The Economics of Romance

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Being priced out of the dating market

OVER A ROUND of whisky tastings arranged by the offline dating group, Floh, in Bengaluru, Shikha Malhotra, 31, and Vivek Fernandes, 33, began what was to be a one-and-a-half year love affair. Management consultants both, they’d meet every Friday and Saturday night for dinner and drinks at some of city’s trendiest restaurants. Tuna tartare and Laphroaig at the Ritz Carlton, salmon sashimi and sake at Edo, mutton and martinis at Dum Pukht. Seven months after Malhotra dumped him, Fernandes still recalls each and every meal he shared with her; he’s still paying the bills for them, after all.

“It would be unfair to say she had expensive tastes, we often went to standalone chain restaurants as well—Smokehouse Deli, Social, Mocha. Going out is expensive, period. An average three- course meal with drinks for two will come to about Rs 7,000 upto Rs 10,000 easily,” says Fernandes, a graduate of Institute of Management Technology, Nagpur. Having moved to the city in 2012, he’s had two relationships, both of which ended on account of financial constraints. “Partners expect a certain level of treatment and style these days. I’m not saying they left me because I took several loans and couldn’t take them out as much,” he adds, “I’m saying things changed when we were forced to stay indoors with nothing to do.”

So what’s his game plan for the future then? Fernandes has decided to hire a dating coach from Real Man, an academy in Mumbai, to help him keep track of his dating budget. While he needs to invest in his love life, he must not go overboard. If he spends a rupee above Rs 20,000 in a week—gifts, dates and phone bills included— his coach sends him a warning message to slow down. The hired expert is also teaching him how to set benchmarks for the relationship by insisting the other party pay the bill at least 30-40 per cent of the time. “I earn around Rs 1.5 lakh a month [after tax], out of which a lakh goes away on EMIs for my car, phone, household gadgets and house. I can’t afford to keep spending on ‘love’ with zero returns on my investment. I’d rather keep my money in the hands of a third party who will monitor my expenditure effectively,” he says.

In an age where love has become a Tinder algorithm, the trickiest part of dating is figuring out where to put your money and with whom. Fixing up a tête-à-tête now requires sound economic judgement. Intelligent investing is all that will matter in the end. How do we evaluate the other person and how do we add value to their lives in the manner they’re looking for? Do we take an Uber to meet them, hire an Audi, or take out the good old Honda City for a spin? Should we meet at a highway dhaaba, arrange a picnic, or go to a pub? Are we eating Thai, Indo-fusion, Japanese or Ethiopian? And do I dare ask to go dutch? When we order Dom Perignon magnums instead of Kingfisher Ultra, it’s because we know that what does or does not come out of our wallets (and not necessarily our mouths) will count in our date’s assessment of the value of our company.

In modern dating, say daters, every calculation matters. “Think Pride and Prejudice on steroids—that’s the dating scene today. Everyone is super judgemental, especially when it comes to what you’re wearing, eating, driving, where you are living and what phone you are using,” says Himanshu Gupta, founder of A World Alike, an offline dating group based in Delhi. “The challenge isn’t just about finding the right person, it’s about being able to afford them. There’s a tax on almost everything—movies, gyms, salons, spas, hotels, food. The list goes on,” he adds.

In an age where love has become a Tinder algorithm, the trickiest part of dating is figuring out where to put your money and with whom. Fixing up a tête-à-tête now requires sound economic judgement

For many serial daters, offline meeting groups like Floh and A World Alike actually work out cheaper than apps because of the advantages that come with bulk booking. For Rs 3,000 per month, you can socialise once a week over golf, chocolate, wine and more. But once you meet the right person, the onus once again returns to your own bank account to keep it going. “Romance isn’t cheap. But has it ever been? The knight never rescued the princess on a second-hand dirty scooter, did he? What has really changed today is that there are so many knights and princesses around, all available on our phones. And for each wrong knight or princess we pick, we’re not losing emotionally but also financially,” explains Radhika Bose, a professor with University of Delhi.

A number of interesting studies point out the changing dynamics between money and love—financial status isn’t just a reason not to date somebody, it has also become a perfectly common and readily accepted reason to leave someone. A 2016 survey by, for example, shows that ‘not making enough money’ was the second most cited reason for relationships being called off that year. Another survey around the same time by notes how salary disclosures now matter more than caste or religion. And it isn’t just women who turn up their noses at scruffy shoes and unwashed jeans, men are no different when it comes to status indicators. “It costs me Rs 8,300 every month for waxing, eyebrows, hair and skin maintenance. Let’s not add the cost of clothes, cabs, food and drinks. Women have as much money at stake as men when it comes to dating,” says Gurgaon-based lawyer Apoorva Kothari, 33. She adds that understanding male expectations when it comes to settling the bill is no walk in the park either. “You need to be independent, but without hurting his ‘pride’. I prefer going dutch, because then you aren’t beholden to the other person. ” And how does she avoid having to lunge for the bill? “I always tell the waiter beforehand that he must bring the bill to me, and then when the guy says, ‘No, let me pay,’ I laugh it off and suggest we split it. Most restaurants accept two cards for payments,” she replies.

Others, like Ashi Goenka, a 25-year-old graduate of St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, have taken to adopting more drastic measures to hold their own. After having been dumped twice, both times when the balance in her account dipped to less than Rs 2,000, Goenka decided to set up a separate account just for dating. “When you start seeing people after the familiar canteen-café scene of college, you don’t realise rightaway how much more money you are spending. It’s so much fun to be able to go out every weekend—I have gone through Rs 15,000 in one night without even realising it. I still remember that the four taxes [luxury, service tax, service charge and education cess] cost more than the most expensive dish we had ordered that night,” she says, adding that while it’s important to let men know of your financial independence, they shouldn’t start taking your credit card for granted either.

With more and more people turning to apps and websites in their hunt for love and fun, the investors who make the most of what they put into love are those who look beyond the immediate and analyse the long-term payback in terms of fulfilment. Even the most carefully laid-out financial budget for dating can go haywire in the company of the right set of arms and cocktails. And while the occasional slip-up won’t really harm our hearts or wallets, the law of diminishing returns on investment could set in and wreak havoc. You put in more and more for less and less. And with costs soaring, it is all too easy to get priced right out of the dating game, if you don’t think ahead.

That means having to watch both ends of it with due prudence: what’s going in and what’s coming of the expenses. “You have to know when the other person is using you because you are ready to pay the bill. And if you find yourself financially strapped, then stay at home and be alone instead of getting into credit card debt for someone who may or may not be around when you can scarcely afford dahi-chaawal for lunch,” cautions Goenka. “People should start investing in those things that will add value to their own lives first,” adds Bose.

So instead of wondering how some people have struck gold in the economics of love or blowing up our last bonus on a fancy steak dinner that we’re sure will set the wedding bells ringing, perhaps it’s better to recognise that investing in oneself comes first. The returns are guaranteed.