A familiar scene — you’ve gone out to eat with a group of friends, had a nice time and eaten your fill. Then the bill reaches the table, and suddenly, there’s an air of tension and uneasiness. No one wants to be the first to ask the dreaded question, “How are we splitting this?”
These awkward situations are a dime a dozen in the modern world. Meals, group trips, expenses among housemates and even pooling in for gifts to a common friend often come with the implications of lending money to friends and, ideally, proportional sharing of expenses. It’s not uncommon that, in an effort to avoid discussing who owes whom, and how much, an unsatisfactory compromise like splitting the total amount equally is arrived at.
Talking about money can be taboo, especially among friends — be it due to cultural beliefs such as it being considered crass or tacky, or the fear of it affecting relationships and others’ perceptions of you. While each individual may come from different financial backgrounds and have different relationships with money, there still exists a social game of pretending to not care about money.
Developmental counselling psychologist Sneha Mani explains, “We all have a very complicated relationship with money that often goes unaddressed or unacknowledged because of cultural taboos. In more recent generations, while there is more unabashed conversation around the overall concept of money, there is still the need to play out certain social optics [like] being seen as someone who is benevolent with money [or] being frugal.” Our trepidation to enter into these discussions, she adds, often has to do with how “our lowering tolerance for having difficult conversations — ones in which we might disappoint another or come off as imperfect — has made us more averse to asking for the settling of a debt.”
‘Our lowering tolerance of having difficult conversations — ones in which we might disappoint another or come off as imperfect — has made us more averse to asking for the settling of a debt.’
When we are owed money by our friends or family, there is some hesitation associated with asking for repayment. There is an understandable discomfort in suddenly introducing an impersonal and transactional aspect into your personal relationships.
That’s where tech comes in. Convenient payment platforms like Google Pay and PayTM have changed the way we spend and monitor our expenses. Over the last few years, with new features from UPI apps and the introduction of dedicated expense-sharing apps like Splitwise and Tricount, people have possible solutions for sharing expenses and settling interpersonal debts.
Splitwise, an expense-sharing and tracking app, has exploded in popularity since its launch in 2011. CEO Jonathan Bittner, in a 2021 interview with TechCrunch, said that the app had registered users in the “tens of millions”. Even popular UPI services such as PhonePe and Google Pay have recently introduced a volley of features — like splitting a bill with others, requesting money for a payment you made, sending a reminder and showing pending balances.
The use of such apps is widespread — The Economic Times reported that the National Payments Corporation of India pegged the total value of UPI transactions for May 2023 at ₹14.3 trillion, and that payment infrastructure registered a 58% year-on-year jump in terms of volume of transactions.
These services allow users to keep track of shared expenses, with the exact balances being maintained in real time. These tools, Mani believes, “try to eliminate the social and psychological associations with money by laying down the numbers. This helps a lot of individuals initiate these conversations because it now feels rational and matter-of-fact. Secondly, the apps add a level of distance from an emotional conversation, which allows for a higher degree of tolerance of discomfort.”
Technology clearly has an important role to play in separating emotions from transactions and can help people navigate uncomfortable financial situations with a greater degree of confidence. However, it’s only the first step to addressing a broader issue. Asking people to pay you back and splitting expenses will still carry some level of awkwardness as long as the social stigmas that surround money continue to persist.
Mani’s advice is to look inward and understand your own relationship with money, to be more comfortable with having these conversations in the long run. “We need to be able to view money as one of the resources we engage with — like time, power, sex — and understand how our culture, families and social groups have informed our individual relationships with money.” In the short term, she suggests having a clear, non-apologetic conversation and establishing a timeline for repayment. After all, there’s no faster way to break a taboo than by facing it head-on.