Charging for Friendship

My Venmo rule of thumb


Back in March, I invited two friends of friends over for dinner. I had been meaning to test out a poke bowl recipe my roommate’s boyfriend - coincidentally a poke restaurateur - had recommended. And what better way to enlist some help and company than with two pseudo-strangers I had just met the previous week, and was interested in getting to know better. The night was a sure success. The recipe turned out to be a winner, and great conversations were had - I learned about one’s passion for “lo-fi” music, and bonded with the other over our long distance relationships. Afterwards, as I was clearing up the kitchen counter, one offered to pitch in for the poke ingredients which I exclaimed that there was no need for - I reasoned that I had bought the ingredients prior to inviting them and loved hosting people. That night, I got a notification on my phone. “[Friend] has paid you $20 for poke”. The Venmo payment, although certainly out of kindness and appreciated, left a bad taste in my mouth and I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why…

Until this week when I read Teddy Wayne’s article in the New York Times. In it, Wayne argues:

“By rendering payments between friends nearly invisible - no cash changes hands, no checks are written - Venmo theoretically should make these relationships less obviously transactional. Yet not only does it encourage pettiness, distilling the messiness of human experience down to a digitally precise data point, but by making it so easy to pay someone back for purchases as trifling as a coffee, the app arguably promotes the libertarian, every-user-for-himself ethos of Silicon Valley.”

This struck a chord with me in pinpointing the problem that I have with the app. Venmo make friendships transactional.

My rule of thumb

Venmo growth chart
Source: Forbes

Venmo’s popularity is undeniable, as demonstrated by its common use as a verb i.e. “Just Venmo me”. The Paypal-owned app processed $17.6 billion mobile payments in 2016, up 135% from the previous year, and these numbers are steadfastly on the rise. Although I only have a meager 11 friends on the app, they made 75 public transactions this month alone, which means on average, roughly 7 tractions per friend. And backing up Wayne’s point that Venmo’s success is also due to its social element, almost half of these transactions had emojis in the message. As a fresh-out-of-college grad trying to pay off student loans and my outrageous Manhattan rent, I fully agree that Venmo is an extremely useful tool in transferring money and splitting those big bills like dinner at Jean Georges of a Montauk trip with girlfriends. My general rule of thumb in balancing Venmo’s usefulness with the social reciprocity that I value in friendships is to prioritize friendship first before money. Which broadly translates to personal communication first and Venmo-ing later.

Cases for communication

Let friends know beforehand on what you’re comfortable with paying. I once made the terrible mistake of agreeing to go for Korean bbq with three friends, a meal unconducive to my pescetarian diet. I went in under the assumption that I’d only pay for the $20 vegetarian bibimbap I ordered. I walked out with a $50 Venmo request for the hefty bill split evenly. In hindsight, this was my fault. I should’ve let them know ahead of time, “Hey, I don’t eat meat but would love to catch up with you guys. Is it okay if I order for myself separately?”

Discuss charging through Venmo before charging on Venmo. “Dinner was nice! Thought we could split the bill. I’m going to charge you $x on Venmo, ok?” sounds much more friendly than a “request for [salad emoji]” notification through the app, no?The core competency of Venmo may be its ease, efficiency, and the avoidance of oft-perceived money talk, but it takes just 30 seconds to make a call or send a text. Both medical research and common sense have shown that social interaction is a critically important contributor to good health and longevity.

Don’t force Venmo payments onto friends. If a friend says it’s not necessary to pay them back, don’t. When I was back in Toronto a few months ago, I caught up with an old friend over dinner. The hole-in-the-wall sushi shop we met at took cash only, which I had none of. “No worries, I got this one”, she insisted. I thanked her profusely, and added that when she was in New York, dinner and drinks were on me. I’m not sure if the conversation would’ve gone the same if Venmo was available in Canada, but I was grateful for her. Not only was it an act of kindness and generosity that she was paying, but also eluded to a “next time” and directed conversation to her next trip to the City.

Although with the noblest of intentions, my dinner guest Venmoing me for poke had turned what had originally been a night of laughter, music sampling, and funny stories into one that now uncomfortably involved money - $20 I explicitly had said I didn’t want. I love money. I value my time even more. But to me, friendship not only involves the physical and emotional support I give and get. It also involves the investment of money and time to build and cultivate those friendships. With the ease, prevalence, and tit-for-tat precision of Venmo, people have forgotten that friends are more than happy to pay.