Earlier this week, Business Insider broke the story of a controversial money-saving scheme concocted by 23-year-old Manhattanite Jessica Sporty.
Finding that her $45,000 annual salary was not enough to cover her rent and living expenses, Sporty joined Match.com: Not to find love, or even a full-time sugar daddy, but to arrange an assembly line of men to buy her dinner five nights a week.
Before I barely had enough money to pay for food, Sporty told Business Insider (and no, we are not going to use the inane Harry Potter pseudonym BI gave her well after several media outlets had picked up the story). After using Match.com I found I wasn't going into debt anymore.
If you think that sounds like a parody for a Match.com ad campaign, you're not alone. But unlike the cloyingly happy couples on Match.com TV commercials, we're not sure if Miss Sporty is an actual person. Even if she is real, her story smacks of someone fishing for a permanent meal ticket in the form of a development deal. (Remember Save Karyn?)
Sporty claims that she and a roommate were able to maintain a steady rotation of free dinners out, using a spreadsheet to keep track of all their suitors and limiting each to five dates -- lest someone become emotionally attached.
Sporty said that she more than made up for the $50 monthly subscription in short order.
I mean, a guy buys me three drinks at $15 a pop and that right there made up for my Match fee, she told Business Insider.
Since the story was published on Wednesday, Sporty has been subject to some light castigation: The New York Observer called her moneysaving strategy food hooking, and Wetpaint.com said Jessica was pretty darn close to working girl territory, reasoning that by date three, her dates must have had sex on the brain (and possibly in their beds, with her.)
Jessica didn't specify how long her experiment went on, or how she filtered her potential dates. The BI story makes reference to investment banker types who were thrilled to woo her with extraordinary restaurants, so we can only assume that Sporty took her dates' presumed financial situation into account somehow.
But even if she qualified her potential matches by their stated income, how could Sporty have been able to guarantee her dates would take her to dinner, and always foot the bill?
As someone who is in the same income bracket as Sporty, the idea of meeting a stranger for dinner every night of the week on a wing and prayer -- crossing my fingers that he'll pick up the bill -- seems insanely stressful, as well as potentially catastrophic to my bank balances.
And as most any woman with dating experience in New York City can tell you, a lady cannnot always count on her date to pick up the tab in this town -- no matter what she looks like, how much money she makes, or where she met the guy.
Automatically assuming the guy will foot the bill? It's not guaranteed, Brenda*, a young thirtysomething who has online dated within the last year, told me. Speaking about Sporty, she said: Unless she somehow works it out with them beforehand.
Which really does make her a hooker -- and I'm sure if that's part of the 'arrangement,' most of these guys expect sex. Or some kind of payback.
Taylor, another thirtysomething New Yorker, happily married after several years of dating in her twenties, raised the same issue when reflecting on Sporty's strategy. The big question -- would this woman hook up with these guys? At least then she'd contribute something -- like herpes -- for her meals.
The BI Match.com Gold Digger story didn't reveal any intimate details of Jessica's dates. But Sporty claimed she and her roommate set a number of ground rules that included meeting the men in public, so their gentleman callers wouldn't know where they lived. That presumably rules out sex in Jessica's own apartment, but not at his place, (or in the back of a taxi, or the bathroom at La Esquina...)
Perhaps Sporty was lucky (or hot) enough to meet men who were happy to take her out on dates without any payback.
According to Gretchen, an experienced online dater living in Brooklyn, there's a clear correlation between a man's willingness to shell out for dinner and his expectation that his date will put out for dessert.
I do a fair amount of online dating and I'd say that eight out of ten dates, the guys do not offer to pay and we split the bill, Gretchen said. The ones who insist on paying are definitely more interested in pursuing me rather than just treating it like a simple 'getting to know you.'
And it's those men who are more comfortable ending the date with a chaste kiss.
I've found that men who don't want to pay also seem to expect more physical contact -- going against the idea that paying for a date means action, Gretchen went on. Basically, the impatient guys who just want to hook up aren't concerned with my financial situation at all.
