Where Logic Meets Love

Do I Pay You? Navigating Friends, Services, and Money

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

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Do I Pay You? Navigating Friends, Services, and Money | Faith Permeating Life

At 27 years old, I feel like I've got an OK handle on the whole being-an-adult thing. I get oil changes, pay bills, manage my insurance coverage, and spend too much time on the phone with customer service.

There's one thing that still confuses the heck out of me, though, now that I am a working professional and have working professional friends. How does one determine when to pay people (or charge people) for services? In other words, where's the line between a favor and a paid service?

I understand that closeness of relationship is one indicator. When you get a taxi to take you to the airport, you pay this taxi driver you've never met before for driving you there, or they're going to be very upset. If your best friend gives you a ride to the airport, though, they'd likely be horribly insulted if you asked how much money you owed them for the ride.

And the type of service is another. Someone who's sick is going to pay to see their doctor, even if they're friends with their doctor, because that's a highly specialized and regulated type of service, and a doctor expects to get paid while they're on the clock. But if a friend mows their lawn while they're sick, something they'd normally do themselves, they're likely to see that as a nice favor, not something that needs to be paid for.

In the middle of these stranger-best friend, specialized-unspecialized spectra, though, there seems to be a lot of gray area, and I have no idea how most adults go about navigating when pay is expected and when it would be insulting.

I first ran into this dilemma during wedding planning. One of the regular pianists at the church where we got married happened to be my former middle school music teacher and choir director, with whom I'd been quite close and who had remained sort of a friend of the family by virtue of playing for the church my family attended. We asked her to play piano for our wedding. Then we asked a friend from college, who was not a professional singer but often sang at Mass on campus, to be our cantor. I also asked my great-aunt, who plays the organ, to play the procession music at the beginning of the wedding.

My former choir teacher was paid to play at Mass every weekend, so it seemed appropriate to pay her to play for our wedding, but I felt too awkward asking this woman I'd known for a decade how much she charged and so did my mom, so my mom said she would ask the church how much her rate was. My great-aunt, who regularly plays organ for her church, was honored just to be asked to participate in the wedding, and even wrote me a thank-you note in which she talked about how happy she was that the pianist had asked her to play some of the prelude music before the wedding started.

Our friend whom we'd asked to cantor was not a close friend, but it seemed like it would be potentially insulting to offer to pay her since she, unlike the pianist, would have been invited to the wedding anyway and also didn't do this for a living. Cantoring, like lectoring (reading), is something that's generally done by volunteers, not paid staff, during a Mass, and we certainly weren't going to pay our friends and family members we'd asked to do readings. Eventually we settled on giving our friend the cantor a nice restaurant gift card as a thank you, though I'm still not positive that was the right choice.

More recently I've run into awkwardness with my job search coaching business. Soon after I announced to friends and family I was launching this business, my younger brother was finishing up graduate school and starting to look for jobs, and my mom asked if I would help him. "But don't... charge him," she said awkwardly. "Oh no, of course not!" I said. It was hard enough even getting my brother to take my advice for his job search, which I wanted to do!

Later on, I helped out one of my closest friends whom I've lived with for years in college and had helped with multiple prior job searches. She then told me she wanted to pay me for my help, since I had this business now, and I insisted that I couldn't take her money. It felt too weird to start charging a friend I'd helped numerous times before and who was constantly recommending me to other people.

I'm particularly worried about this as we started planning for kids. Friends on campus have already insisted that we let them babysit when we have kids, but I'm not sure who will expect payment and who will see it as a favor or even a treat (little children are a rare sight on a college campus). One of our residents we're closest to, who will be an RA next year, is an experienced nanny, so I feel like of course we should offer to pay her if we ask her to babysit while we go out for an evening, but what about asking her if she can watch our child for 15 minutes while we go run an errand? Half an hour? An hour?

I realize there's no black-and-white handbook for this sort of thing, but it's an aspect of adulthood where I don't feel like I've gotten much guidance at all. I'm curious: What guidelines do you use to know when someone expects payment and when someone's doing you a favor and would be insulted by money?

Edited to add: While I'm thinking of it, at my last job two coworkers would make a Starbucks run several times a week and sometimes ask if I wanted anything. I never knew if they expected I'd give them cash upfront (which I rarely had on me), pay them back later, or buy them a drink some other time (which seemed unlikely since they were the ones always going). One time I did have cash when another coworker went to Starbucks and she picked me up a tea, and then when I asked how much it was she seemed awkward taking money from me and said it was an early birthday present. What is the expectation in your office for something like this?


  1. This is something I struggle with too - especially when people watch my dog Bandit while I'm out of town. So far I haven't had to pay for any dog-sitters yet (thankfully, Bandit is VERY well behaved and most of the time my dog-sitters are sad when I DON'T ask them to watch him randomly) but I still feel like I should do something in return. One family, I pick up their kids regularly from school so that's kind of our unofficial deal. My co-worker watches him a lot, but he's like family. Then I have another friend who watches him, and I don't pay her. What I've done is given her gift cards and such when apporpirate. Such as Christmas, it wasn't necessary but I got her a card for Target. When I went to her baby shower this weekend I spent a bit more than I normally would have, etc.

