Best Cheap and Free Dating Sites

Price Range

$10 - $22

Cheapism

$22 - ...+

Mid-Range

...+

High End

With almost four out of five singles in America having tried online dating at some point, it's no wonder that the industry is booming. Of course, its popularity is buoyed by the prevalence of free and cheap online dating sites, increasingly with their own specialized approach to matchmaking. Some offer helpful dating tools and others, not so much. We've identified the best bargain dating sites that may be worth exploring -- at least once, anyway.

Features Comparison

(from $0)
Cost Free; advanced but unnecessary features start at $9.95/month
Personality Matches Matches based on answers to numerous questions about personality, interests, values, habits, etc.
Messaging Free; A-List subscribers can see if messages have been viewed
Ease of Use Visually attractive; easy and intuitive
Forums Minimal role
Mobile App Free
(from $0)
Cost Free; advanced but unnecessary features start at $6.78/month
Personality Matches Limited number of psychoanalytically astute questions
Messaging Free; paid subscribers can see if messages have been viewed
Ease of Use Needs improvement
Forums A huge draw and a way to meet people
Mobile App Free
(from $0)
Cost Free (mobile app only)
Personality Matches Matches made by mutual interest in user photo
Messaging Free; available only if two people express mutual interest
Ease of Use Easy and mesmerizing
Forums N/A
Mobile App Free

Guide to Cheap and Free Online Dating

OK Cupid, with its smooth, eye-friendly interface and unique questions, is an obvious first choice for anyone considering online dating. It's easy to see why. The site offers full functionality for free and lets users browse for potential love interests almost immediately. Several thousand personality questions range from raunchy to insightful, and users can indicate their importance for matching purposes.

Our second-place pick is the free online dating site Plenty of Fish, which offers additional features that aren't really necessary for a small monthly fee. Plenty of Fish stands out for its personality assessment tool and, like OK Cupid, lets users search for partners right away. The interface is less engaging, though, and the ads can be a little distracting.

Some date-seekers may go for Tinder, an online dating app for smartphones. Tinder has a reputation for quick hook-up connections, but users like features that offer some privacy and partial vetting of potential matches. We're a little put off by Tinder's method of matching users based solely on appearance, but satisfied customers counter that the focus on looks makes online dating seem more natural and is little different from approaching an attractive person at a party or restaurant.

How About We, a relatively new dating site that stresses shared interests, is a novel approach but doesn't quite make the cut. Aside from the bare basics, How About We asks users what going on an ideal date would entail. Based on this information and geographic location, users can search for potential partners. Unfortunately, this site requires payment, to the tune of $7.99 a month for a year, for access to useful features. Users also report struggling with a not-quite-ready interface.

What We Looked For in a Free Dating Site

Smooth Communication and Navigation.

If users are investing time in, or paying for access to, a dating site, it should function seamlessly. In this regard, we paid particular attention to the ease of contacting other users, reading messages, and finding a possible contact. We also looked for sites that provide a decent amount of privacy and the ability to block potentially abusive users -- an unfortunate scourge of the Internet in general. While we also noted additional features the sites offer, such as online forums and in-person meet-and-greets, we only valued these utilities if they were easy to use and self-explanatory.

Tinder is far and away the easiest dating tool for immediate satisfaction. Just create a profile through the mobile app and link to a Facebook account. Users then see photos of potential matches based on location and if two people like each other's photos, a chat window opens facilitating a meet-up. They're protected against unwanted contacts because messaging is possible only if there is mutual interest. With How About We, on the other hand, users can read and respond to messages only if they have bought a subscription, so it's impossible to know whether the recipient didn't respond due to lack of interest or for lack of a paid membership.

Compatibility Tool.

Although matching tools on free dating sites are hardly the be-all and end-all of matchmaking, any half-way decent tool helps narrow the pool. As online dating has drawn in massive numbers of participants, the need for an efficient and effective way to sort through thousands of date possibilities is absolutely critical.

In this dimension, OK Cupid offers the best personality matching tool, with more than 3,000 questions that run the gamut from "Are you a dog or cat person?" to "Do you like biting?" Users can select how much each question matters to them and the type of response they'd want from a partner, factors that influence the match suggestions. By contrast, How About We makes matches solely by location and users' definition of an ideal way to spend time together.

The growing industry of quick or blind online dating sites, such as Tinder and Grouper, play more to looks or location than to compatibility. Although these sites have a certain appeal, especially if you're into a one-time thing and/or convenience, personality-focused sites are more likely to suggest meaningful matches (i.e., with long-term potential).

Active Community.

Online dating sites are only as good as their active member base. To assess this factor, we checked the Alexa ratings, which provide an unbiased compilation of usage data and site traffic, including how much time users spend on the sites and the gender breakdown.

