Using exact change in Venmo transactions makes us look petty

When we pay friends the exact amount owed, we may think we’re being helpfully conscientious, but it can come off as petty and make us dislike the stickler.

With just a few taps on our phone, peer-to-peer mobile payment systems like Venmo have made it possible to send our friends and family the exact amount of money we owe for that group dinner. Maybe it keeps the check balance exact, but a new study found that it will not be perceived as fair.

When we pay our friends the exact amount of what we owe, we may think we’re being helpfully conscientious, but researchers Tami Kim, Ting Zhang and Michael Norton found that the behavior can come off as petty and make us dislike the stickler. It makes us think that the friend sees us as an ATM machine and less as a friend.

“These platforms making it very convenient to transfer the exact amount owed and to keep the balance sheet at exactly zero among friends,” Tami Kim, one of the study’s authors, said. “We found that could have unintended consequences because they make the relationships feel transactional in nature.”

Exact Venmo transactions make us think a relationship is transactional

In a series of experiments across American and European participants using Venmo, the researchers found that we see these exhaustively precise exchanges as petty even when they are objectively more generous. Giving a gift card of $5.15 is less wanted than a simple gift card of $5.

Why does counting those extra cents come off as pettier than just rounding up or down? Because it suggests that you needlessly went the extra mile for a trivial amount of money. “Given that units like cents and minutes are less consequential than dollars and hours, we suggest—and demonstrate—that observing someone making a decision about minor units is likely to feel more trivial. Furthermore, because round amounts are often used in an approximation context, precise amounts are regarded as more intentional than round amounts,” the paper said.

Apps like Venmo and PayPal makes it easier to pay someone down to the last cent. But this study suggests this is not something we necessarily want from our friendships. In our digital age, public receipts of Venmo transactions provide new ways for us to track each other’s behavior. Leaving some room for error in your next transaction signals that you care more about the person involved than the money involved.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.