This past winter, I got an email from someone I knew in college saying that a mutual friend of ours was struggling financially. This friend, James*, was in a pretty tough situation: He needed to pay his student loans, his rent and his car payment by the end of the month, not to mention buy enough food for him and his dog. James was unemployed, estranged from his parents, and desperate.
The email I got included James' Venmo handle. It only took me a minute and a few taps on my phone to transfer a smallish amount of money to him. A week later, around Christmas, I thought of James again, and sent him a little more.
Venmo, for the uninitiated, is a mobile payment app through which users can send money along with cute payment descriptions, which can even include emojis. It was founded as a startup in 2009 and is now so ubiquitous it's become a verb, as in, "Let me Venmo you for that drink you bought me."
The app is also, as I found when I sent James money this winter, a quiet way to help struggling friends pay the bills. For many people, money is a sensitive topic (the people interviewed for this story preferred to go by pseudonyms for that reason), which is why so many people I spoke to appreciated the discreet nature of sending cash through an app. A $15 payment to a friend accompanied by a "thumbs up" or "smile cat" emoji could be for pizza or splitting a cable bill, or anything in between.
The fact that young people are using Venmo to send friends in need small amounts of money speaks less to Venmo's utility or millennials' altruism than it does to the way we prefer to interact with the world. We use apps for dating, ordering food, listening to music — it only makes sense that we would feel comfortable using one to help a friend pay rent. Venmo wasn't designed for fundraising in the same vein as GoFundMe or Kickstarter, but the fact that it's already in the pockets of so many people adds an element of impulse, and removes any major barrier of formality, to sharing money. As one young person told me, "it doesn't feel like you're giving charity."
James' story may not be so uncommon.
The financial situation James found himself in is not that uncommon among people his age. According to the Harvard Institute of Politics, "42% of all 18- to 29-year-olds have student loan debt." And the Wall Street Journal reported that the graduating class of 2015 was the most indebted in history, each student leaving college with an average of "a little more than $35,000" in student loan debt.
James had graduated from a liberal arts college and moved straight to a big city to take a job at an anti-poverty nonprofit. After 6 months, he was promoted and working what he thought was his dream job at only 22.
But the new position was grueling. James was feeling so burnt out that his health was starting to suffer. On top of all that, James, who is transgender, found that not being out to his coworkers was weighing on him. So he decided to quit and survive off savings for awhile.
"I ended up being unemployed for much longer than I thought I would be," James said in a phone call.
When James was two weeks away from running out of money completely, his friends stepped in. They talked about putting together a fundraising campaign on a platform like GoFundMe or Indiegogo, but James said he "really, really" didn't want to do that.
For one, he felt his appeal wasn't strong enough — his story, he felt, wasn't as compelling as some of the more successful online fundraising campaigns, like the GoFundMe that raised more than $200,000 to help abandoned chimpanzees. He also didn't want a "trace" of one of the hardest times in his life to exist forever on the internet, with his name and story attached.
"I was really ashamed about having to ask for money," James said. So his friend drafted the email I later received, and help started to come in. Most of his friends were Venmo-ing James in increments of $10 to $15, which meant that it wasn't immediately clear to strangers in his feed that he was getting financial help — something that had been important to him.
Handing over cash just isn't the same thing.
It's difficult to know just how many people are sending friends money through Venmo to help them in times of need and how many are just paying for last nights tacos and beer. Venmo wouldn't, or couldn't, share more specific data about how people use the app, beyond saying, in an email, that the company sees "various uses" from "paying friends and family back" to "gifting money — whether it's congratulatory, to express thanks, or wish a happy birthday." But from my conversations with friends and friends of friends, it seems clear that sharing money through the app was happening more frequently than it seemed.
Colin*, 26, is a college friend of mine and one of the people who chipped in to help James. He uses Venmo regularly, so when friends need it, Colin doesn't feel like it's a big deal to, as he said, "shoot them 20 bucks." Handing over cash face-to-face would "be different," Colin said and, although he has donated to friends through sites like Kickstarter, entering credit card info is "an extra step."
Joel*, 25, said he Venmo'd a friend money he thinks she wound up using to pay her rent (she ultimately ended up paying him back). "I definitely would not have felt as comfortable giving her cash," Joel said. "Hundreds of dollars in cash would be much harder for me to get, and more stressful to deliver than just doing it on my phone."
But Venmo isn't the only payment tool that millennials are using to help their friends. Vlad Raskin, 24, said that he used Venmo once to help a friend who needed money for a plane ticket back home, but that he also uses "international intermediaries like Western Union" to send money overseas to Georgia (the country, not the U.S. state), where he has friends. Raskin said that he's sent money in increments usually somewhere between $50 and $75, and once as much at $150.
"That sort of thing is more common among friends in Georgia than here — it's a developing country where many have little access to things like credit, counseling, etc. So you kind of distribute those responsibilities within your social circle," Raskin said over email. "You don't expect repayment or count debts. There's just the implicit understanding that you help each other when needed per means at hand."
The money that James got from his friends carried him through a period during which, as he put it, he was "just barely making ends meet." He started writing down the names of every friend who sent him money on a list hung in his bedroom.
But, shortly before Christmas, James was offered some freelance work that paid by the hour. Then, he was offered a full-time position at a foundation. Now, he says, he's getting close to buying a new pair of pants, one of his first big luxury purchases since getting back on his feet.
Even though James was initially hesitant — and ashamed — about his friends putting out a call for financial help on his behalf, the help was necessary. And James has now turned around and helped other friends in need. Looking at the scroll of payments on his Venmo app, he said, "if you realize how often you give people $10 to $15 for drinks," it doesn't seem like that much to spend on helping someone you care about. After all, little donations like that helped James get by.
"Thank god for friends," he said.
*Pseudonyms have been used for some names to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.