You know in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey when the apes discover that bones can be used as tools — and as weapons?
The mobile payment apps, like Venmo™, PayPal® or Cash©, are a little like that.
They are undeniably convenient, allowing big groups to split the check without exchanging cash or doing advanced calculus. These apps are incredibly useful at sending money to family and friends. But they can be fraught with social peril, offering unique new ways to shame, embarrass or offend your colleagues and loved ones. (Especially apps like Venmo, which allow you to conduct your transactions in public.)
If you’re one of the 35 percent of Americans who use one, according to a 2017 survey by NerdWallet, you know what we mean. And you might wonder how to do things right, and avoid missteps when you owe (or are owed) money, a situation that’s already difficult to navigate. These tips on mobile payment etiquette are here to help.
The situation: You owe money
Do: Pay right away.
This should be obvious, but yes: Make it easy on your friends, and settle your tabs as soon as possible, right there at the dinner table if need be. If there’s a good reason for the delay — maybe you’re waiting for a check to clear or something — let the person know. Preferably in person, but a text will suffice — just don’t do it via an app (or worse, by ghosting).
Do: Include a cute emoji when you pay.
Let’s not take ourselves too seriously here. Bonus points for getting clever and using something unexpected. (Our favorite: Deploying the hatching chicken emoji to represent our kids.)
Do: Be smart about the words and emojis you use
There are services that can track and republish Venmo payments. They can pick up words and emojis that (seemingly) reference something illicit, like drugs, booze or sex.
This leads us to our next point …
Do: Adjust your settings for privacy.
We get it: One of the joys of Venmo is the same joy social media once offered. Namely, to share your particular sense of humor with the world at large. But there are a few reasons to change the setting to private. (As a reminder, the default setting is public, meaning literally anyone can see and track your payments.)
First and foremost, your transaction history is no one’s business but yours. Do you really want your employer to discover you spent the night before a big presentation downing pitchers of beer with your friends? (Trust us: You do not.) Secondly, it can be a safety issue. In an era of online stalking, you don’t want someone to notice you hit the same happy hour every Thursday. And then there’s just the whole notion of having privacy in the first place. Your friends don’t need to know you grabbed a coffee without them.
Finally, do you really want performative transactions to be something you spend your finite mental bandwidth on? Develop your personal brand somewhere important (you know, like Instagram©).
One more note on the topic: Venmo defaults every transaction to the most-private setting among the participants. In other words, if you, a private user, pay someone who is a public user, the transaction will be kept private. This spares you the added stress of being the Venmo privacy police.
The situation: You are owed money.
Do: Talk about it offline before making a request.
You know what’s awkward? Grabbing drinks with a friend, then seeing a push notification with an invoice on the way home. “But I thought we were even,” you might think, while your friend’s message suggests he or she was keeping tabs the entire time. (Replace friend with date, and the situation is even more awkward.)
Instead, let someone know they’ll be getting a bill for whatever it is you covered. This gives them an opportunity to (politely) dispute the charges and a little advanced warning that the request will be forthcoming. You wouldn’t just grab a friend’s wallet and take the money yourself. Sending a stealth Venmo request feels like the smartphone-era equivalent.
Don’t: Hesitate to send a reminder.
It happens. Even the best-intentioned friends might forget to pay you. This is why these apps have a reminder function in the first place. Obviously, don’t be a jerk about it, and include some self-deprecating humor if you can. But nothing hangs over a friendship like the awareness that one owes the other money. (As George from Seinfeld once said, borrowing money from a friend is like having sex — it changes the whole relationship.)
How long should you wait before sending a reminder? It depends on a range of factors. How well do you know this person? Do you expect to see them again soon? How much do they owe you? Think of it as a graph with an x- and y-axis. If you know the person well, give them some time. But if the debt is significant, remind away.
Don’t: Nickel and dime your friends.
Personally, anything less than the going rate of a draft beer at the local bar seems petty to me. So long as your relationship includes the implicit understanding that you will, in fact, see one another again, then it seems like a cup of coffee, or a muffin, or a drink, can be covered under the rules of social reciprocity.
Do: Round up. Or down!
There are exceptions to this rule: Sometimes it’s just easier to divide, say, the bill for an Airbnb© and charge the exact amount.
But most of the time, if someone owes you $33.90 for cab fare to the airport, you can just charge them 34 bucks. (Or 33 bucks, if you’re feeling generous.) While Venmo is obviously an alternative to cash, the rules of cash still apply. If you wouldn’t expect someone to dig coins out of their pocket, don’t ask them to do so virtually.
Don’t: Request money from your spouse on Venmo.
I see this from time to time, and I don’t understand it. When you’re married (or engaged), don’t you share a bank account? Or have an implicit (or even explicit) understanding that what’s mine is yours and vice versa? Why are you splitting rent on Venmo? Or dinner?
Maybe just as importantly, marital Venmo-ing gives people a window into something that should be private, almost sacred: Your financial relationship with your partner. If you really must Venmo your spouse, maybe make it private.
It’s a brave new world out there. But follow these guidelines, and you’ll be with the rest of us in polite society, happily paying our friends, our family, and even our babysitters with the utmost etiquette. 🐣
Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.
Haven Life Insurance Agency offers this as educational only, and the information provided is not written or intended as specific legal advice. Haven Life Insurance Agency does not provide legal advice. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own legal counsel.
Venmo is a trademark of PayPal, Inc.
PayPal is a registered trademark of PayPal Inc.
Cash is a copyright of Square, Inc.
Instagram is a copyright of Instagram, Inc.
Airbnb is a copyright of Airbnb, Inc.