Just ask Isabel D'andrada. A few weeks ago, D'andrada, a 28-year-old New Yorker, earned $40 in cash for browsing at Bloomingdale's with a middle-aged fashionista. She made $60 for hitting Manhattan's club scene with a pack of twentysomethings on the prowl. She even made $10 an hour just for accompanying a single guy to a movie.
Over the past month, she said she's netted about $200 in cash (not to mention plenty more in free movies, meals and drinks) as a "friend for hire" on the Web service RentAFriend.com.
It's not big money. But it's not a bad deal either, considering that all she has to do is show up, smile and pretend to be someone's purely platonic pal.
"When I signed up, I didn't put a lot of thought into it. But it occurred to me… why can't they find someone? Really, do you have to pay someone to go along with you?" she said. "But I think another way of looking at it is you want to do a specific thing and just nobody is available."
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For many people, the idea of paying for friendship may be as taboo as the idea of paying for sex. But others point out that, sometimes, people just want a one-time buddy for conversation and companionship.
"[There are] people who may not have a large group of friends or maybe even a few friends as they enter into adulthood," said John Grohol, an expert in online psychology and founder of PscyhCentral.com. "Some people might feel awkward trying to talk to a stranger. They might feel more comfortable doing that with a person you know will reciprocate because you're paying them. It's similar to why prostitution thrives. There's a market for it."
RentAFriend's founder, Scott Rosenbaum, 30, said he created the site for U.S. and Canada after he noticed a bunch of similar sites booming in Japan and China.
"Over there, it seemed like it's important to have a full family structure," he said. When people need family members for special occasions, like fathers and uncles for weddings and graduations, they can rent "friends" to fill the gap.
Americans might not have the same kind of family pressures, he said, but they still face a society that doesn't always know what to do with a party of one.
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"I was curious if people would want to go somewhere but aren't going somewhere because they didn't want to go by themselves," he said. "I think our society was built for restaurants and movies that people don't go to alone."
Since RentAFriend.com launched in October 2009, it has drawn more than 2,200 members who pay $24.95 a month or $69.95 a year. And it has attracted more than 220,000 "friends" in the U.S. and Canada who are paid $10-$50 an hour to watch movies, attend gallery openings or just catch a meal with their new cronies/clients. This month, he said, the site will start to serve cities worldwide.
While he expected mostly young men to join the site, he said the average age is 25 to 35 and about 40 percent of the paying members are women. Many of the members use the site to find travel companions or guides in new places, he said.
Anyone can visit the site and search the listings for potential pals – including names, photos, ages, physical descriptions and interests. But only members get access to phone numbers and e-mail addresses, each one personally verified by Rosenbaum himself.
And if anyone tries to be anything more than friends, he said they're booted from the site.
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"If anything is represented as not being strictly platonic, they're removed immediately – no questions asked," he said. Messages on the site are scanned for key words that might indicate romantic or sexual advances.
Chris, a 31-year-old from Las Vegas, said he used the site for the first time about a year ago. He travels frequently for business, training clients on how to use the online university he works for, and said he often uses RentAFriend when he's in an unfamiliar location.
"I can't stand going to eat alone. It's a crazy pet peeve of mine," he said. So instead of dining alone, he'll rent a friend for a couple of hours for dinner and a movie.
It might cost $20, not including the friend's meal, but compared to alternatives, like Craigslist, it's more secure.
"It looks like they're on the up-and-up and that they did their due diligence. It's a lot safer," he said.
But even though he's met some interesting people on the site, Chris said he's never wanted the meeting to turn into anything more than a one-time encounter.
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"They're friendly, but ideally you have actual friends so it's a completely different sort of dynamic," Chris said. "It's the difference between a friend and an acquaintance. And there is something liberating because you can talk about stuff and this person doesn't know anything about your life and they can't judge and tell people. It won't get back to them."
And though psychologists don't say fleeting "friends" could ever replace real ones, they do say that -- whether we rent them or not -- temporary people play important roles in our lives.
"It speaks to the idea that we value acquaintances," said Karen Fingerman, a psychologist and co-author of "Consequential Strangers." "I doubt sincerely that people think that they're really renting a friend. You're renting someone who's going to have no obligation [to you], you're not looking for someone who's going to be a part of your life. … It's really a one-time need."