Venmo and the Demise of Reciprocity

I recently listened to Rachel Hollis’ podcast titled, Why is it so hard to talk about money? The oddity of this topic is initially what had me intrigued to give it a listen. That is, money truly is a taboo and unwieldy topic to delve into, for a myriad of reasons. For starters, the economy is one of the most contentious subjects in every political election. Moreover, a single, monthly paycheck is the underlying reason for which most human beings get out of bed at 6:30 AM Monday through Friday, shower, shave, and proceed to withstand an awfully long commute to work, which, mind you, they typically don’t enjoy. Finances drive our diverse access to education, a comfortable home, healthcare, and other critical elements that determine the lifestyles we are able to uphold. They are also the underlying impetus of robberies, wars, drug trades, and other forms of violence. Our lives, in so many ways, shapes and forms, revolve around this dire resource, money, so, why is it such a delicate topic to deliberate?

Money’s significance dances around a word that most shy away from: privilege. The wealth disparity that inherently exists throughout our world is oftentimes unfathomable. Could this be where individuals’ peculiar behaviors surrounding money stem from? In many ways, yes, our personal understanding of opportunity influences our attitudes encircling money. Partly based on our experience with privilege, some may save every nickel they earn, while others dispense cash nearly as often as they exhale. Some invest in negative ways (e.g., drugs or obsessive gambling), while others invest in positive ways (e.g., education or charity). Many silently judge or gossip about how we spend our money, where we spend our money, how much money we make vs. how much we spend, and so on. These perceptions of money and how others are able to use it versus our personal needs largely falls back on this concept of privilege.

Money encompasses an additional utterly controversial word: power. The current President of the United States, many argue, would not hold such a position of power without the monetary prowess that he possessed while campaigning. On a completely disparate note, in the tumultuous world of 21st century dating and love, who ultimately picks up the check at the end of the night is oftentimes the indication of a power dynamic in any relationship. Many of my girlfriends either galvanize over the fact that ‘he picked up the check’ or complain, saying they’ll never go on another date with this guy, given they split the bill. Side note: These are completely binary anecdotes and I plan to delve into picking-up-the-check and gender in an entirely separate piece, as it’s an important topic to discuss.

Money, despite its uncomfortable nature, is still desperately fought after in Corporate America, even if those efforts of self-promotion hurt others. I’ve witnessed high-powered professionals throwing colleagues under the bus, for a mere five-thousand dollar pay bump. Moreover, when employees are provided some sort of expense budget, whether it solely involves free dinner or an extensive travel budget, the way in which they abide by whichever monetary allocation to which they are beholden is the ultimate indication of their sentiments toward the company. Some are so pleased with and motivated by their current employer, they choose to personally incur their work expenses. At the other end of the spectrum, employees imbibe every possible cent from their employer, even if it breaches policy.

Now that we’ve covered the uncomfortable topic of privilege, work, and the dating world, let’s chat about Venmo and friendships. I’ll preface by saying that I am anti-Venmo. While I recognize the level of convenience it provides, especially in this anti-carrying cash era, I stand in opposition to the app for two key reasons. Initially, I opted anti-Venmo due to data privacy purposes. I have worked at several major banks and credit institutions, and have been privy to the intricate details behind data breaches, hacking, and fraud. Let’s just say, after this exposure, I am not keen on the idea of an app that stores my personal banking information. After several years of not caving into Venmo, I’m happy that I didn’t. In addition to data privacy purposes, the absence of Venmo on my phone (and in my life) has allowed me to enrich myself in incredibly fulfilling friendships. This is probably the most egregious statement I’ve ever made. However, I’ve already prefaced this statement with the fact that people are utterly weird about money. Including your friends. Venmo brings to a forefront how petty and utterly cheap our friends can be, and ultimately transforms these relationships from something beautiful and reciprocal to something nickel-and-dime-based, and purely transactional.

I’ve written a piece surrounding the art of giving and receiving, and how this world needs more givers. That piece additionally delves into the free-riders and stingy individuals, which both belong to different groups (you’d have to read the piece to understand). Venmo is the ultimate weapon for people like this, and us givers fall victim to their Venmo requests. For example, there was a woman who seemingly kindly brought a bottle of wine to a dinner party, yet shortly thereafter, proceeded to Venmo request everyone present a few dollars and change each, depending on the amount of wine they consumed. Another time, a woman offered to grab her coworker a coffee, and then asked for her Venmo to charge the two-dollars for what was before a very thoughtful favor, but then very quickly transformed into a business transaction. Moreover, after a friend volunteered to pick up a large dinner on their Credit Card after a birthday dinner, they pulled together an intricate excel spreadsheet of what everyone owed, broken down by the number of glasses of sangria they had, as well as the tax and tip, catered to the cost of their own meal. I swear, even the complimentary chips and guac were included in this breakdown, and I was a tad freaked out that while at the time I had found myself enjoying a relaxing dinner, someone from the other side of the table was intently watching and counting the number of glasses of sangria I had consumed. Side note: It took every ounce of willpower within me to not tell this woman that the time she spent pulling together this mosaic spreadsheet probably would have covered the cost of dinner. A few weeks ago, I was at a Bachelorette party, and following the weekend, I told everyone I’d be sending them checks in the mail for what I owed each of them. Side note: It’s fun to send letters and receive mail! I sent everyone their checks and never asked for what they owed me in return. For one, because I honestly had no idea what everyone owed me (I wasn’t keeping track). Also, I was giving to give. I picked up some Uber’s, rounds of drinks, pizza’s, etc., in an effort to make the celebratory weekend more fun and less transactional.

The point is, if you’re friends, do the few extra dollars matter? Before Venmo, we would’ve rounded the $26.97 to thirty, or each brought our own bottles of wine and abundantly shared, without expecting anything in return. In my friendships, I buy a round of drinks, assuming my friends will get the next one, if not that night, then later down the road. I don’t need to Venmo request them six-dollars for a Bud Light. On the same note, if I pick up a cab, I’ll tell my friend to grab the next one, trusting they will, because a true friend will not be a free-rider. When everyone is generous, the outing is filled with positive vibes, and no one is required to taxingly remember how many drinks their friend had on their personal credit card. If they are a true friend, the giver will know that what goes around, comes around. (If it doesn’t, the friendship needs reevaluation).

I’ll caveat this opinion by going back to my first topic of privilege. Some are in places where the four dollars their friend owes them for a split Uber will certainly make a difference in their finances for the week. Exception granted. There are other cases like this, where Venmo allows a quick, easy way to split rides with friends, divide larger costs between a group of people, or tip a service when they aren’t carrying cash (which, let’s be real, even my anti-Venmo self needs to be better about carrying cash around).

Nonetheless, if friendships are truly reciprocal, what you gave will come back to you eventually. In my eyes, Venmo takes away this very beautiful grace of giving and receiving. In many ways, it puts a dollar amount on a relationship, and makes fun experiences together feel more like a business transaction than as an outing with friends. As we give, we should do it selflessly, without immediately expecting anything in return. As opposed to the instant compensation of what you’ve given, we instead ought to expect it to come back our way down the road. If you don’t direly need those few extra dollars, don’t request them. Instead, know that they will come back to you down the line, through the natural acts of giving and receiving that vindicate all loving, reciprocal relationships.

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