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I'm sitting across from Bonnie Winston at Balthazar, a swanky SoHo bistro in Manhattan. We're eating hard-boiled eggs and talking about love. And how much it costs to find it. Don't send a check.
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Winston, a 40-ish blonde, is the head of Winston West, a successful photo agency with offices in New York and Beverly Hills. But that's not her passion. "I've always been a matchmaker," she says. "I've been fixing up my friends for 20 years."

Winston -- who claims to have helped set up Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates -- says that she's so good at what she does that she has decided to launch a small matchmaking business on the side. "I just see so much money in it, to be honest," Winston told me earlier on the phone. "Men and women will pay anything to meet the right person."

She's not kidding. While Winston is charging a hefty $ 15,000 as her finder’s fee, elite matchmakers command fees that can range from $10,000 to $200,000. When my friend Wendy, a fellow single gal, heard this, she was stunned. "I paid thirty bucks to go to a Date Bait singles event at the 92nd Street Y," she says. "I want to know what these women get for $15,000."

It ain't personal, it's business
Nobody likes to couch a topic as delicate as love in the crass terms of finance, but the fact is that few things will have more of an impact on your financial future, lifestyle and standard of living than whom you choose to marry. Should the partnership fail, the financial consequences are also heavy. Men stand to lose half their assets. Women, especially if they have children or have left the workforce to raise those children, can lose that much and often more.

As a 36-year-old woman who is both single and self-sufficient, I think about this a lot. A few years ago, a friend of mine passed along some advice her mother had given to her: "It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man." Hopeless romantic that I am, I was horrified. Meanwhile, my friend married a guy with a trust fund and a sizable inheritance looming on their now-shared horizon.

That doesn't mean I could ever shift my values and go fortune hunting, but as your no-longer-innocent personal-finance columnist, I can't pretend that love doesn't also have a bottom line. 

. . . Especially now that I know what these matchmakers are charging.

Maria Mancini Matchmaker, who covers the Philadelphia-Delaware area, charges $995 for a six-month membership, which includes at least six "introductions" (as they're called in the biz). For an exclusive search, i.e., finding you a match outside her private database, her price goes up to $5,000. 

Moving on up, for a mere $10,000 you could retain the services of New York-based Janis Spindel, head of Janis Spindel Serious Matchmaking, and get six introductions a year for the most basic membership. For $15,000, you get 12 introductions and "Preferred" status.

Or, if money really is no object, there's Selective Search in Chicago. Selective Search, which also recently opened offices in New York and San Francisco, charges a yearly retainer fee of $15,000 to $25,000. 

Or go for broke -- literally -- with Beverly Hills-based Orly. She'll nail you for up to $200,000 "depending on geographic location and desired selection criteria."

It doesn't take a genius to realize that the steeper the entry fee, the more well-heeled the clients are likely to be . . . unless they're in hock up to their eyeballs.

Take a page from Jane Austen
But let's face it: Love is an investment. Once upon a time, this was discussed openly. Marriage was created largely to secure property, power and other assets. Pick a Jane Austen novel -- any Jane Austen novel. Or just read the opening line of "Pride and Prejudice":

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

And for those in want of a partner, someone in possession of a good fortune might not be a bad idea. Why would anybody pay a matchmaker tens of thousands of dollars, except to gain access to a certain class of people who don't want to just hook up with some shmoe in a bar?

"Time constraints," says Barbie Adler, head of Selective Search in Chicago, naming the No. 1 reason most matchmakers say their clients come to them. Tied for second are a) their clients are tired of bars and parties (translation: they didn't meet anyone there) and b) they've struck out everywhere else.

Money as a motive is rarely acknowledged, except indirectly. "When people pay for a membership, they know they are going to meet people who have made the same commitment," says Maria Mancini, head of Maria Mancini Matchmaking. "They want to meet someone who has more to offer -- and not just financially."

All they want is love. Really.
I've paid my dating dues, and I do believe that the appeal of these services isn't just the potential return on a cash investment. Dating is dirty work sometimes. We pay financial pros to make tough decisions about our money for us, so why not seek the expertise of someone who can simplify our love lives?

Still, you can't take money out of the mix. When Winston met with her first client last week, a 40-year-old investment banker, the woman confessed that no one had ever set her up on a date. Winston was sympathetic. "I told her that no one ever set me up on a date either, and that's why I started doing this. Everyone wants the same thing: to find someone to love."

Her client agreed, and added that if Winston knew any bankers, that would be all right, too. 

"I don't think the women who are coming to me want to meet a starving artist," Winston says, with a refreshing candor. "They want a provider. And I feel bad because, in my photography business, I represent a lot of starving artists -- and they're great guys."

I'm sure they are. Meanwhile, Winston says she has the perfect guy for me. "He's 38, he went to Yale, and he publishes his own magazine," she says. "I met him at my hair salon. . . ."