Cheap dates might be the norm as inflation lingers

Erin McCarthy
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Given the price of gas, Rob Martin would no longer date someone who lives hours away. And since the cost of dining out has increased, the 32-year-old has found himself opting more for virtual first dates — such as phone conversations — before investing time and money on an in-person meetup. He keeps the first in-person dates casual, too, such as coffee or ice cream.

In recent years, he said, he ended things with someone he was dating in part because she lived too far away.

"I was spending about $20, back and forth, seeing her," said Martin, a union staff representative who lives in Royersford, Pennsylvania. To boot, he added, he didn't see the relationship going anywhere.

Dating experts in the Philadelphia region and nationwide have been hearing similar financial concerns from singles over the past year, as record inflation has driven up the cost of gas, groceries, and dining out.

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The start of the new year is expected to bring the usual flood of people to dating apps and other matchmaking services, as some resolve to focus more intentionally on finding a partner. Experts said they anticipate the 2022 trends — including more creative and budget-friendly first dates — continuing in 2023.

"Everything is more expensive," said Michal Naisteter, a matchmaker and "super connector" for her company, Michal Matches, which serves the Philadelphia region. But "dating is connected to experiences," not money.

It cost, on average, 8.5% more to eat out in November than it did a year earlier, according to the latest Consumer Price Index report. In 2022, almost half of single people suggested going on a cheaper date due to inflation and the economic climate, according to a survey of more than 8,000 people conducted by the dating app Plenty of Fish.

Aleeza Ben Shalom, a dating coach and matchmaker with Marriage Minded Mentors, said she noticed a shift this year when talking to clients and other singles in her native Philadelphia.

"The general feeling was 'Is there a cheaper, easier, better way to do this? How can I maximize my time and minimize my costs?'" said Ben Shalom, whose clients are Jewish singles dating to marry.

For many, she said, that cheaper, easier way included narrowing one's pool of potential partners to local residents. Some clients used to date in New York, she added, and regularly racked up hefty bills just on tolls and gas. That is less common now.

"People do not want to, quote-unqoute, waste money on gas," she said, adding that they often tell her, "If we're going to go out, I'd rather spend money on food than getting there."

People are also suggesting more casual dates, such as wine, takeout, and a movie at home. And the trend is changing the connotation of "Netflix and chill."

"Pre-COVID, 'Netflix and chill' just meant a makeout session and [conveyed] 'I'm not really serious about dating,'" she said. "Now it means, 'No, I am interested in a relationship'" but am conscious of my budget.

The economic climate has exacerbated age-old dating issues, too, such as the uneven dynamic that can develop when one partner is in a far better financial situation than the other. For some, Ben Shalom said, it has added stress to their relationships, while others have stayed in relationships longer than they otherwise would have due to financial security, especially if they live with their significant other.

Yet for singles, it has forced many people to be more creative with their date ideas, said Erika Kaplan, the vice president of membership at Three Day Rule Matchmaking, which serves about 10 large cities, including Philadelphia.

Recently, a client "called his matchmaker and asked if it was appropriate to take a date on a walk down South 13th Street," Kaplan said, adding that the answer was an unequivocal yes. "Because the cost of dating has gotten very expensive, he along with a lot of singles don't want to spend top dollar to wine and dine."

"We're seeing dinner and drinks are out. Walking dates are in," she added. "People are definitely just finding ways they can organically connect without the big price tag."

This formula can be a recipe for success, especially for busy people who are also looking to be more efficient with their time.

Martin, for one, said he has benefited from doing more virtual first dates with the women he matches with on the apps Bumble and OKCupid.

"I think the virtual dating is pretty awesome," he said. And when you couple that with a second date of coffee or something else low key, "you can leave very quickly if it's not going well."


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