OK Cupid is tops in terms of engagement, according to Alexa. The average user spends more than 14 minutes on the site compared with slightly more than 2 minutes on Plenty of Fish. OK Cupid also leads the free and cheap online dating sites with a rank of 131 on the list of most popular websites in the U.S.

User-Friendly Mobile App.

One-quarter of all Internet traffic now comes from mobile devices. Is there any doubt that users of online dating sites want to check in on the go? Tinder is the winner here. Of course, Tinder was built specifically for use on smartphones, and its interface and ease of use are excellent. OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish, and How About We also offer mobile apps, and each earns similar ratings at the Google Play Store.

Easy Sign-Up and Profile Creation.

Our testing found that it's easier to create a profile on some free and cheap online dating sites than others. OK Cupid, with its range of quirky and interesting questions, is addicting and fun. Plenty of Fish puts users through their psychological paces before allowing searches. How About We and Tinder require almost no set-up, just a paid subscription with the former to access functionalities that matter and a Facebook profile to link to for the latter.

Dating Site Reviews

Reviews of online dating websites and apps posted by users are inherently biased. Users tend to write positive reviews if they had a good experience and negative reviews if the search or the match was a dud. With that in mind, we tried to give credence only to online dating site reviews that commented on specifics about the sites. We gave heavy weight to meta-review sites and professional journalistic sites under the assumption that the reviewers are more likely to assign non-biased ratings.

Our own testing and the overwhelming evidence provided by other reviewers revealed no meaningful quality distinction between paid and free dating sites. Demographics, however, vary by site and are relevant when deciding where to sign up. While OK Cupid, Tinder, or Plenty of Fish may work well for a younger audience that isn't necessarily interested in a committed or long-term relationship, older companion-seekers may prefer sites like eHarmony and Match.com. These two sites require paid memberships for complete access, and are relatively pricey -- $20.95 a month for one year and $23.99 a month for six months, respectively. How About We falls in the mid-zone, with a sampling of users across all age groups and a monthly charge starting at $7.99 (for one year) for the right to send and receive messages and use other vital features.

The two criteria that seem most critical to users in their assessments of a site's quality are the ability to connect with people who are interested in them and the effectiveness of the site's matchmaking tools.

Genuine Connections.

An online dating site is useless if it doesn't lead to a date or some sort of communication. Many unscrupulous dating services either intentionally, or through poor moderating, allow their sites to fill up with inactive users or scammers. Both situations detract from the experience by hindering serious users from finding a partner. For those reasons, Tinder stands out as an attractive dating service, according to an online dating site review at Marie Claire. Although some people seem to rely on it as a quick road to sex, given the emphasis on physical appearance, users can be certain that the people they see pictured on the app are real, nearby, and looking for a connection at that moment.

OK Cupid garners decent reviews for matchmaking, with most users reporting a surfeit of interesting connections if you manage to cull the less desirables from the offerings. Plenty of Fish ranks below OK Cupid in user-generated online dating site reviews, with a good share of complaints asserting that the site is full of scammers and people who are only looking for hook-ups; the POF community forums, however, fare better in users' estimation. Despite How About We's many failings, it seems to pass muster on the date-finding front -- assuming the message gets through -- according to online dating site reviews. Much like Tinder, there's no personality screening (but for clues left by specifying the components of a preferred date activity), although many users relish the spontaneity.

Grouper earns applause for taking the busy work out of dating, assert reviews posted at VentureBeat. Grouper is a dating concierge service that schedules three-way blind dates; sign up for a Grouper date and select two Facebook friends to come along while Grouper finds another threesome whose leader has been deemed a match by the algorithm and then sets a place and time for the groups to meet. Understandably, many people will not be comfortable with Grouper's dating model, which includes a $20 participant fee, but it's an easy way to organize group outings.

Effective Matchmaking.

Many singles turn to dating services hoping that tools of the matchmaking trade will turn up a suitable and compatible partner faster than proceeding on their own. Some online dating sites unfortunately skimp on the details and post generic questions -- pertaining to things like body shape and your propensity to sleep in -- to determine matches. For anyone who is serious about finding a partner through an online dating site, the questions and matching algorithms are among the most important site attributes to be aware of.

Our experience trying out these sites and corroborated in online dating site reviews, including one at About.com, indicate that Plenty of Fish asks a good set of psychoanalytic questions that could be worth answering just for the personal insight they provide (e.g., "How easily are you stressed?"), never mind their primary purpose of making matches. The Dating Gurus is keen on OK Cupid's questions, which number several thousand, and how the search algorithm responds to the answers, influenced as it is by the importance users assign to the answers and those of potential matches.

Jeremy Bender

Jeremy Bender is currently an editorial intern at Business Insider. Previously he has written for BuzzFeed and a host of blogs. He is constantly frugal, and finds every way possible to pinch the few pennies he has.

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