Have you ever felt short-changed when your co-workers decided to split the happy hour tab evenly, when all you had was a seltzer? Or caught off-guard when a friend Venmo requests you for a coffee she’d said would be her treat? Navigating social expenses can be awkward at best and stressful and divisive at worst, and even with the many conveniences of apps like Venmo and Splitwise, it’s clear everyone’s not always on the same page on how to pick up the tab. 

A seven-part study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology reveals that the biggest difference lies in the numbers: whether you treat your expenses precisely or rounded out to an even number. The researchers found that more than half of recent Venmo transactions (53 percent) are exact to the penny, and while this may seem fair and conscientious enough, these users face the unexpected downside of coming across as petty, impersonal, and transactional rather than generous and trusting. And 81 percent of participants said they’d rather be friends with someone who pays in round amounts than someone who pays in exact change — even if the latter contributes more money overall (say, $34.70 versus $34). 

This finding hits on one of the unspoken dynamics of friendship: that we trust our friends to have our backs even when no reciprocation is expected, and they know we’ll do the same for them. Placing an unnecessary penny value on an otherwise friendly exchange risks undervaluing the relationship, taking it from a free-flowing, “I got this round, you can get the next” back and forth to feeling “more like a business transaction,” the study authors note.

Instead: Round up, and don’t sweat the pennies

Neuroscience research shows that giving with no strings attached feels more genuine to both the giver and recipient than conditional, quid-pro-quo generosity. So the next time you chip in on a birthday gift or an Uber, round out your total instead of splitting to the penny. By covering your own share and adding a little extra on top for good measure, you’ll show your friends you care more about them than the small change.

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  • Mallory Stratton

    Director of Content Operations at Thrive

    Mallory is Director of Content Operations at Thrive. Prior to Thrive, she was Associate Editor on “It’s All In Your Head” by Keith Blanchard (Wicked Cow Studios, 2017), an illustrated brain science book, and worked closely on its accompanying cross-platform partnerships with Time Inc. and WebMD. She spends her off-hours curating playlists, practicing restorative yoga, and steeping new teas.