How Much Does It Cost For True Love?

Back in the day, online dating carried a HUGE stigma. If you dared to venture onto an online dating site, you certainly didn’t tell anyone about it. And you only posted your photo reluctantly, terrified that someone you know might actually see it.

Those days are long, long gone. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, 38 percent of all adults who consider themselves “single and looking” for romantic relationships had used online dating sites or mobile dating apps. And yes, posted their photos. In fact, online dating etiquette dictates that thou shalt post a photo with your online dating profile or risk having other users wonder if you have something to hide.

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The Paid and the Free

Make no mistake; virtually all dating sites are designed to make money for their operators. Paid sites simply choose to extract most, if not all of their revenue from their users, while free sites are ad based or sell demographic information from their user databases to direct advertising firms. Other online dating sites operate on a “freemium” model where users can sign up for free but have access to limited functions.  Many paid and freemium online sites feature free trial periods for new members or periodic open communication windows when most, if not all of their matching features are made available for no charge –in the hopes of expanding their paid membership bases.

If you are considering online dating, your dilemma is probably no longer will you post a photo or won’t you? Instead, the question would be-online daters face is whether to pony up for a paid site or go for a free site. There is no one right answer. Your decision must be based on those factors that are most important to you.

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Online Dating Safety and Legitimacy

A lingering and legitimate concern among online daters is safety. After all, you’re sharing fairly intimate segments of your life with complete strangers. Paid dating sites tend to at least do cursory vetting of their users – at least to the extent of ensuring that their credit cards are valid. Free dating sites, on the other hand are come one, come all, and dater beware. In this respect, paid dating sites do seem to have the edge.

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Paid dating sites also have more of a reputation for attracting “serious” daters –people looking for long-term relationships rather than simply casually hanging out. Many people, including dating coach Elena Solomon, author of 12 Simple Rules, claim that paid dating sites draw higher caliber users than free dating sites. Solomon goes so far as to state that she finds it “appalling” that someone would be unwilling or unable to pay for a monthly online dating subscription.

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General and Niche Dating

The size of online dating sites is not dictated by the revenue model they employ. Some free dating sites, like PlentyofFish.com and OKCupid.com are huge. But paid dating sites like eHarmony.com or Match.com also boast extremely large memberships. Either way, on the surface at least, users (or members, a term many online dating sites prefer), seem to be spoiled for choice, at least on the surface. So if you’re a budget-minded person wading into the general online dating pool, a free site is a perfectly legitimate choice.

On the other hand, a major knock against many general online dating sites is that, like cable TV which often features hundreds of channels but still has nothing good to watch, you have to plow through a lot of dreck to find anyone that you actually want to date. Enter niche dating. If you’re a born-again Christian, Jewish, LGBT, black, Latino, a country boy or girl, an admirer of libertarian author Ayn Rand, plus-sized, vegetarian or seeking an extramarital liaison, there is at least one online dating site that caters to you.

The catch? You’ll probably have to pay to take full advantage of what the sites have to offer. There is also no guarantee that you will actually have anything in common with other members other than what drew you to the niche dating site. However, you will at least have something to talk about over that first coffee date.

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Online Dating and the Recession

As you might predict, the ongoing financial crisis has had a detrimental impact on many paid dating sites. Faced with the choice of paying a monthly online dating subscription versus buying groceries or keeping your cell phone turned on, many people will opt for food or connectivity. People who opt for free online dating sites simply accept that they will have to practice a heightened sense of due diligence to weed through hundreds or thousands of profiles to find their ideal matches.

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The Impact of Social Media

Many people who want the common interests of a niche dating site coupled with the screening of a paid dating site without laying out any money are turning to social media. Social media sites require users to post their real names along with encouraging photos and fairly detailed profiles. Social media “friends” or“connections” serve as a means of vetting users as legit. Online groups allow like-minded individuals to interact both online and IRL (that’s “in real life” to Luddites who are not yet hip to social media.)

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The Bottom Line

If you are hoping to fall in love and get married, it may be worthwhile for you to pony up the cash for a site that caters to other marriage-minded folks. To find people with whom you can hang out even when you’re not kissing, try a niche dating site or even social media. On the other hand, if you just want to meet attractive people and perhaps find a spark, either a paid or a free general dating site should be fine.