Those of you still in the dating pool know: It's a jungle out there.
Look no further than the latest rom-com from Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler, "Blended," for example: The film begins with the two going on a disastrous setup, after which they vow to never see each other again. Of course, Hollywood has them falling in love after they end up at the same African resort.
After you've burned an hour on a please-make-it-stop blind date, your reality was probably a little less happily-ever-after. Not only was it a waste of time, you might also be out a painful $100.
Finding love can come at a cost: The average online dater, for instance, spends $239 a year on different sites' membership fees. Then tack on what you spend on dinner, drinks, or getting well-groomed — not to mention go-the-extra-mile services like dating consultants — and you've likely dipped deeply into your budget.
"It's important to keep in mind that dating expenses are discretionary line items in your budget, as opposed to necessary costs such as food, rent, or paying down debt," says Jennifer Faherty, a money coach and CFP®. "Even if finding your soul mate ranks high on your list of priorities, be mindful to still cover your essential expenses."
But once those are covered, "how you choose to allocate the money within that category is really up to you," she says. "As long as it fits into your larger budget, there are no strict rules."
Knowing that every dating budget might look different, we asked three active daters, and one who's now in a relationship, to give us a snapshot of what they're willing to spend — or not — in the pursuit of finding The One. Then we asked Faherty to weigh in on what their spending might reveal about how they view both love and money.
Aaron Csepregi, 33, Project Manager, Chicago
For the past three years, Csepregi has been finding his dates through Match.com, which he started using because the site offered a free one-week trial. He met a woman he dated seriously for six months … and he's met some women he'd prefer never to see again, like the one who drank an entire bottle of red wine while he sipped a single beer. But for the most part, he says, "I've had great experiences."
Membership fee: Match.com, $30 a month
I don't feel like I have to pay for any extra services, like someone to improve my profile. I already get emails from people saying I'm original and different. My bio doesn't say the usual "I'm a laid-back guy." And I don't need any professional photos. I have 26 photos. My profile photo is of me in a suit, and then you go on down the line and there's me in a tux, which I own, me rock-climbing in Thailand, me with my dad and my brother, me kayaking, etc.
Cell phone bill: $70 a month
I don't really like going online to use Match.com. I use the mobile app. [My Verizon bill] is about $145 a month, but my company pays $75 of that. The mobile app is the best part of the dating service. It's more user-friendly than the actual website. Plus, in Chicago, everyone always has their phones in front of their faces while they ride the L train.
Personal grooming: $50 a month
I get my hair cut every three weeks and buy fiber to style it. I use body wash and shampoo. I stopped wearing cologne. I've been told by a lot of girls that it can be nauseating. I know how to do it — just a splash — but I think my Old Spice body wash works fine.
Gym membership: $10 a month
I have the cheapest gym. I go to Cardinal Fitness on Madison Street [in Chicago]. It's about feeling good and looking good. I need to look like my pictures.
Wardrobe: $150 a month
I'm the opposite of the dress-to-impress kind of guy. I'll wear nice jeans and a nice shirt. If it goes past one date, I might wear a suit or blazer. I shop at J.Crew or Banana Republic. I think it's more about the substance of the person than what they're wearing. I'd be fine if the girl was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. She should wear something comfortable. Most women tend to overdress for dates.
Other prep: $5
Before dates, I usually swing by the car wash.
First date: $6 to $7
Time is precious, so I cut to the chase. I email a girl, and if she responds back, I say, "Here's my number and let's grab a coffee." Women won't call — they'll text. If they do want to meet up, I like to go to Caribou Coffee.
I stopped doing dinner dates, basically because once you sit down with someone, you have to go through the full dinner. With coffee dates, if either party isn't feeling the vibe, there's no pressure to stick around. A typical first date lasts about an hour.
Follow-up dates: $0 to $30
Chicago is a wonderful city full of cheap, fun things to do. For free, I like to take dates to North Avenue Beach or Northerly Island, or to the Art Institute of Chicago. I also like going for a bike ride on Lake Shore Drive. I don't even mind going for a walk; there are so many things to see in every neighborhood. In general, I like something active and outdoors.
I'm not afraid of using a LivingSocial deal or a Groupon if it's a cool event. The days when those were taboo for a date are long gone. I've gone paddle-boarding for $20 a couple, gotten two White Sox tickets for $15, and played WhirlyBall — think lacrosse in bumper cars — for $30. I don't like doing the $100-plus dinner when there are things that are cheaper and more fun, and you don't get awkward silences or forced conversation.
I don't buy jewelry or flowers. I'll do the things that should be done, like open car doors or walk curbside. But buying gifts after a few dates? No. Maybe I'll get her a box of Milk Duds.
What the money coach thinks
Aaron's budget seems to be well thought out and practical. He doesn't invest a ton of money up-front, but he still makes sure to put time and effort into the things that are important to him. Ultimately, that's what you want any budget to do: to reflect your values and priorities. For example, he mentioned that feeling and looking good are important to him, but he recognizes that he can do that with a fairly inexpensive gym membership and a splash of Old Spice. That being said, he is willing to invest later if the match seems to be working.
