Venmo and me

Photo by Juja Han on Unsplash

I’ve recently been reading quite a few news articles about the money transfer app Venmo. Most of them have focused on how the app is used by young people to facilitate financial transactions between them, and how this PayPal-owned enterprise appears to be developing a social network based on money transfers between friends.

A recent article in the New York Times’ style section by Teddy Wayne, published July 21, lamented the money transfer app for changing friendships into a transactional relationship. Wayne wrote “not only does it [Venmo] encourage pettiness… the app arguably promotes the libertarian, every-user-for-himself ethos of Silicon Valley.”

He quotes Margaret Pennoyer, an elementary school teacher in Manhattan who received Venmo requests for her itemized expenses at a bachelorette party she attended.

“It’s making people less generous and chivalrous,” Ms. Pennoyer said. “It used to be you’d go to a restaurant, and you’d put down your credit cards and split it 50–50, even if one person had steak and one had chicken. But now people pay exactly to the cent.”

While I don’t disagree with Wayne’s assessment that Silicon Valley has a highly libertarian bent, I do challenge the article’s point that Venmo has somehow destroyed the emotional fabric of friendships, and instead turned them into something transactional.

In my own experience, Venmo has been incredibly liberating. Perhaps it’s coming from an experience of being a student, when money is an extremely limited resource as much of it is coming from the bank of mom and dad. With student loans, rising college tuition, steady inflation and stagnant real wage growth, I don’t think it’s surprising to expect this generation of college kids to keep a closer eye on their finances.

Recall, also, that this generation of young adults entered adolescence during the turmoil of the 2007 financial crisis. As they developed into fully functional adults, they watched as friends and family around them were torn apart by evictions, foreclosures, and loss of employment; as governments spent billions of taxpayer dollars to bailout the banks whose poor management and unchecked risk-taking had caused the financial crisis in the first place, but did nothing to help the debt-laden citizens whose lives were fundamentally altered by the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession.

I am extremely privileged to attend Northwestern University and to be able to do so without worrying about my financial background. Yet, on this campus in Evanston, Illinois, I have heard divergent stories from my fellow undergraduate students: there are those from such affluence that their families have spare apartments in the United States’ most expensive housing markets, and there are also those who have to wonder where the money will come from to pay for their next tube of toothpaste.

Wayne’s lament of the decline of situations where adults would treat each other — “Thanks for getting this! I’ll get it next time.” — is predicated on a social environment where individuals are of similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the world Wayne alludes to, adults would “split it 50–50, even if one person had steak and one had chicken,” as Pennoyer described it. This world makes no adjustment for the financial abilities of each adult. It assumes that the person who had steak and the person who had chicken are equally capable of paying for everything. It doesn’t permit people with far less economic resources than others to save on their expenses by choosing the cheaper chicken option over the more wallet-burning filet mignon, and we have not yet invented the social etiquette for asking your meal partner to order something cheaper because you can’t pay for it.

This is not the world I live in. I don’t believe this is the world we live in.

With Venmo, the transactional nature of the app means it is possible to “go Dutch” at social events like meals, outings, and bachelorette parties, without aggressively stepping on each other’s sensibilities.

I don’t agree with Wayne’s assessment that doing so has devalued friendship relations. For me, the easy nature of money transfers in Venmo and the expectation that a group of friends will split the bill by itemizing per person, rather than dividing it equally, allows me to invite friends without worrying about whether they would feel imposed to pay for something they can’t afford.

I feel — although I won’t go so far to assume everyone feels the same way — that my relationships with other people are predicated on actually enjoying spending them with them, rather than because we’re in the same socioeconomic class or out of a sense of social obligation because I promised to “get it next time.”

So know that if I do message you and ask if you want to go out for lunch, drinks, or coffee, please know that it’s because I enjoy spending time with you. I don’t care about your personal history and whether your parents have lifelong club memberships with British Airways. I probably think you’re funny, or smart, or a fascinating talker, and I find you genuine, polite, and welcoming.

We can go out and have a delightful time — and then I’ll Venmo you for my share later. Or you can Venmo me. It doesn’t matter.