Venmo and Friendship


I’m a fan of Venmo, an app that makes it incredibly easy to send and receive money. Instead of scrutinizing piles of dollar bills to figure out how exactly to pay the tab among a group of friends, one person can pick up the tab and charge the rest of their friends the exact amount via Venmo. However, if Venmo gets more and more popular, and Forbes’ prediction that it will be the “future of payments” comes true, then I will start to mourn the loss of something.

I will be mourning the disappearance of exchanges like these. “I’ll cover this dinner. Why don’t you pay the next time we get together?” or “You only have five dollars? Just give that to me now and buy me coffee some other time.” These exchanges of debt and repayment arise from a cemented bond of friendship and trust that there will be future exchanges. And if I treat a friend to a thirty-dollar dinner today and my friend treats me to a forty-dollar one the next week, I am not going to be pulling out my calculator to make sure we are completely even.

Venmo certainly still enables debts and repayments in relationships, but it encourages precision. I am asked to manually enter, down to the cent, how much I will charge or pay back someone else. When I am encouraged to count pennies, I can’t help but feel that I am involved in a calculated transaction where the goal is to weigh the scales evenly so that “all is fair and square.” But calculated transactions happen between strangers, between sellers and buyers. To pay for something for a friend is not a transaction; it is a relational signal that indicates an affirmation of friendship, a trust and hope that we will meet again next time, and a generosity that is not bothered with exact change or repayment. Grace covers over a multitude of missing dollar bills. In relationships, charity and generosity are greater values.

But more than fostering transactional justice at the expense of relational charity, I am afraid that people will use Venmo in a way where we lose a sense of indebtedness in our relationships. If you buy me a drink at 8p.m., I can, through a few taps on my phone, pay you back at 8:01pm. The rapidity of Venmo releases me from having a “debt” hanging over my head. This technological innovation certainly introduces greater efficiency, but I am afraid we might start to lose the value of being “in debt” to someone else in our rush to mete out equality and justice.

A friend of mine recently apologized for how much time and support he was taking from me, as he was going through a hard time. He was searching for a way to “pay me back” to equalize the playing field, and so he asked me if there was anything he could to help me. I dismissed his concerns, saying to him that while right now he is the friend in greater need, at some point in the future we might switch places. The point is not to be equal at all times, but to ensure that an ethic of reciprocity – of debt and repayment, to use economic terms – undergirds the entire friendship.

Ultimately, what is at stake is a vision of human flourishing. Is a “good society” one in which we are independent, equal individuals, whose relationships are mediated by transactional justice? Or is it one in which we are healthily interdependent, bound together by countless links of debt and generosity? Although it is not value-neutral, Venmo is, at the end of the day, a technological platform for our behavior. Towards what vision shall we use it for?

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About Sarah Ngu

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) graduated in 2012 from Columbia University with a degree in American Studies. She was a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy, and now works in New York, where she is part of the thought leadership team at LRN, a company that advises organizations on values within leadership and culture.

  • Jordan Ashley Monge

    This totally works in relationships like ours, where both parties are considerate and inclined to trade these sorts of debts because they will be paid off. But I can also see how the Venmo system would be advantageous to people whose friends are a bit leechy; though maybe then you should be reconsidering your friend choices?

    • sarahngu

      Yeah, I’ll continue to use Venmo. It’s more that I’m worried about how the values embedded in a Venmo-platform might create patterns that might go off the deep end…

  • Charlie Clark

    This is interesting in light of a book I’m reading at the moment: “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” For example, one section discusses the practice among the Tiv of Nigeria, where (before the advent of markets) there was a custom of maintaining social ties and distributing goods by constantly exchanging small gifts of everyday necessaries like food and drink. The author distinguishes this kind of communistic social practice from debt relationships, where the “amount owed” can be precisely quantified, because quantification depersonalizes the “obligation” and makes it payable by anyone in any “currency.” (Apologies for all the scare quotes, just an illustration of how pervasive the language of debt has become—such that describing alternative economic arrangements is difficult.) So in addition to diminishing the time for which we may remain “indebted” to others, I can see Venmo as also diminishing the sociality of our obligations. Kind of how if I invite you to a party at my apartment, and you bring a bottle of wine to share, that’s rather nicer than if you try and pay me a $20 cover.

    • sarahngu

      you are right. In some ways, all I’m doing in this article is righting the excesses of modernity.

  • Censored

    I think you’re conflating altruism (ethic of reciprocity) and debt (money.)[1] Look rather to the concept of “gift economy”[2] as the original affluent society[3] enjoyed, and how it relates to egalitarian[4] society.


    [1] David Graeber (2011) Debt: The First 5, 000 Years. Melville House.
    [2] /wiki/Gift_economy
    [3] Marshall Sahlins (1973) Stone Age Economics. Chap. 1: The Original Affluent Society. Aldine-Atherton.
    [4] Christopher Boehm (1999) Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.

    • sarahngu

      Very true. But I am partial to the word ‘debt’ because I think it gets at the sense of ‘indebtedness’ and thus dependence that is a crucial antidote to our independent individualism.

  • Darrell Poe

    At first glance, I’d say you’re over-thinking this… Most people have had the “You get the next one” exchange with friends, and – in my experience – it generally balances out. Certainly the value I get from those relationships – financial or otherwise – is well worth whatever $$ I put in. Making another method of repayment available won’t change the nature of those relationships – and won’t lead me to now request payment rather than offer reciprocity at a later date… I guess I just don’t see the two as all that connected…

    • sarahngu

      I always over-think! :)