    1. There aren't any clear rules, are there? We've only had pets once so far, with our rats, which my parents watched for free and which we paid their neighbor's son to watch when we were all out of town. And I'm taking care of another hall director's fish right now who's going to feed our hall's fish while I'm on vacation. What you said about your dog is how I feel it's going to be when we have kids, where we'll probably have people asking to watch them and we'll probably do something nice for them but not necessarily pay them.

  2. I think it works best to look at it as favors--a relationship works best if everyone is giving something. If its a big, one-time thing, sometimes a formal bartering of services is appropriate. (e.g. we have promised my brother estate planning for moving and constructing a massive climber for our kids.) If it's small, ongoing things like the half-hour-while-running-errands, then having small ongoing nice stuff you do for them is important, whether it's home-cooked food or hosting people often or tutoring or what have you. I think the gift card for the cantor was the right choice--it says thank you but keeps it in the social realm instead of turning it into a business transaction. Cold hard cash tends to be the dividing line.

    That said, I'm always paranoid about imposing too much on free babysitters (even family). I like to have a well-paid regular sitter as well, so that I don't have any angst about calling her up even if it winds up being very soon after the last time.

    1. That's generally how I try to look at things with friends, particularly on campus where the hall directors tend to be a close-knit group who do nice things (rides to the airport, buying each other dinner from the dining hall, etc.) for each other as a matter of course. But like you I tend to be paranoid about overstepping my boundaries and asking too much of someone.

  3. Re: work coffee, at my job more ambitious/Sbux addicted coworkers will sometimes ask around before a run. The expectation is usually to give them cash up front ($5 is a safe guess for specialty coffee) or as soon as they get back, they'll hand over your beverage and inform you how much it cost.

    Of course, we work in a cash heavy industry, and if you don't have $5 at the start of the day, you will in an hour or two, so it's less fraught in a cashless situation. I suspect in a more traditional office setting that a reciprocity model is the assumed MO.

    1. Thanks, this helps. Would be interested to get others' perspectives as well.

  4. Thinking more about the payment vs favor divide, I think it's easy when you can point to if a service is offered or asked for, and if the mixing of roles (personal vs business) would feel uncomfortable.

    I bartend, which never seems like a legit or respected life choice until other people ask me to bartend for private parties. Any time I've been asked, it's been as a business proposition that comes with payment and behavior expectations. Any time I've offered, it's been either a casual thing ("did you know you have all the fixings for a killer sangria? Do you want me to whip one up?") or explicitly as a gift of time and knowledge (for a casual, low budget wedding of a friend).

    My best friend and her husband sometimes host nice parties and have considered hiring a bartender, but have never seriously considered me. It would be too uncomfortable to have me work for them (and their friends I've also been social with) in a service capacity, and too much work for me to feel comfortable gifting my services. That's where using your professional friend as a contact/reference comes in as a balance between friendly helpfulness and valuing the work in question.

    1. I like the idea of offering vs. asking for help. I don't think it covers all situations, but it's another good measure to use to try to figure out what's expected or appropriate.

  5. In my office, which is fairly small (3-8 employees present on any given day), it's a norm for a couple people to run out and buy lunch for the office, but they collect money from everyone before or after. However, I have treated a coworker to a drink from Starbucks for a special occasion (birthday, graduation) and told them up front it was "my treat." The coworkers I am closest to (whom I also consider friends) sometimes do not pay me right away what they owe, but they say, "I'll get yours next time" or "I'll bring cash tomorrow," and it almost always works out.

    As for the babysitting thing, I think it's always fair to ask someone if they want to be paid or not, or if they are just volunteering their time. I think it's fair to just be up-front and ask them what they want - whether it's just a thank you, a gift card, or a cash payment - and I think people will be understanding and appreciate the honesty. And it's always good to acknowledge the awkwardness, "Hey, this might be weird but I realized I hadn't thought about it until just now. Did you want me to pay you for ___?"


    1. I guess my concerns with asking people outright have to do with taking advantage of friends who aren't good at setting boundaries, i.e., people will say they don't want payment if asked, even if they were hoping for it, and if they can't say no then I won't have a clear idea of when I'm asking too much for a friendly favor. Which you could say is their fault for not setting boundaries, but it's still possible to strain a friendship and cause resentment simply because I don't have the common sense to figure out when someone actually wants to be paid / say no to doing a favor.

  6. Interesting post...a few thoughts of my own:

    1) I petsit/housesit and I charge for it. The only time I don't is if I offer it as a gift for friends (I've done this for wedding gifts or baby showers). My friends know I charge and the ones who use me are usually pretty happy with my service, knowing they will have someone they know and trust taking care of their pets/house...I also do silly things like send photos to them via text or email of the pets, and give daily reports.

