“We should date,” my close friend Michael was saying over coffee at the Housing Works bookstore in SoHo. “But I can’t afford you.”
Uncertain whether to be flattered or offended, I settled on both.
Michael, it should be noted, is intelligent and attractive, with thick chestnut hair and a contagious smile. He’s also eligible. And far from destitute—he was in advertising, for god’s sake.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” I insisted. If I cared about money, I reminded him, I never would have left a ridiculously lucrative job on Wall Street back in 2006. I’ve flown first class a few times, always on someone else’s dime, but I’ve never known a private jet.
“It’s not like I think you’re a gold digger,” Michael continued. “You just seem like you have certain expectations.”
So what if I do? While I’ve always been a firm believer in the equality of the sexes, in theory, that doesn’t prevent me from finding it chivalrous when a gentleman picks up the check.
Did that make me some kind of… ?
I managed to banish the thought until later that week, when I encountered an insidious piece of spam trumpeting a dating website called What’s Your Price? For obvious reasons, I clicked through.
Several beautiful women were pictured on the home page, each holding a price tag. The service divides users into two groups, “attractive” and “generous,” and then facilitates couplings between them. Here’s the catch: in addition to covering the cost of the date, the “generous” user (typically male) must pay the “attractive” user (usually female) an agreed-upon fee.
Loving marriages have been built on this very idea, of course, but generally the economic subtext of a relationship remains unspoken. Casting the concept in such stark terms seems crass. That said, money does matter to most of us—whether we need it, covet it, spurn it or burn it. Might we not all benefit from some collective forthrightness?
What the hell, I figured, and signed up for the site. Username: Unaffodorable.
Truthfully, my ambition has never been to “marry well.” I have long had a two-pronged objective: to achieve financial independence (as measured by the ability to afford a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with some natural sunlight) and to find true love (preferably without the aid of the Internet). Still, there is something intriguing about those who marry money and then build an empire of their own. Maybe if I were a bit more strategic, I could Georgina Chapman or Tory Burch my way to fashion fame, Arianna Huffington my way to Internet moguldom, or John McCain my way to the Senate.
I considered a 30-something Middle Eastern Pisces, a 28-year-old agnostic and a 50-year-old with cut abs or a bogus profile picture.
Calculating my value was challenging. I settled on offering myself for $300, but after a flurry of rejection emails, I wound up accepting an offer of 50 smackers. My taker was J., a 30-something finance guy who likes to go to the theater and be spontaneous.
We set our appointment for 6:30 at a Union Square-area wine bar. I spotted J. sitting on a stool by the front window, wearing jeans, a cobalt blue button down and baby blue Adidas. He was less attractive than in his photographs, but probably by an acceptable online-dating margin.
“Hey there,” I said, hand extended.
“You’re tall,” he observed.
With a silent nod I concurred. I’m not in the habit of compromising an outfit by wearing flats to pander to shorter guys.
“I’d stand to greet you, but I’m exhausted,” J. added, explaining that his body was adjusting to a raw food diet he had started to offset years of hard partying.
“So paying for dates is your way of turning over a new leaf?” I wanted to ask.
Instead, I just said, “Sounds like you’re making changes for the better.” (You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, right?)
J. said he’d decided to try What’s Your Price? after discovering that it was the only dating site that wasn’t blocked at his office. He added, “I’ve been auctioned off for charity, and this didn’t sound so different.”
“How much did you go for?”
J. put his hand up for a high-five. “Five hundred bucks,” he said.
“Well done,” I told him, feeling more than a little cheated. I ordered another glass of red wine, this time the most expensive varietal.
As the night dragged on, I learned that J. resorted to Wall Street after a few failed entrepreneurial efforts. He makes a few hundred grand a year to do half an hour of work daily. He spends his free time spending his easily earned salary.
More and more, I felt like a bargain.
As the date wrapped up, I began to panic. How to ask for my fee? Presenting J. with an invoice seemed off, but no less ridiculous than asking for cash outright.
“Here you go,” J. said, bill in hand.
“This is kind of weird,” I said.
“It definitely is,” he replied.
As I contemplated the crisp dollar hovering in front of me, it occurred to me that if J. and I somehow ended up together, this would make for an excessively awkward first-date story. I pictured my best friend in a bridesmaid’s dress drunkenly recounting the tale to several hundred wedding guests. Gasps from my college friends. Disapproving cross-generational glances passing between family members. And Michael looking on with a lopsided grin. Christ, would he bring a date?
“Thank you,” I said, and took the cash, confident I’d never see J. again.
Maybe we both got just what we paid for.