almost never does: She e-mailed him, asking why she never heard from him. He didn’t write back.
Anna says she's looking for a long-term, exclusive relationship — and dating seems like the best way she's found to do it. She's busy at work and doesn't like meeting people at bars. Still, I wondered whether all the dating, in addition to being expensive, isn’t plain exhausting — and Anna admits that at times, it can be. There was a period when she was casually dating five men — seeing each of them around once a week. "I wasn't sleeping with any of them, but still, it was sort of tiring," she says. Plus, none of them knew about the others — which had led to some not-quite-lying, not-quite-the-whole-truth scenarios.
But the laws of long-term relationships aren't as cut-and-dried as the rules of going on a couple dates, and when it comes down to it, Anna isn't quite sure what she wants. "In my mid-twenties, I didn't care if someone liked their job or if they were floating around from job to job. Now, I do care because I am looking for someone stable in general. I have noticed that guys who make a lot and who seem to really like me at first do 'throw out all the stops' — regular little gifts, like earrings, a book, tickets to an event, even offering to pay for a weeklong trip to Italy," she says. "This is all enticing — but it doesn't make me ignore the other issues."
So for now, Anna’s taking a break from online dating. Though she enjoyed going out and meeting new people and trying different activities around the city, she says she was starting to feel like it was becoming too much of a game. She wasn’t particularly interested in most of the men she went out with, but she became wrapped up in whether they were interested in her. When I talked to her a couple weeks after her date with Adam, she’d started seeing someone she’d met in real life. But a couple weeks later, she’d stopped seeing him as well.
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