Friendship For $50
By the time I’ve been sitting with my new friend Lauren* at a Chinatown bar for 15 minutes, the conversation feels seamless. It’s the first time we’re hanging out and — like many first encounters — it started off a little strained, but we quickly bonded over a number of social similarities: We’re close in age, we both grew up here, went away to college and then moved back. We relaxed, settling into talking about our jobs, our relationships and our favorite cities.
It is only when the server comes around to take our orders and I tell Lauren, “Get whatever you want, seriously, it’s on me,” that I remember why we’re here: I’ve rented out Lauren to have drinks with me after work.
Lauren is among hundreds and thousands of individuals, including hundreds on Oahu alone, who offer to rent out their friendship via a website called RentAFriend (rentafriend.com). There, members can find people to accompany them to the movies, dinner, a concert or pretty much any other (platonic) activity — for a fee.
The site was founded in New Jersey in 2009 by Scott Rosenbaum, who previously had worked for entertainment and dating websites, as a way for people to find a buddy to do things with that they didn’t want to do alone.
“There are many reasons why someone may need a Friend, such as a wedding, business event, work party, etc.,” Rosenbaum told me via email. “Also, there are people who travel for a living and are always in a new city. They don’t want to sit in the hotel room by themselves and they don’t want to go out to dinner or a bar by themselves. Now they can hire someone local to go out and eat with, or socialize with at a bar/restaurant/ club.”
Rosenbaum had heard about similar services in Japan — where friend rental companies comprise a thriving industry — and wanted to bring the concept to the U.S. As of this writing, there are 621,585 friends signed up for the site. Much of the data about the members is confidential, but Rosenbaum does say there are tens and thousands.
There are a number of friend-finder websites and apps — Skout, Girlfriend Social and Not4Dating are a few — but RentAFriend is unique in that money is changing hands. Members pay $24.95 per month or $69.95 per year just to be able to contact the friends-for-hire — and that’s not including each friends’ hourly rate that ranges from $10 to $50.
Here, friendship is a commodity; making a friend is a transaction.
And yet many people I spoke with for this story feel that the site can not only replicate genuine social interaction, but actually become it. Sitting there with Lauren, I am apt to believe that.A couple times a month, Gabe, a 39-year-old graphic designer, gets an email from a man in the Midwest whom he has never met. Every time Gabe replies, he earns $4.
He never really did say (why he contacted me). My inclination is that he just wanted somebody to talk to.
“He messaged me and told me, ‘I saw you on RentAFriend, I would love to make friends and talk,'” Gabe recalls.
The man will tell Gabe about his day-to-day life — mainly talking about his work at a greenhouse and sharing funny anecdotes. Gabe, in turn, tells him about the surf. At first, Gabe thought the man would be making a trip to Hawaii — but he has no plans for that; he just wants to email with Gabe.
“I was kind of amazed by it,” Gabe says. “I was like, this guy really just wants a pen pal?
“He never really did say (why he contacted me),” he adds. “My inclination is that he just wanted somebody to talk to.”
I tell Gabe, during a coffee meeting that ends up costing me $30 in addition to the coffee, that that sounds a little strange. Membership on the site, after all, is not cheap.
But Gabe just shrugs.
“We are all in search of something,” he says.
The RentAFriend member who contacted 23-year-old Justin was in search of someone to go to a concert with her. The woman was offering not only the tickets, but also would pay his hourly fee — which he’d set to the maximum of $50 per hour.
I didn’t get a chance to meet Justin in person, but over the phone, he sounds easygoing and affable — the type of inimitable social skills that I’m sure come in handy in his job as a car salesman. But the conversation with his renter was stilted; she didn’t say much, and the whole experience was awkward.
“I can’t really pinpoint it, but you know how sometimes you are around people and their demeanor is kind of creepy?” he says with a laugh.
“It was all just weird,” he adds.
The type of arrangement or activity via RentAFriend can pretty much be anything that the friend and the member agree upon — as long as it is platonic. (RentAFriend employees review each profile, making sure that nobody’s photos or descriptions violate that rule.)
One of the more memorable stories that Rosenbaum has heard from users came in 2010, when two underage college students were caught drinking on campus and the school demanded to meet with their parents.
“They both hired fake ‘parents’ to sit in at the meeting,” Rosenbaum recalls. “The school was none the wiser. They both got community service on campus, and their fake parents pretended to be disappointed.”
Another story that stands out in Rosenbaum’s mind is when a mother hired a friend for her adult son with Asperger’s. He lived on his own, but she wanted to help him navigate life without being overprotective.
“She wanted someone his age to help him out, spend some time with him, take him out and be social with him and other people his age,” Rosenbaum says.
While Lauren hasn’t met any members off the site yet other than me, she has gotten a couple of messages. One was from a man asking her to go on an outer-island trip.
“It just said, ‘How are you? Would you be interested in visiting Kauai?'” she says, reading his text to me from across the table. She never returned the message.
“I felt kind of awkward messaging him, because I didn’t want to be stuck there … what if he’s a creeper?” she says.
As with any online interaction, that’s a risk, but one that these friends are willing to take for the chance to earn money just for hanging out.
Between working in retail and going to school full time, 22-year-old Tiffany barely had time to do anything but work and study — and the amount of money she was making barely seemed worth it.
