Get Paid to Hang Out With People: What It’s Like to Work for RentAFriend

Patrick Grieve and his rented friend Lauren Little sit at the bar at Map Room in Chicago on April 13, 2018.
Patrick Grieve and his rented friend Lauren Little chat at Map Room in Chicago on April 13, 2018. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

I’m the kind of person who arrives at a party fashionably early and then keeps milling about until all of the other guests, Yellow Tail wines and hummus dips have disappeared.

But despite the fact that I frequently blur the taxonomic distinction between social butterfly and household pest, it never occurred to me that I could actually monetize the willingness to just, you know… chill.

Yet that’s exactly what some people are doing on RentAFriend, a “strictly platonic friendship website,” allowing paying members to search for and purchase the companionship of professional “Friends” who typically charge anywhere from $10 to $50 per hour for their time.

This uniquely capitalist take on camaraderie began its life back in 2009 in Stewartsville, New Jersey. RentAFriend founder Scott Rosenbaum was inspired by similar companies in Japan, such as Family Romance, a “substitute attendance service” that employs nearly 800 professional actors — ranging from young children to senior citizens — who can be hired to portray relatives, coworkers or significant others.

Family Romance owner, Ishii Yuichi, claims he’s personally been called upon to play the role of the loving groom at a closeted lesbian’s sham wedding, the intimidating yakuza boyfriend of an unfaithful woman whose husband demanded a confrontation with his wife’s lover, and even the affectionate father of a young girl who never met her real dad.

The idea of a platform in which users pay $24.95 a month to comb through the profiles of various rentable humans probably strikes a lot of people as inherently weird, if not downright dystopian, like the plot of a “Her” or “Ex Machina” style sci-fi piece about loneliness.

And in much the same way that HBO’s robotic “Westworld” amusement park distinguishes between its lifelike android “Hosts” and its human tourist “Visitors,” RentAFriend makes capital-letter distinctions between the over 600,000 professional “Friends” available for leasing worldwide, and the dues-paying “Members” who purchase their time.

If your social calendar is looking bleaker than your bank account, maybe dropping $25 a month on RentAFriend membership strikes you as a worthwhile investment. If you have more people skills than money, though, you’re probably wondering: How much cash could I make by being a paid “Friend,” and would it be worth the awkwardness?

Working “Friends” Offer RentAFriend Reviews

Patrick Grieve makes notes during a Rent A Friend outing at Map Room in Chicago.
Patrick Grieve makes notes during a RentAFriend outing at Map Room in Chicago. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

The first few Friends I interviewed over the phone had largely similar origin stories — they were mostly twentysomethings, who were often still in college when they initially stumbled upon RentAFriend while looking for ways to make some spare cash.

“Martin” From New York City

Martin (not his real name) was earning his Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at NYC’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine when he came across a The Penny Hoarder article about side gigs.

He signed up for a free profile on RentAFriend and after a couple of weeks, he began getting notifications from Members looking to go out.

Because Martin identifies as gay on his Friend profile, he seems to hold a unique appeal for women looking to hire a male companion they can trust not to try any funny business. He once received a request from a young woman going to a dinner that she knew her ex would be attending with his new girlfriend, who wanted Martin to pose as her own freshly rebounded beau.

On another occasion, a girl started blowing up his phone with increasingly frantic texts, begging him to join her and a friend on short notice for a Friday night out on the town.

“She was like, ‘Oh, I’ll pay you whatever you want, and drinks are on me… I just need somebody for like an hour or two, and then you don’t even have to hang out with us anymore,’” he recalls.

On Martin’s train ride down to Midtown to collect what promised to be easy money, the Member texted him the fictional details of their relationship, establishing an elaborate backstory in which he was to pose as her friend from work.

Though she was a bit “shy and awkward” when they first met, Martin said he actually had a good time after another guy joined up and the trio all went clubbing together. Although his real enjoyment, he claims, came from trying to figure out why he was being so handsomely paid just to act as a third-wheel.

“I’m pretty sure (the other man) was a guy she was keeping on retainer, but she just wanted some buffer zone between him and her, at least until the later part of the night,” he said.

Tara in Los Angeles

Although originally from Northern California, Tara has been living and working as a professional athlete in Los Angeles for the past two years. Not long after moving to the city, she heard a female Friend being interviewed on a radio talk show, and decided to try the site out for herself.

Her first experience was a coffee shop meet-up with a seasoned RentAFriend veteran who had been “doing this for ages,” which she found reassuring.

“He was in his late 60s, he had been a former racecar driver, and he just wanted somebody to talk to that wasn’t living in a retirement home,” she said. “Which I totally understood.”

Tara has found older Members tend to just want a casual conversation partner, while younger Members typically request her because they’re “not very socially outgoing.” She said she gets both types in equal measure, and she also has about a “50/50 mix” of out-of-towners who want someone to show them around LA, and locals who just need someone to hang out with.

However, there’s less diversity when it comes to gender, as Tara admits most all of her renters are men.

That isn’t surprising, especially given the demographics of the site. Friendship Coordinator Jessica Rose said the composition of Friends is about 55% male and 45% female, but the Members ratio is a bit more imbalanced at 60% to 40%.

This glut of guys, combined with the fact that Members can search for Friends by age, gender and sexual orientation, may make some people wonder whether RentAFriend is actually one of the gig economy’s newest side hustles, or simply a modern update of the world’s oldest profession.

Tara said she’s never felt pressured by Members to make things more than platonic, thanks to the website’s clearly defined rules and her own precautionary measures: She only meets Members in public, always has someone who knows where she is going and uses the same screening technique each time.

“I always use the word ‘friend,’ I never use the word ‘client,’” she said. “Any other word besides ‘friend’ I don’t use. It’s always ‘friend,’ ‘friendship,’ that sort of thing.

“And I talk finances upfront, as far as what I expect, and that kind of weeds out the weirdos, for lack of a better word.”

That’s proven a relatively lucrative strategy — Tara said she makes an average of $200 to $300 using the site typically twice a month. This is in addition to fringe benefits like being treated to drinks or dinner at a fancy restaurant.

Tara said she hasn’t yet had to cater to those aforementioned weirdos. “It’s all been pretty normal, down to earth people that just generally don’t have someone else to call, or just don’t want to,” she said.

Working the Buddy System

Even though I’ve yet to create a free profile of my own, I feel I talked to enough RentAFriend “Friends” to get a good sense of what it’s like to put yourself on the friend market.

As bizarre or shady as the concept may sound, most of the meet-ups seem particularly anodyne, with “grabbing a few drinks” or “going to a movie” appearing as the most common requests. There are the occasional odd proposals, but they’re more mildly interesting than indecent (one Temple student in Philly says a girl paid him to stand in line with her at a book signing — he didn’t hold an extra item for the author to autograph, just kept her company).

Even though all the Friends I talked to insisted their experiences had been entirely platonic, many had also been hired before to act as the proverbial “plus one” at a wedding or other event in which their good looks were an asset.

And perhaps they feel a stigma attached to that “arm candy” perception, considering that almost everyone I chatted with requested some degree of anonymity as a condition of our interview.

Still, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing unseemly actually going on. While it won’t make you rich, being a Friend seems like an honest way to make a few extra bucks — and, if you’re lucky, a few good stories.

Patrick Grieve is a tight-fisted skinflint who can typically be found scrounging around in dive bars, second-run movie theaters, and the nosebleed section of baseball stadiums on $1 Hot Dog Night. He’s also a writer, so The Penny Hoarder just felt like a natural fit for him.