I was a Rent-a-Friend. Here's how it went

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A few years back, I was tasked with “field research” for a piece on side hustles that required little money upfront and no experience. No degrees, no fancy equipment or know-how. Just jobs you could land simply by being you. I came across some gems — paid audience member, survey-taker, mystery shopper, nude model, city council meeting seat filler, to name a few. But the most intriguing? Getting hired to be a Rent a Friend.

It’s exactly what it sounds like. In an unfriendly universe, somebody always needs a plus one for a wedding. Or someone’s date bails at the last minute, and they want a buddy to attend a baseball game or concert with them. Or, my most recent friend request, an office drone who works long hours and wants a friend to hang out with when he’s stuck at work on nights and weekends.

If you’re looking for a fun and easy side hustle, you can sign up to offer your abilities to chum it up with strangers.

After going on a friend date, I learned a few things on the nuts and bolts of establishing yourself as a paid pal.

Consider the lead-up time

Do you know those seemingly endless message threads leading up to a date? Being a friend for hire is no different. Before I met up with my “renter” for an afternoon watching an Imax movie and checking out a science museum, we texted several times. We hopped on the phone a few times, too. Aside from logistical matters, the dude just wanted to get to know me.

While there was nothing intimate about being a Rent a Friend, the correspondence leading up to the meetup felt a lot like dating. Prepare to answer a bunch of questions. If you look at it like a side hustle, the time spent adds up. Think of it as “travel time” to get to a paid gig.

Negotiate rates & payment beforehand

While you can put up a profile for free (the site makes money from the renters, who pay a fee), the Rent a Friend site doesn’t handle payments. The good news is they don’t take a cut. The bad news? It’s up to you to negotiate and handle payment.

The friend renter and I settled on $40 an hour, for about a two-hour outing. He would pay for lunch and admission. If you’re not sure what to charge, poke around the site for ideas. You might want to create a rate card for certain friend activities.

Before you agree to the friend date, make sure you’re on the same page regarding rates and how you’ll get paid. As for the mode of payment, the hirer agreed to pay in cash after the meetup. These days there’s no shortage of ways to get paid for gigs: Square, Venmo, PayPal or a banking app. If you’re concerned about getting paid, consider asking for half up front.

Factor in hidden costs

While you don’t need tons of equipment, just as with any side hustle, there are costs to consider. Depending on the type of social outings you’re landing, you might need to upgrade your wardrobe for fancy parties. Other costs may include transit, parking and time you spend corresponding.

Don’t forget one-off expenses. Shortly after my initial stint, a girl reached out to me to attend her Halloween party. A newbie to Los Angeles, she wanted to populate her party with ahem cool locals such as myself to make it look like she had made friends. We landed on $25 an hour ($30 if I brought a homemade dish). I soon realized I needed to invest in a costume for this particular gig.

Set boundaries

In the field of “Rent a Friendship,” there are bound to be awkward moments. For instance, my friend asked if we could take a photo together that he could post on his Instagram. Even under normal circumstances, it would have been weird to ask. And the Halloween party gal asked if we could be Facebook friends.

The ironic thing was the guy was cool. If we hadn’t met under such strange circumstances, we might’ve been real friends. But because things started to get a bit awkward (i.e., he asked if we could chat on the phone every week after our initial outing), I decided it wasn’t the best idea. The boundaries between friendship and professionalism can blur, so lay out expectations ahead of time.

Looking to land more easy gigs? Learn how to become a TaskRabbit ace.

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Image: GIC