“When you work 30-plus hours a week to make $300, you feel like you don’t have enough money to invest in yourself,” she says.
Things got worse when she suffered an injury — she already was thousands of dollars in debt to University of Hawaii and now she had to take time off work. She had to figure something out, fast.
“I just needed any way to pay it off,” she says.
So she signed up for various social interactions-for-cash sites including RentAFriend, along with others that have a more prurient intent (like Arrangement Finders, where the tagline boasts that it “connects men and women looking for mutually beneficial arrangements”). All she wanted to do was finish her degree.
“I realized that my life needed to get different — and if somebody was willing to pay for school just to hang out with me every other weekend, or get pictures, I don’t think I actually give a sh&!,” she adds.
Money, obviously, is a big motivating factor in friends signing up. Not everybody is in dire straits like Tiffany, but most of the friends I spoke with cite cash as the primary reason they’re on RentAFriend. Lauren, for instance, signed up before she got hired at her current job. As Justin put it: “Sh#!, I am a fun guy, I can make some money doing that, maybe get some free stuff.”
But why do this versus other gig economy jobs like Uber or Lyft?
For 24-year-old Mandy, it’s not all that different — she sees it as just another gig in the gig economy.
“I do a lot of online-based work … I have nannied for people, I’ve walked people’s dogs, I’ve cleaned people’s houses,” says Mandy, who says she likes gig jobs for the flexibility it affords her. “And (RentAFriend) is basically the same thing.”
But another reason that a lot of the friends I spoke with are on the site surprised me: Many of them also are hoping to meet people. Lauren, for one, already has tight-knit friends she’s known for years, but now they’re all in their mid-20s and have growing obligations.
“Most of my friends are busy — it’s such a hassle to plan (meeting up). I was thinking that if I am on the site, then when someone wants to talk or hang out, I will have someone to hang out with,” Lauren says with a laugh.
But would she really be friends with someone who was paying her?
“Hmm,” she pauses. “Yeah, why not?
“Everybody meets someone in different ways,” she adds.
The biggest problem that friends using the site seem to have is that nobody is really clamoring to rent them. Supply far outpaces demand.
In the course of trying to find people to talk with for this story, I called close to 70 people listed as friends on Oahu, and from there, chatted with maybe 30. Many didn’t remember they had even signed up; most said that I was the first member to contact them.
Rosenbaum reminded me that there are more friends than members on the site overall, and that the most popular markets tend to be larger cities like New York and Los Angeles.
But I wonder if this also has something to do with the stigma of needing to pay someone to fill in for friend-like duties.
Tiffany understands the appeal the site may have for members. When many of her friends left the island following high school, she signed up for a friend-finder app, and after weeding out a lot of guys just looking for a quick hookup, she met one of her best friends.
But with pay-to-play sites like RentAFriend and the others she’s on, Tiffany has become largely disenchanted.
Ultimately, she hopes to be able to earn money in a “healthier way,” as she phrases it. Being on these sites was not something she ever really wanted to do; it was a last-ditch effort to pay for school and pursue her own food truck business. Once she has enough money, she says she’ll quit — and when I touch base with her again a few months later, she’s no longer actively using any of the sites.
“I think it will become more normal the more expensive living in Hawaii is, and I guess I get kind of worried about literally selling ourselves,” Tiffany says. “We are all just going to be contracted to all of these different people, doing all of these different things, and I don’t know, I just worry about that.”
I, too, understand the appeal of wanting a website to help find friends — especially, perhaps, living in Hawaii. It can tend to be a transitory state; last year alone, two of my closest friends moved away, including my best friend I have known since I was 10.
I am also not averse to meeting people online. Actually, the people closest to me in my life at the moment are all people that I met online in some capacity. I found my roommates-turned-good friends via a Craigslist posting. I met my boyfriend on a dating app. And there is certainly nothing less meaningful about our connections just because they happened to begin on the Internet.
As Lauren suggests, “everybody meets someone in different ways,” and according to Rosenbaum, people forging genuine connections via RentAFriend is actually fairly common.
“We get emails from friends who ask if it’s OK to stop accepting payment from the members, and we say absolutely!” Rosenbaum explains, adding that friends keep 100 percent of their earnings anyway (the site makes money from membership fees), so they’re free to do what they want. “RentAFriend is just a platform to help people meet new people, and it’s great that real-life friendships come out of it.”
As my pau hana with Lauren continues, it becomes less of an interview and more hanging out and talking. We order more drinks; a couple hours pass.
But the last thing I ask her before I turn off my recorder and put away my notebook is about what she was hoping for when she signed up for the site. What type of members did she want to contact her?
She lists a few general, not-too-picky qualifications — “preferably female, someone normal” — before adding, “Like, you are pretty much the ideal friend.”
I can’t help but feel flattered.
Eventually, Lauren and I say goodbye on the sidewalk outside of the bar. We make tentative plans to hang out again for real — maybe we’ll see that new movie we mentioned, maybe go on a hike.
Weeks later, I had a work assignment where I had to go see a band play. They didn’t go on until 11 p.m., and my friends balked at the idea of beginning the night that late. I nearly texted Lauren to see if she wanted to join me.
In the end, I went alone.