Do I Pay You? Navigating Friends, Services, and Money
Tuesday, June 4, 2013Tweet
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?