I love his idea of free or less-expensive dates that are still fun, well-planned, and emphasize an activity in which you can really get to know someone in a natural way. What's important here is that he isn't cutting corners. Even with the most frugal budgets, you still want to put in the effort so the date doesn't come across as cheap. You can do that by making an investment of time and effort, rather than dollars.
Natalie Blinderman, 47, Medical Device Sales, Dallas
Blinderman's first dates on Match.com and Plenty of Fish (POF.com) never seemed to lead to second or third dates, so she hired a dating coaching firm, called Smart Dating Academy, to boost her profile's potential. Her personal Chicago-based coach helps her via phone calls and emails to break out of past bad dating habits — like sabotaging dates or picking the wrong guys — and build better relationships.
Membership fee: $30 a month for Match.com; free for POF.com
I pay for Match.com and have met some good-quality people. On POF.com, I don't pay but can correspond with guys through email. I've met only one person through them, though, so maybe it's worth paying for a dating site.
Smart Dating Academy: $3,500 for three months
I recently got the Bronze Package, which includes email coaching, and helping me write emails that will get someone's attention and get them to respond back. It also includes an hour call each week. Part of the coaching is to help you pick appropriate dates. There are certain things to look for in guys' profiles, to help you weed out someone who's looking just to have fun. And I also got professional photos. I flew to Chicago, where the Academy is based, to do those.
Internet and cell phone bill: $200 a month
I don't use the dating-service apps at all. They're so distracting during the workday. I wait until I'm home to look. I do text a lot of potential dates though, something like, "I see you have a bike — let's go for a bike ride."
Personal grooming: $300 a month
Before dates, I like to get a blowout and make sure I have a nice manicure. I do gel polish, so that's a little more expensive, and once a month, I also do eyelash extensions. I'd rather do that than makeup. Many of my dates have commented on my beautiful lashes. They get enormous eye contact. I'm not giving that up. That's worth it.
Gym membership: $150 a month
I go to two gyms, 24-Hour Fitness and a private gym for Pilates. A lot of guys will just look at photos and not read your profile. They say stuff like, "If your pictures are not current, I will not correspond with you." A lot of times when you're texting, they'll ask for a selfie too, but most of the time I won't send them.
Wardrobe: $300 a month
Sometimes before a second or third date, I'll buy a cute new outfit. My coach said to wear more skirts and dresses, so I'm doing that now — before I'd wear pants. I like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic.
First dates: $0
I like meeting for cocktails, and sometimes the cocktails will turn into dinner. When I do reach for my wallet, most of my dates have been gentlemen who said they'll take care of it. It's the rare occasion when I've had someone not do that.
Follow-up dates: $0 to $150
I'd go to another happy hour or an art festival, or go bike riding. For the first five or so dates, I'd want the guy to pay. I don't want to steal his thunder. But I would spend $100 or $150 on someone early; money to me isn't a problem.
I used to buy gifts for my dates, but now I don't. I read several books on dating, and it goes back to the guy wanting to chase the woman. If she's giving him gifts before he can give her a gift, it doesn't allow him to surprise her.
My company pays for my gas, but most guys have been very open about meeting where neither party has to drive very far. Some guys offer to pick me up, but I don't allow that on a first date.
What the money coach thinks
Natalie's budget reflects that she is ready to make a commitment not only to finding a good match, but also to the process for long-term self-improvement and growth. The coaching is quite a big monetary commitment, so she'll want to make sure that she takes full advantage of everything they offer to make sure she gets a good return on investment.
Spending a good portion of her budget on personal grooming and wardrobe also reflects that she is committed to the process. Unfortunately, here, you see such a discrepancy in the cost of these expenses for females vs. males. For example, in New York City, the average haircut for men is $37, and for women, $73, according to a recent poll conducted by Square.
Patrick Munoz, 26, EMT, Whittier, California
Munoz's biggest complaint about the past five years he's spent dating online is that women are hesitant to meet off-line. He thinks this may be due to his more direct approach via text or email. "I don't like to hide anything," he says. "I don't ask them about their sign or their colors. I ask them what they do for a living or about their family. I don't know if that's a deterrent to most women."
Membership fees: $15 a month for How About We; free for POF.com
Internet and cell phone bill: $180 a month
I get the FIOS cable bundle. But I use the HowAboutWe app more than the website. I'm never really home, so when I'm out and I have some downtime, I check out who's in the area. I can see who's in a 20-mile radius.
Personal grooming: $120 a month
I'm growing out my hair right now, but I usually get it cut once every couple of weeks. Colognes are my Kryptonite. Guys smell. We smell no matter what. I've got to smell good. I like Acqua di Gio and Versace.
Gym membership: $28 a month
I got to 24-Hour Fitness, but I don't think it matters if I don't look exactly like my pictures. I don't take pictures very often of myself — if it's relatively close, I think it's acceptable.
