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Sour economy might curb spending, but it's encouraging dating -- online and in person

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 12, 2009 - Two months ago, John DiMartino joined Match.com. As a 27-year-old single dad, it made sense, especially financially, to look online. He joined for three months, for about $60, and that's pretty much what he'd spend on a night out anyway.

"I haven't really met anybody on there," he says. Still these days, a lot of anybody's are out there looking for love.

During the fourth quarter of 2008, Match.com reported its largest membership growth in seven years. In a July report on MSNBC.com, eHarmony's membership was up 20 percent, and at some area bars and dating services, the numbers are equally plentiful.

"I see a lot more people on first dates here," says Seth Womack, manager at J. Bucks in Clayton.

J. Bucks also works with It's Just Lunch, a dating service that sets people up for, you guessed it, just lunch. In the past, they'd see about one date a week. Now, Womack says, it's probably about six.

"The bars do seem to still be busy," says Marie Findley, a 27-year-old single woman.

It seems a bit counterintuitive, that people would be going out more, willing to pay for dating services and looking harder for a significant other when the economy's not so good. But it makes sense to Womack.

"I think it kind of shakes reality a little bit into the picture," he says.

During tough economic times, he says, people might take stock of their lives, "reflect on where (they're) going in the future and who (they're) going there with."


So do bad times call for companionship? Possibly.

The spike in membership last fall coincided with the crash in the stock market, says John Walls, spokesperson with Match.com. In fact, the site had its second and third busiest weekend of the year Nov. 14 through 16 and Nov. 27 through 28.

"The last time that we saw a dramatic rise in membership as well as traffic on the site was post-9/11," he says.

In tough times, people want to find connections, he adds.

And now, people are taking the economy into account when meeting people, too. In an April Match.com poll of 2,700 members,

  • 71 percent would date someone who'd just lost a job.
  • 84 percent were being more selective about first dates during the economic downturn.
  • 67 percent would feel sympathetic if their date got laid off early in the relationship.



The sour economy hasn't convinced everyone to find another person, though it has continued to change habits. Findley, the 27-year-old single woman, still goes out with her friends about once a week and once on the weekend. And when a few of her friends lost jobs, they actually started doing cheaper things, like having barbecues.

They also look for deals, such as happy hours.

At J. Bucks, spending habits have changed as well, says Womack. In the past, people might come in and get a premium cocktail. Those drinks run around $7. "Basically, we're selling a lot of beer," he says. "In fact, it's been insane."

At Bailey's Chocolate Bar, bar manager Graham Swimmer isn't sure if the crowds they see are first-time daters or not. "It's hard to say," he says. "We don't poll people, although sometimes I really wish we did." And he won't comment on recent business, but to Swimmer, it makes sense that people would keep seeking companionship, bad economy or not.

"First dates are always gonna be first dates," he says.

And an increase in the use of the online dating scene and dating services might make some financial sense, too, saving people the time and money spent on first dates before getting to know anything about a person.

That way, people can learn about the other person's deal breakers and deal makers, as Walls calls them, without the cost of dinner and a movie thrown in.

But for matchmaker B. Meyer of B. Meyer and Associates, the economy hasn't changed business at all. "I have not seen an increase," she says.

Meyer, who's been making matches since 1986, gets a $2,000 retainer fee and a $3,000 bonus when her clients marry, according to her website, and she expects a lot out of those clients. They must be healthy, non-smokers, college-educated, emotionally ready for marriage and financially secure. "Comfortable financially," the website says, "not seeking a partner for financial security."

Meyer understands that in a bad economy, people might seek out companionship and security, but she worries about that, and it shouldn't be the only reason.

"That's not a healthy need," she says. "I think relationships are much better when you have two healthy, happy people coming together."




Match.com launched in the '90s, and now there are more dating websites than pick-up lines. One thing that has changed, though, is the taboo around online dating, Walls says.

Now, happy couples who met online appear in commercials. And according to eHarmony.com, the use of the name Harmony for babies has increased 47 percent since 2000.

To DiMartino, online dating seems more accepted and less intimidating, thanks to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Familiarity with them makes it easier to jump over to dating online.

Still, DiMartino hasn't put all his eggs in the online basket. One thing lost online is body language, he thinks. So, he still goes out with friends now and then. Finding the right person could happen online or while out, in a good economy or a bad one.

For now, he's looking and leaving the rest to chance.