    2) On the other hand, I am also what I would consider an expert on travel, specifically focusing on the Camino de Santiago. I want to start a consulting business where I offer specific services for a price to guide future pilgrims in their planning for the Camino. My main problem is I can't figure out how much to charge and I feel bad for charging for advice that is readily available on the internet and offered for free by others in the area. It's a double-edged sword...but I do know this, when I do decide on a price, I will not be low-balling my services. I will be charging an appropriate amount so people feel they are getting value and I am covering my time and knowledge.

    3) If it was me, I would have offered my services to my sibling for free with the understanding that he/she spread the word about my services to his classmates. I do this with CPR classes sometimes....I offer a free class to a friend if they can get 6 people to do the class with them. This way, I get paid still and my friend gets a deal too.

    It never hurts to ask if people want to be paid...if they don't, get them a gift card in an appropriate amount as a way to show your appreciation.

  7. This is an interesting issue! It's hard to navigate sometimes.

    I have a friend who was a professional childcare worker and is now an at-home mom. She and my son are great friends. If I ask her to babysit, she expects to be paid, and her rate is kind of high--but we have sometimes done it as a swap when we have some other money-involving plans, like, "I'll order the clothes you want to tie-dye and provide the dye, and you'll babysit for 3 hours the weekend before we get together to tie-dye." We have also done things like I bring my kid to her house and she and I each do a baking project with him while the other one keeps her toddler from getting underfoot in the kitchen, and we get to talk to each other intermittently between distractions--nobody gets paid for that, but we get to socialize and get our baking done and swap some baked goods. :-) Before she became a mom, we made her the "authorized caregiver" who was allowed to use our museum membership if accompanied by our child and one of our member cards; when she took him to the museum, we didn't pay her for babysitting because she was getting in free to the museum, but if she mentioned having bought him a snack we'd offer to reimburse her for that.

    When we were expecting our son, we were talking with other friends about a movie that would be released 5 months after the birth that we all were looking forward to, and they said they'd babysit when we went to that movie. They did. When we got home, we offered to take them out to dinner as thanks. That worked fine.

    I have friends who make tabletop games (cards, etc.) and for years relied heavily on volunteer assistance, especially for one convention where they ran a bunch of demos and tournaments simultaneously with a sales booth. It was difficult to figure out how to compensate volunteers enough that they felt happy to work, without spending too much money, and over time they had to work out a formal scheme of how many hours you work to get a free deck of the newest game, how many for them to buy your convention badge, how many for a hotel room subsidy, etc. I really appreciated it because, although working for them was always lots of fun, it could be very hard work, so it seemed crazy to spend hundreds of dollars AND use up my paid vacation days to do it!

    In your example of a friend giving you a ride to the airport, if there are any parking fees, tolls, or similar expenses, I think it's courteous for you to pay those. You can also ask, "Can I give you some money for gas?"

    When I'm staying in someone's home--especially if I couldn't think of a hostess gift to bring--and we go out to eat or order pizza, I offer to pay. If my visit is not just about visiting my hosts but primarily because I'm doing something else in the area, I try to plan a time to take them out to eat even if they might otherwise be planning to cook.

    In my office, if anybody offers to get me anything (here, it most often takes the form of inviting me to a pizza party celebrating something), I offer cash at the time they offer. If I happen not to have cash on me, I ask about it anyway--I used to pay them back next day, but now I have my account at the bank that has an ATM in our building!

    1. Thanks! These are helpful examples for figuring out how to navigate this type of situation.

  8. I've found the best formula is "Hey could you do such-and-such for me? I can give you $X for it if you like." Helps smooth out income disparities as well - if you asked me to drive you to the airport, I'd want payment because I have very little money and that gas is expensive, but I'd feel bad turning you down. If people don't accept, it's nice to just come up with coffee at some point or a plate of cookies or something.

  9. I have 2 jobs, and for each I pick up one car-less co-worker. I get about 33mpg in my little car.

    As a procrastinator, the last hour of my time before I start work is priceless. I'm trying to have my compensation reflect the toll these "favors" take on my life over time.

    One is a friend of 10 years+ who is historically broke, and he is about 15min total out of my way to pick up, and our drive from his house to work is 25 minutes. Because this is an ongoing arrangement, we'decided that $2 for a round-trip to his house is sustainable for both of us and fair. He rarely offers actual cash, but often offers to buy me fast food, which I historically dislike. I usually agree however, since repeatedly insisting on cash from an old friend feels like stress to me. I remind myself the fast food is still sustenance :P

    The other rider I've only known for a month so upfront I established flat round-trip rates depending on which job site we're headed to. I charge him much more ($15/hr of extra driving) since it's often 45min out of my way round trip, and often during traffic or after midnight. I think $15/hr is low but I don't want to gouge him. We settle up our tab on paydays, and I always ask him if he's still ok with the arrangement and rates.


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