Wardrobe: $150 a month
I get a lot of my clothes at Macy's. I'll wear a nice pair of jeans, and depending on if I'm wearing a button-down or a T-shirt, either leather shoes or sneakers.
Other prep: $10 to $60
If my car's not too dirty, I'll get a wash for $10. If it needs a good buff, I'll pay $60.
First dates: $100
I like to go to the Santa Monica Pier. You can walk down on the beach, go on some rides, hit up the arcade. The rides are costly, but if you hit the Ferris wheel right when the sun is setting, you can see the glow on your date's face — it's epic. And if the date's going well, I like to go to dinner too. There's a good Mexican restaurant I like called Pink Taco.
Follow-up dates: $60 to $70
At this point, I probably want something more intimate, like a sit-down dinner and to see if anything progresses from dinner. There's a restaurant in Santa Monica called Tar & Roses; it's really nice, and it's reservation-only, so it's never too crowded. It's a tapas place, so it's really just drinks and cheese or meat plates. It's not that expensive.
Once I went sky-diving with a second date, though. It was $300 per person, but we split the cost.
I've always thought about bringing flowers, but I've never done it. It seems like an inconvenience to me, and it seems too formal for a first date.
Gas: $30 to $80 per fill-up
Gas is expensive, but it depends on what car I take. If I take my small one, I can fill it up for $30. If I take my truck, it's like $70 to $80. It really is a deterrent if someone lives too far away.
What the money coach thinks
Overall Patrick's budget strikes me as one that is very balanced: a healthy mix of practicality and indulgence. He'll do something low-cost, like a fun walk on the pier, but then throw in a nice dinner if the two seem to be hitting it off. He'll spring for a new outfit, cologne, and a car wash to make a good impression, yet keep it casual by wearing jeans and not scaring her off with a formal gift or driving hours just to meet her.
As long as his spending fits within what he can afford, the budget suggests that he is clear about what he wants and the overall impression he wants to make.
Shannon Otto, 26, Digital Marketing, New York City
Otto met her boyfriend of six months, JT, through Coffee Meets Bagel, a free online dating service that uses Facebook to match you with friends of friends. "I did OK Cupid and didn't like the people I was getting matched with. Then I did Match.com and it wasn't bad, but I didn't meet anyone great," she says. "Then I joined Coffee Meets Bagel, and I liked it a lot better."
On her first date with JT, they started at one bar — and then went to two more. "We talked a lot," she says. "It got super personal, but in a good way."
Membership fee: $30 a month for Match.com; free for Coffee Meets Bagel
Internet and cell phone bill: $40 a month
I share the internet bill with my roommates. For my phone, I'm still on my dad's family plan. It's so much cheaper. With Coffee Meets Bagel, I used the app more than the website. It was more convenient. They'd send you a match every day at 12 p.m., and I'd prefer to check stuff like that on my phone rather than on my work computer.
Personal grooming: $100 to $200 a month
I spend a lot on beauty products because I work in the cosmetics industry. I buy a lot of skin care, lipsticks and lip glosses.
Gym membership: $90 a month
I belong to the pool at the JCC in Manhattan. I think it's important to look like your pictures. I didn't want to be shocked when I met a guy.
Wardrobe: $100 a month
I've started to buy nicer dresses, meaning I'll buy one for $100, instead of going to H&M and buying five dresses for $100. I don't think I ever bought one specifically for a date, though. I didn't want to treat them as such huge occasions. I'd make sure I looked nice, but I wanted to keep it very casual. I didn't want to be like, "Oh, this might be The One." I didn't want to put too much pressure on these dates.
First dates: $0 to $10
Usually we'd grab a glass of wine or beer somewhere. On one first date, we went to a wine bar in Koreatown called 1986, which I thought was really cool. Usually the guy would pay, but if I could tell there wasn't going to be a second date, I'd offer to pay for my drink. I didn't think someone should have to pay if it wasn't going to continue, but sometimes they wouldn't accept my offer.
Follow-up dates: $0 to $300
I'd still keep it casual with drinks for the second date, but I did a few third-date dinners. I always tell other women, "Only offer to pay if you're serious about paying your half, and don't get offended if he does take you up on it." Still, when I offered, the guys would never let me pay.
I did splurge on a date with my now boyfriend. It was his birthday about two months after we met, so I got him tickets to the New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils hockey game at Yankee Stadium.
What the money coach thinks
Shannon's budget suggests that she is an independent, practical woman: She invests a lot up-front in the date, but interestingly she also has a plan B if it doesn't end up becoming a longer-term commitment. It's a good strategy — not only for online dating but also for budgeting in general. It's smart to weigh different options and their costs and see both the short- and long-term value in each expense.
For example, Shannon will buy a nice dress, but knows that she can use it for another occasion, so there's value-added. Even spending a lot on beauty products can be seen as value-added, since it's related to her career and professional interests. She seems to take an "eyes wide open" approach to her expenses, which should serve her well over time.
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