It’s a challenging week ahead for us singletons. Love is in the air, everything is hearts and flowers and businesses are going in to overdrive to get us to spend on Valentine’s Day. Massive mark-ups abound and even service station flowers are double the price.

Actually that’s one of the many great things about being single. While couples endure joyless, overpriced fixed menu deals in restaurants, I’ll be tucking in to a Valentine’s meal deal for two (no sharing, just for me) and won’t be arguing with anyone over what to watch on the tele.

But as I retire to my king size bed where I won’t get in to a battle royale over the covers, I might have a little wobble. About, you know… maybe sharing my life with someone else.

From a practical standpoint, my independence is costing me. According to my decidedly unsingle Times Money Mentor colleague, Georgie Frost, research shows that a single person will spend an average of £1,851 on monthly bills compared to £991 for a couple. That’s before you throw in the mortgage or the bills. Oh and the only discount is a miserly 25% off your council tax (so that’s still more than 25% than a couple).

Paying the bills isn’t particularly sexy as a motivating factor for love. But if you’ve decided to throw yourself back out on to the dating scene, there is one other little off-putting factor about heading off on a quest for love. It can be very, very expensive.

I thought I’d take a look at just one particularly pricy aspect of dating for the column this week: dating apps and websites. Here’s what I found.

Swipe right? Swipe your card first. The high cost of dating apps.

Many online dating sites start off free – but with severe restrictions on almost every aspect of the service. Premium services on dating apps can be pretty illusionary, as they often start priced relatively low – usually under a tenner a month. But ‘micro charging’ – the dark art of selling services at low prices that add up to big spends over time – is an incredibly effective sales tactic. We all know that £9.99 and £10 are effectively the same price. Yet that 0.01p difference does create the illusion of a lower cost, particularly if you’re making an impulse purchase.

There are a smorgasbord of chargeable services on the dating apps that vary considerably depending on the site and ‘unlock’ a variety of services for a range of prices. These include; allowing direct messages (or a greater number of messages), a wider range of search or filter options (height, age, interests, for example) or additional features like allowing sharing of photos or private albums.

The options to upgrade on dating apps are pretty relentless. One of the apps I looked in to for this article flashes up its premium services every three or four profiles you look at. Others have introduced adverts that you have to endure or log out and log back in again to avoid. Yes, the ‘ad-free premium option has now made it to your love life!

Not unlike other subscription services that people pay for but don’t really use much (like gym memberships), people tend to keep dating app subscriptions running on the off-chance that they might prove useful in the future (or the perfect person messages suddenly out of the blue).  Of course, these costs add up significantly over the course of the year. This is not helped by the fact that many services are not transparent about their charges. Sometimes you only get a detailed price breakdown when you sign up and commit to a contract of anything up to two years. My dating app charges me a basic rate (sue me, I’m cheap) of £7.99 a month. I’ve had it for five years. That’s around £500-worth of vague disappointment.

Dating app premiums are usually debited from bank accounts, credit cards, e-payment systems like PayPal or even your phone bills through ‘continuous payment authorities’ (CPAs) – a form of automatic payment authorisation that only requires you to agree on the phone or tick a box online to set up.

How much do the main dating apps charge?

Nothing is ever simple, is it? Dating apps have evolved from the flat fees or a few different scales of membership. Now charges vary depending on how long you sign up for. Free trials can become ‘chargeable’ at the end of the trial period too, so if you do try one out, add the expiry date in to your diary a week or so before it occurs so you don’t forget to cancel.

Let’s take one of the more popular services as an example: [It’s eHarmony btw]

My volunteer was quoted:

  • £18.95 a month for six months
  • £9.95 a month for 12 months
  • £7.95 a month for 24 months

These prices are not available on the website without signing up for a free trial. However, with many of these sites, if you sign up to a longer duration contract, you’ll have committed and you’ll need to look in to what it will cost you in exit fees if you want to leave early.

Once you leave the bigger names in the dating app arena and head towards to the more specialist services, prices rise considerably. In this instance, by ‘specialist’ I mean sites catering for ‘professionals’ or older people. Prices in these sectors start from around £20 to £25 per month, but rise considerably the more ‘specialist’ you go.

Even if you’ve signed up to a contract, it doesn’t mean it’s fair. Check out this guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) that sets out what is and isn’t a fair contract term with dating apps and websites.

Matchmaking services

At the top end of the market is the ‘matchmaker’ service. With these services you can expect the input of a human being and relationship expert who you commission to find you the perfect partner. Needless to say, it’s possible to pay a lot more money for a more tailored service. They may even offer a form of ‘guarantee’ or deal about finding you a suitable mate (terms and conditions apply).

Complaints about these tailored services have been increasing in the last few years. I’ve spoken to a number of people who have told me that not only have the appropriate number of dates not been arranged, but the ‘quality’ of the matches has not been up to the agreed standard.

This is where things become especially tricky, because beauty really is in the eye of the beholder – and there really are fifty shades of grey when it comes to deciding if someone has a right to feel aggrieved or are just being picky or unrealistic.

In scenarios like this, I usually recommend that people who are unhappy pour over the contract with the matchmaking service. That will usually specify key measurable targets – like how many matches will be made and over what time period, along with your minimum criteria for dates (age, profession, likes). A business should not enter in to a contract with you if it doesn’t have enough people on its books to meet those criteria, so if it doesn’t deliver you are entitled to ask for a partial or full refund. 

Dating apps and complaints

As we began to emerge blinking in to the light after the pandemic, I spotted an unusual trend in complaints. There was a huge surge in people wanting to register their dissatisfaction with dating sites. One complaints aggregator recorded a 722% increase in cases with 4,346 people registering a complaint, up from 529 the year before.

So what’s the problem? The biggest single complaint related to those extra charges the dating apps billed for premium services. The fact that a business can charge for a more ‘enhanced’ service isn’t something that you can complaint about in itself (though you can register your dissatisfaction about free services becoming chargeable). The big issue was, and continues to be, the number of people who said they had never authorised payments or didn’t realise they were being billed.

Disappointingly, I still hear from people who have told me that they did not realise that they were signing up for extra services that charged fees. Others argue that dating sites don’t make their billing notifications particularly clear, or encourage you to use sites like PayPal for regular payments so you don’t realise you are still paying, as the details don’t appear so obviously on your bank or credit card account. Other issues include prices being debited in six-month or annual chunks rather than by the month, difficulties in reporting fake profiles or unpleasant trolls and limitations on the premium services themselves.

Another big bone of contention is how difficult it is to contact many dating apps, with loads of people telling me that they couldn’t speak to a human or directly interact with customer services – or even find a way to get in touch and cancel. Sadly, this is a common theme with apps of all kinds.

If you didn’t authorise the dating app to debit your account it’s relatively easy to cancel a regular payment through your bank or card provider. In addition, if you haven’t authorised the business to debit you, you can potentially seek a refund from them if they can’t prove you agreed to let them to debit your account. Bear in mind this won’t work if you’ve used the extra services. You may also be able to negotiate a refund if you simply haven’t used the site at all.

A word of warning though. If the dating app can prove you agreed to pay a set fee as part of a contract, they could hold you to it and reinstate the payment if you cancel through your bank.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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