None of the women I spoke to insisted that a man should always pay for dates. Both Gretchen and Brenda believe that whoever initiates the first date should pay for it, and Gretchen said she always offers to pitch in unless they've been clear from the initial conversation that they want to treat me.
In my own experience, the issue of finances has rarely come up during the date planning stages. As a result -- and after too many bad experiences with excessively frugal dates -- I consider my own financial situation before agreeing to meet someone new. If I get stuck with the dinner bill, can I afford to pay it? If the answer is no, I'll usually postpone for a time when I feel I can.
Dating in New York City is stressful enough without one person (or both) sweating out the bill.
So, the uncertainty factor is one major red flag of Sporty's story. Another is logistics. How on earth could Jessica, who presumably has a full-time job, keep her social calendar full when she's meeting all of her dates online, and is only meeting each man a handful of times?
I posed this question to Sarah, who has been online dating in NYC on and off for more than five years.
Do you have her photo? was her initial response. (Sporty does appear to be quite attractive, from what we can glean.) Sarah seemed convinced that Jessica's appearance has a lot to do with her ability to line up back-to-back dates. In general, Sarah was not nearly as skeptical about the story as I was.
I've learned one thing in this city, Sarah said. Things that initially sound too far-fetched to be true often are true.
While Sarah -- a 31-year-old management consultant who is financially successful and very much a modern woman -- might be more comfortable paying the tab or splitting the bill than she is being treated, she said she doesn't think it is at all unreasonable to expect that a struggling young woman would offset her living expenses this way.
To try and subsidize your food budget by having guys buy you dinner is totally plausible, she said, especially if Jessica is zoning in on a particular type of guy. I think it's about her strategy. If she's targeting guys older than her, she should be having no problem as a cute 23-year-old.
Sarah felt that recruiting from Match.com could have a lot do with it. The fact that there is a membership fee maybe self-selects people that are more financially well off, she reasoned.
Brenda also assumed Sporty sought out men who appear likely to open their wallets for her. I'm sure she targets older men who are looking to spend a little cash on a pretty lady, who probably all work in professions where that's easily done, she said. I'm sure she has a fairly rigorous screening process. Even so, she can't be sure 100% of the time.
Putting aside who pays the bill, is it realistic to believe that all of Jessica's dates were willing to invest in a dinner sight unseen?
Sarah agreed that less committal first dates are more common, and more comfortable. I probably edge a bit more towards the pre-date, she said.
I don't want to commit that much time in case there's no chemistry.
Vincent, who recently dove headlong into the online dating circuit after getting out of a long-term relationship, has similar concerns -- compounded by his own fiscal considerations.
After deciding to meet a girl in person, Vincent sets up an initial date -- which he calls a drive-by -- with a clear escape route in case things don't look promising. He admitted to meeting a girl this summer who turned out to be much less attractive than her online profile indicated. He arranged for them to sit a table outside, told her he was going to get drinks at the bar, and left out the back door of the restaurant.
Though he's not proud of how he handled it, he was relieved he had only signed up for a drink with this woman. If you say 'let's go out to dinner' before you've even met someone, you've really put yourself into a pickle if your date doesn't meet your expectations.
And if you're trying to have sex with as many women as possible, you have to meet a lot of people. If you took a girl out to dinner a few nights a week, you'd be broke.
For those reasons and more, Vincent has learned to save the dinner dates for girls he has pre-qualified.
It takes me about 30 minutes to really know what I think, unless [the girl] is instantaneously unappealing, he explained. You might think that someone is a good fit for you during the first ten minutes of a date. But after you get your bearings, or the lighting changes, you realize you're not interested at all.
By that point, If you've already ordered appetizers, you're f--ked.
We haven't been able to locate Jessica Sporty -- the name doesn't have much of an online footprint, save a protected Twitter account with the same photograph BI published with the initial story. (Her real photo and name have since been removed).
If you or someone you know believes they may have been targeted by Sporty or her roommate's online dating scheme, please do not hesitate to contact us.
*Some names have been changed in the interest of privacy.