Are We Nickel-And-Diming Our Friends With Mobile Payment Apps?

A rant on Venmo that makes me sound old.

There’s this saying I love that goes something like this: “Don’t worry about it. It’ll all come out in the wash.” I searched through 10 reference sites to find the definition as I’ve always understood it, but had no luck. More or less, the dictionaries say, the expression means a problem is not a big deal and will work itself out.

But I’ve always thought of this idiom specifically in relationship to money, lending, and friendship. When a close friend offers me money for a round of drinks I bought, I might say, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll all come out in the wash.” I don’t just mean that it’s a small problem that will work itself out; I mean that through the natural course of friendship, I trust she will inevitably (and likely soon) pay for something for me. Our tabs will come out mostly even—in the wash.

The antithesis to this idea can be found in the peer-to-peer money-lending app, Venmo. It works to effectively guarantee that friends’ tabs will come out exactly even, every time, point by point.

Let’s back up for a moment. I’m the youngest of three much older sisters — all hovering around 10 years above me. Throughout my childhood, they took me out to dinner, movies, plays, and, of course, they always covered the associated costs. Perhaps that’s why I now see treating them and my close friends to drinks, coffee, etc., as such a signpost of adulthood. After all, the most important young adults in my life have treated me in small ways for as long as I can remember.

Just in case you’re imagining that I’m a kind of J.K. Rowling or Elizabeth Gilbert, let me be clear: I am not reclining in a bathtub of money earned by my career as a writer. I make a modest income, try (and often fail) to save a little bit each month, and struggle as much as the next 20-something who overspends on going out. Nevertheless, it’s important to me to buy a close friend a coffee or drink or dinner every once in awhile. For me, that’s built into my (poorly documented, mostly mental, very fluid) budget. It’s just one small way I like to show that I care.

When you purchase a good or service, there’s a specific way money changes hands. Prices are visually documented on tags and confirmed at the register. You receive a receipt to confirm your payment has been completed. This protects you from any possible dispute later. All this is necessary, at least in part, because you don’t automatically trust every person with whom you exchange money. Instead, you trust the accepted norms for financial transactions. These act as an authority — a stand-in for trust.

And that’s why I’m at times so insulted by Venmo. I know this is an unpopular opinion. I agree that Venmo is incredibly convenient. I even appreciate it in limited instances. However, I do not want an application that formally documents the money I exchange with my friends — especially my closest friends. And it’s not because I’m worried about Big Brother spying on my repaid drink tabs; it’s because formal documentation is how you exchange money with strangers.

Money is sensitive, intimate, and awkward. There are countless fables and good advice that encourages people to be careful with money and to avoid loaning it at the risk of losing friendships. I just don’t care! I see value in a certain level of friendship — a tight inner circle — where the edges of my money blur ever so slightly with yours. There’s an inner circle of friends with whom I’d like to welcome the sensitivity and the awkwardness in exchange for the intimacy, trust, and the ability to treat each other. When a friend treats me to a drink, it conveys a confidence in our relationship’s reciprocity and a security in the fact that we’ll likely see each other again soon — and I’ll get her back at that point. We don’t have to keep exact tabs. The difference will come out in the wash.

Maybe right now you’re saying, “I don’t use Venmo for things like drinks, coffee, or even dinner (unless it’s a big group)! I use it to split concert tickets or shared hotels, and it’s incredibly convenient.” I have no problem with this type of admittedly convenient use, but I do worry that the ease of Venmo encourages us to use it for more and more — and smaller and smaller — debts. It encourages us to keep exact score on the small things instead of trusting the give and take. In a highly unscientific survey I took of my Facebook friends, I was actually shocked to see that 50 percent reported having used Venmo “to insist on sharing an expense after someone has treated you.”

All I ask is that we’re half as conscious with our sharing as we are with our spending. Got a friend that mooches and flakes? Venmo might come in handy for that. But if it’s your longstanding Taco Tuesday buddy, you know she’ll have your back next week. And for god’s sake, if she wants to treat you, just let her.

Meghan Modafferi writes articles, stories, plays, and poems from beneath her cat in in Washington D.C. Follow her @meghanmodafferi.

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