The price of finding Mr Right

More and more singles are coming round to the idea that maybe money can buy them love, says Julia Stuart

Loves hurts. Not only the heart, but, for those determined enough to hunt down The One, the wallet. Lily Brown paid an agency £25,000 - almost the equivalent of her salary - to help her find Mr Right. Rather than an act of desperation, she considers the expenditure a shrewd investment. "I inherited some money and thought I can either buy a flat with it or put it to better use and find love," says Ms Brown, who works in the City.

Loves hurts. Not only the heart, but, for those determined enough to hunt down The One, the wallet. Lily Brown paid an agency £25,000 - almost the equivalent of her salary - to help her find Mr Right. Rather than an act of desperation, she considers the expenditure a shrewd investment. "I inherited some money and thought I can either buy a flat with it or put it to better use and find love," says Ms Brown, who works in the City.

The blonde 25-year-old is not the only one to try and pay her way out of a romantic vacuum. One in five single adults in Britain is now using dating services. Society no longer sees singletons as dysfunctional saddoes.

Au contraire. Looking for love is now deemed the hip thing to do, with internet and speed dating an integral part of a happening social life. Around 10,000 people attend speed dating evenings in over 40 British towns and cities every month. DatingDirect.com, the biggest dating service in the UK, has almost 1.5 million members. And the dating industry is now worth at least £43m a year.

Darren Richards, from Birmingham, who founded DatingDirect.com in 1999, says it is just the beginning. "Our site increases 100 per cent year on year. We have gone from a company that three years ago had a very small turnover to one of over £8m last year. If you said five years ago that you were joining a dating agency there would have been sniggers behind your back with people calling you 'sad and desperate'. But now dating is on the internet it's quite trendy."

But why the need to pay to find love in the first place? Mary Balfour, who founded the London-based introduction agency Drawing Down the Moon 18 years ago, puts it down to a fundamental change in the reason people seek coupledom.

"In the old days people went into relationships for economic reasons and survival mostly. Love was only a minor factor. All that has changed. People go into relationships much more for the emotional connection and so are much more fussy than they used to be, so they have to meet many more people before they find the right one," says Ms Balfour, who also runs Only Lunch (one-to-one lunch or dinner dates), as well as the internet dating sites www.loveandfriends.com and www.smart-dating.com.

"All the old-fashioned matching institutions like the interfering aunt, the church, the local community, factory life or balls have evaporated. People have got to take it into their own hands. Unless they do this they won't meet enough people to satisfy their choosiness."

Ms Balfour has also seen a boom. "In the last year it seems to have mushroomed. I would say there has been a good 50 per cent rise in all four of the businesses. The rise of internet dating has raised people's consciousness about the whole thing and everybody knows somebody who is doing it."

So how much does it cost to bribe Cupid? Certainly you don't have to fork out as much as Ms Brown and the 17 others who have opted for the bespoke onesaturday.com dating service, which started last summer. But for Ms Brown, such expenditure made financial sense. "I thought it was a better investment than buying a flat," she says. "I spend so much time at work and with my friends and hadn't really done anything about my love life. I thought, 'Why not?' Dating agencies used to be considered so sad and a taboo subject. But it's the in thing."

Part of the attraction was that some of her potential suitors would also have paid £25,000, so there wouldn't be any time-wasters. The membership, which is for life, included being whisked away to a boat in Florida for three days in January where a matchmaker from the British agency went through a list of potentials. The company's database of around 60,000 members includes single people from a number of other dating brands, including Dateline and Club Sirius, the agency through which Robin Cook's ex-wife, Margaret, found her partner.

Ms Brown has been seeing her match, Richard, who works in software, for three months. "It's going very well. It is a lot of money, but you only live once. If you find a rich husband I guess it's a great investment, but it's not about money for me. It's about taking a chance and finding happiness."

Drawing Down the Moon charges from £950 to over £4,000 for a year's membership, depending on the level of service. "People consider it on a par with any big expenditure in their lives," says Ms Balfour. "It's an investment in their future."

People are prepared to pay such prices because the agency checks the identity of its members, unlike most online options, she says. "Particularly if you're a woman you would rather go to a personal agency because you know everybody has been interviewed. People don't always tell the truth on an internet agency. They will probably lie about their height and their age if they're a chap and definitely about their age if they are older women."

But most people are willing to risk the odd white lie as online services cost a fraction of those of a personal introduction agency. "You can join for free and have a look around," says Mr Richards. "If you see someone you like, and you want to have a go, your only commitment is £4.95 [for a three-day membership]. What can you get these days for £4.95?" Mr Richards has put his money where his mouth is. A year after setting up the site he had a go himself and within two weeks met his current partner Claire.

Clare McCann, 27, who reviews dating events around the country for her website www.singlegirlabouttown.com, and who has had around 1,000 dates since August last year, says the new methods of dating offer fantastic value for money. "With speed dating you're only paying about £1 for every person you meet," says Ms McCann, who is also a presenter for Kiss FM. "With dating websites you can meet as many people as you want and you're only paying one set fee. It's cheaper than hanging out at a bar buying lots of drinks and hoping you might get chatted up."

She warns, however, against some of the bargain-basement options. "Cheap websites aren't always the best because if you are looking for successful men they will often pay for a more expensive one. If you go cheap you will get a cheap man."

So what did she get in return for her investment? "10 per cent were awful, 80 per cent were average and the rest were Wow!" Despite her efforts, she is still, however, without a man in her life. "The only reason is because I meet about 30 a week and it's very easy for me to reject anything that is less than perfect. It's a process of elimination and I must be getting closer," she says, ever hopeful.

'I didn't think I'd fall in love again'

Peter Roberts, 48, married Ann last October after meeting her through DatingDirect.com. His first marriage had broken down after 20 years and after nearly 12 months alone he decided to do something about finding a new love.

"People don't appear out of nowhere, especially when you are in your 40s," says Peter, who lives in Ringmer, East Sussex, and owns a specialist racing bike shop. "When you're older there's no nightclub scene and you're dependent on meeting someone in your everyday life or through friends, which is a pretty long shot."

Two years ago a friend suggested internet dating. "At first I was a bit apprehensive. I thought there would be nerdy people on there. I'm a great believer in fate and I thought I would eliminate that by using the internet, but of course you don't."

There were around 150 matches in his age group locally. He e-mailed six and Ann was the only one he met. "I didn't think I'd find love again," he said.

Neither did Ann. "People think in my job it's easy to meet somebody, but it isn't," says the 47-year-old in-flight attendant. "I was very surprised to meet someone who I wanted to marry. I never thought I would again. I thank my lucky stars."

FACT FILE: DATING OPTIONS

* DATING AGENCIES

Hand over your money and the agency will match your profile with another hopeful looking for love. Some agencies also hold social events and holidays. Club Sirius, one of the largest agencies in Britain, charges £449 a year and offers as many introductions as you wish. Dateline, which has been going for 37 years, charges £149 a year for unlimited computer matches.

* DATING WEBSITES

Write your profile online, making yourself sound as desirable as possible, then wait for the e-mails to roll in from people whose fancy you have tickled, or trawl through members' profiles yourself and fire off your own e-mails to those who light your fire. Some sites are free, some charge. DatingDirect.com charges £4.95 for a three-day membership, £59.95 for six months and £84.95 for a year.

* SPEED DATING

Singles pitch up at what is often a bar looking their best and try to impress each other within three minutes before moving on to their next victim. Some venues offer up to 30 such micro-dates. Tick your card with either a "yes", "no" or "friend" and feed your results into the dating website which will match you with other people's results. Average cost is around £20 per evening.

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