At around 12:30 in the night, I got a beep on my mobile phone. My face lit up looking at the notification. No, this wasn’t a WhatsApp message from a crush or an appreciation note from my editor. It was a Paytm transaction notification.
To give you context, I had gone out for a late evening meeting at a café earlier that day with someone I had recently met and had developed a strong platonic liking for. This was our third meeting. We had discussed everything under the sun from romantic relationships, atheism, to technology and therapy. We were in the middle of an intense dissection of our respective love lives and attachment styles when the waiter thumped the bill on our table, indicating it was time to leave.
“It’s just Rs 650. That’s cheap,” I exclaimed, given that we had been sitting there for almost four hours and had downed a few rounds of coffee and gobbled on some crusty nutty brownies. I still like to carry cash around to make payments. Hence, I paid the whole amount and casually mentioned to him that he could send his half online. I also instantly forgot about it. I didn’t expect him to oblige. Usually, for such small bills, people tend to follow the “you paid this time, I will pay the next time” formula.
When my phone lit up splashing that late-night notification of '325 transferred to your Paytm account', I couldn’t stop gushing about him in my mind for a good five minutes. Of all the connections we made over shared pop culture experience and common intellectual pursuits, his act of sending his share of the bill unprompted stood out for me. I felt both cared for and respected at that moment. That someone cared for my hard-earned money and had the decency to transfer the amount without the need for uncomfortable reminders made me feel a greater sense of connection with this new friend of mine.
It was different from a recent experience I had with another set of acquaintances who had ordered food before I had arrived, asked me to take a bite of it and implicitly expected me to pay a third for all the items on the bill. The place was pretty expensive for someone who identifies as a struggling writer. So, that bit of socialisation did pinch me hard. Irrespective of the fact that I had great conversations with them, it is highly unlikely I am going to meet them again strictly because of their unsaid and unfair bill splitting rules. That’s my top-most value when it comes to nascent connections. You spell out the money rules, you negotiate the places to hang out at and you split the bill fairly.
Eating out and sharing bills constitute a large part of our social life. Be it dating or catching up with friends, cafés and restaurants are our hangout zones. As much as we enjoy connecting with others, we have to spend a fair amount of our earnings to sustain these connections. Given that most millennials are hustling hard, working two jobs while sustaining their passion, being sensitive to each other’s money is a hugely underrated love language. It is also a statement on our empathic abilities and a test of our character. Sometimes, we ignore or forget about giving our share of the bill to a friend. At other times we think it is okay for someone to pay on our behalf because they seem to earn more than us. Often, when we know someone earns well, we pile on them. We may be completely oblivious to the fact they may have greater financial commitments than us. Making assumptions about people's monetary well being is a little cruel in today's world, particularly in the post-pandemic time when many have lost jobs, and have had their businesses shut. I would prescribe a dose of respectful curiosity about people's financial wellbeing when we go out making new friends or are back to meeting old ones, post pandemic. We are craving for face-to-face experience with our friends. But it needn't become a monetary liability.
The rule of thumb is going to a place that is affordable to one earning the least in the duo, trio or a larger group. The consent of the person earning the least in the group before you decide on a meeting place is paramount. That takes away from the unnecessary anxieties that come attached to going to an expensive place which is affordable to some in the group but not to all members. The experience is more wholesome. You don't spend the whole time worrying about what the bill would be and how much you might have to shell out.
Further, there is so much shame and guilt associated with talking about money. I, usually, experience tremendous anxiety in reminding friends about forgotten bills. Why put the one who showed the decency to pay the bill through so much unnecessary trouble? Also, if you notice closely, the silent rules about money manners always come from the privileged ones, because they can afford to not negotiate and come across as classy. The only way to dismantle these unsaid rules of socialisation is to vehemently voice our opinions and risk awkward conversations with friends and acquaintances. If someone cares about having a healthy long-term social relationship with you then they will respect your money, and ensure that there are no future grudges around money that jeopardizes the relationship in any way.
I love giving Friends’ (the show) references in my columns because some of the scenes sum up the daily struggles of millennials in more effective ways than any self-help book can. There is this scene where all the six friends are in a fancy restaurant and three of them are looking for the cheapest item on the menu and the other three behave absolutely insensitively to their concerns. That's one scene that all of us should refer to. The sheer amount of discomfort the lesser income group friends experience and the struggle they go through to bring forth valid concerns about money even to friends they practically hang out with every day is telling of how much shame we associate with money. Only if we made more sensitive bill splitting rules, socialisation wouldn't be so difficult. And great connections not be destroyed for mismatched money ethics.
(The writer is a mental health and behavioural sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)