charge your friends

May 12, 20204 min read

I used to get stomach aches several times a week. I’m lactose and gluten-intolerant, but I’d eat lactose and gluten anyways, because pizza.

When my stomach hurt, I’d regret my eating choices. But a few days later, I’d be back to eating forbidden food.

I had so many stomach aches when I was younger, before I realized what was causing them, that they ceased to be a powerful deterrent. I didn’t like getting a stomach ache, but I’d grown used to the pain.

After seeing this pattern again and again, my boyfriend started charging me $20 per self-induced stomachache.

(I don’t remember being given much choice in the matter. He was frustrated because I was less fun when I had a stomachache. And I went along with his scheme because I really did want to stop having stomachaches all the time).

Unlike the stomachaches, which I was used to, I felt the sting of a Venmo request. I felt the social shame, even if the shaming was doled out with a twinkle in my partner’s eye.

If I was buying something outside my diet, I had to budget for the extra $20. An already overpriced San Francisco lunch suddenly became $45, and that’s a lot harder to justify.

Within two weeks, I had switched to a fully gluten and lactose-free diet, and I’ve stuck with it since. (And I feel great!)

I’ve started using this ‘charging’ technique with friends who are struggling with habits or goals.

If a friend is procrastinating on sending job applications or wants to establish a regular writing habit, I offer to hold them accountable. Well, “offer” might be generous word choice. For close friends, I “voluntell” them that I will be charging them.

A friend of mine told me she kept intending to send 3 job applications a day, but she looked at jobs all day and never sent any applications. I empathized, and we talked about the insecurities that come up when you’re job searching. But at the end of the conversation my response was less gooey: “If you don’t do 3 apps by tomorrow you owe me $40, which you can send to me via Venmo 😉”

Of course, if a friend says “no, don’t charge me you asshole,” then I won’t. But friends rarely reject my offer.

After I make my ultimatum, I set a reminder in my calendar to check in with that person on the due date.

If a friend misses the deadline, I’ll offer reconciliation. Something like: if you do your task in the next 24 hours, I won’t charge you.

However, if they miss the grace period too, you can bet I’m sending them a Venmo request, and then gloating about how I plan to spend my windfall (UberEats? New leggings? Mmmmm).

I charge different friends different amounts, based on their financial situation and how frugal they are. (Will they notice a $20 loss? Will it hurt? What about $50?)

I also set a goal that’s achievable, but pushes them just a little more than they’ve been pushing themselves. The goal is to hit the sweet spot where your friend is highly motivated by the amount of money, and only slightly stressed about failing. A very hard goal can be paralyzing, especially for someone who has been struggling to meet their own goals recently.

Financial accountability is effective when someone is blocked by fear, overthinking, or stuck in old patterns. Sometimes a ‘no excuses allowed’ approach can finally move someone to action.

You can use a similar system on yourself. I have a note at the bottom of my website: If I miss a [biweekly] post and you’re the first to point it out, I’ll venmo you $20. My friend messaged me recently to claim their money. With that kind of accountability, I won’t be missing a post again any time soon!

Using a combination of financial and social accountability is really powerful. It’s easy to make excuses to yourself, but much harder to lie to a friend.