Some years ago, I invited my friend J to visit a local bakery to try out its cannoli. I’d passed by the place before, but had never gotten to try these delicious-looking treats. I was curious if they tasted as good as they looked.


Spoilers: they are.

When I went to pay for the food, however, J did something I wasn’t expecting– he blocked my hand and told me that he’d take care of it. When I protested, he pointed out that he had a full-time job and I was a student. Then he said three words: “Pay it forward.”

This piece of writing is about money. It’s a hard subject to treat with dignity even on a good day, but it’s a topic that I think is worth articulating properly, particularly for young, financially stable folks– especially if they didn’t grow up super wealthy or with strong, emotionally-resonant narratives around money.

Let’s start broadly: what is money actually?

Lots of different answers would make sense in different situations, but I’ll pick the most relevant definition here: money is a technology that makes transactions possible even when there is no relationship or shared context between the people involved, by making debts measurable. It’s what lets you buy from a merchant you will never see again. You don’t need to trust the street vendor’s bookkeeping ability, nor do they need to know your entire life story; you only need to trust that the food they sell you is good and they only need to trust that the currency you hand them isn’t counterfeit. Money makes otherwise-impossible transactions possible.1

Moving money around has gotten easier as our world relies on computers more. A remarkable cluster of financial technology companies have appeared on the scene, creating vital payment rails that make increasingly-large parts of our economic engine tick. It used to be conventional wisdom to never put your credit card online, right up until the point that online shopping took over the world. Popular payment apps, such as Venmo, Cash App, PayPal, and Zelle have made it substantially more straightforward to do things like pay the bills, help a friend, and split the check down to the penny so that no one ever owes anyone anything, ever.

Wait a minute, what was that last part again?

Money legibilizes relationships. It makes them quantifiable, seemingly impartial and objective, easily interpretable by bringing relationships into the realm of numbers. Splitting the check increases this legibility. Every time the smartphones come out and the check is split into everyone’s fair share, legibility advances another step.

What happens if you can fill in the gaps with the strength of your relationships with others, that lifeblood of existence, but choose to use plastic cards, paper bills, metal coins, and electronic bits instead? What does it mean to you if you refuse to ever owe anyone anything, and refuse to let them owe you anything in return? What does it mean, when you try to insulate yourself from feeling a relationship’s ebb and flow by locking debts to zero? What’s the real reason for always settling scores immediately, so no one is really that hurt by things falling apart– or that invested in things persisting?

If it’s still unclear what money has to do with relationships, consider these two questions together: first, do you insist on inserting transactions into your relationships with others? Second, do you wish your relationships were less transactional?

For the young, financially stable folks I mentioned at the start, the people starting to come into their own, from adolescents to adults, this can be a step towards undoing the isolation of transactional relationships. Sure, there’s no shame in not having the resources to do so yet, and sure, people who take advantage of relationships exist, but no, none of this is relevant to the point here. If you’ve got the breathing room to not worry about the precise penny-division of who ate what at the restaurant, then you’re free to, well, not worry about it! Our real debts to each other largely cannot be repaid with money, or repaid with anything else for that matter. What can be done is carrying it on for the next generation of people who look to us like we once looked to our predecessors. Every time the check rolls around, it’s an opportunity to strengthen the invisible relational fabric binding us together.

The idea of taking care of our people isn’t something that J or I just made up; even a phrase like noblesse oblige has been around since the days that the old English nobility all spoke French, and the idea itself goes back way further than that, of course. Refusing to split the check feels good to me! Paying it forward feels good. It’s supposed to! To me it represents getting to be the next link in the long chain of being that led to where we are now.


We really don’t

There are many ways to make our relationships stronger. Many of them are much more meaningful than a mere restaurant bill. Many don’t even involve money changing hands at all, and are more significant for that fact. Yet even this split-second decision contains an entire universe within it– a different way of being in the world than a default of never letting debt enter the picture. Picking up the check represents a promise between you and yours to be someone who can be relied on when the bill comes due. In that promise is dignity, resolve, and a contribution to this world of ours.

End notes


This is a core argument in Debt: the First 5000 Years by David Graeber. It’s admittedly a political book, and the influence of his political beliefs on the book are fairly clear, so you may want to take its claims with a grain of salt. You may find it an interesting read, regardless of your political beliefs.

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