More than 40 million people use payment app Venmo, according to data from PayPal. Although the app has made it easier than ever to request money for utility bills or to split the check at group dinners, it has also created a new set of anxieties.
Venmo is an app that is equal parts loan-repayment receipt and social network, a combination that can lead to some sticky etiquette and relationship dilemmas. Especially because 44% of Americans think personal finance is harder to talk about than religion or politics.
Relationship psychologist Lisa Marie Bobby, clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching in Boulder, Colorado, says Venmo makes people nervous because we want to avoid an uneasy feeling called "cognitive dissonance."
A Venmo request casually pops up on our phone like any other notification — sandwiched between a text from your mom and an Instagram story update. But lending money out is not a casual act, so your brain may struggle to reconcile the informal format with the serious act of owing money to another person.
"We all have internal 'rules' that we subconsciously believe everyone knows and should follow," Bobby says. "Unfortunately, people have different personal rules."
Two experts — Bobby, and Venmo representative Erin Mackey — address common questions about how best to use the money app.
From request to repayment, most users think "the optimal Venmo life cycle is 48 hours," Mackey says. Two-thirds of users also think it's OK to send a reminder for payment within four days of the original request, according to a Venmo survey from earlier this summer, which polled 1,006 users.
But Bobby says this issue is less about the amount of time and more about communication. If you request money only to "hear crickets," then make your request again via a different method — say, with a friendly text.
"Consider [texting] in a way that avoids making negative assumptions," she says. "Something like, 'Hey, I noticed that you hadn't followed through with the Venmo request and I wanted to make sure everything was OK. You can pay me at the end of the month if that would be better for you?' is likely to be well received."
Short answer: no. No one likes to be surprised by a Venmo request.
"It's best to discuss all requests and group splits ahead of the payment requests, whether it's for a taxi or a bachelor party," Mackey says. "The cost may not be within everyone's budget, and it's important to allow someone to opt out before sending a Venmo request."
Bobby agrees that before you request any money, that transaction should be discussed either in person — "with eye contact," she suggests — or in writing.
And never assume someone knows a Venmo request is coming. "Psychologically speaking, people are prone to making assumptions," she says, "And two people can often have differing assumptions or expectations about what is or should be happening."
Upfront communication is especially important in romantic partnerships. "People being asked to pay money they owe, especially by someone they have a relationship with, are more likely to begin having negative feelings about the person they owe," Bobby says.
Bobby's advice is to bite the bullet and pay up: "I think if you're agreeing to split the tab with a big group, you're implicitly agreeing to split it evenly."
In the Venmo survey, users say if the amount requested is $20 or more than what was expected, it's OK to ask for a copy of the receipt, Mackey says. This can make it easier to push back on the amount requested of you.
Take steps to head this problem off in the future. If you know your order cost significantly less than everyone else's, Bobby suggests asking for a separate check and paying before you leave. "If you protest your share after the fact, it's not likely to be perceived well," she says. "Best to suck it up, if it's an important relationship for you."
Because Venmo mixes finance and friendship, Bobby says, your stress regarding how to use the app is warranted. "If you're feeling anxious about requesting money you've lent, you're right to be," she says. "Rather than trying to make the anxiety go away, I'd encourage someone to pay attention to it. Your emotional guidance system is working well and warning you against lending money to people."
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