Paying Well: The Timeliness of Short Accounts
Among the new habits I learned after arriving in southern France two-plus years ago was remembering to pay my tab before walking out the door of my town’s lovely cafés. My American self is used to paying immediately when I order my latte or cappuccino. Then when I’m ready to go, I simply pack up my things and walk out. In France, most proprietors seem incredibly laid-back about payment. One often settles the account as the last order of business. It would be easy for an unscrupulous or just-plain-forgetful customer to walk away, but everyone seems to trust that no one will do that.
Customers take responsibility to pay without having to be hounded about it.
Who’s Responsibility Is it?
I’ve been in France long enough that I’ve adjusted, and now I barely notice the flip-flopped order of payment and consumption. But those early cultural observations came flooding back this summer as I sat across from a French friend over dinner and was only semi-gently chastised for my delinquency regarding another money matter. I was renting an apartment from a friend of his, so while the business arrangement was between the friend-of-my-friend and me, my friend still felt a bit caught in the middle.
The whole arrangement was very laid-back, and from the beginning, it had been unclear exactly when I’d be paying my rent each month. For the first payday go-around, my new landlord simply told me he’d pass by the apartment the next day and asked me to leave the money for him. But month number two, the month in question, was more complicated.
On short notice, Mr. Landlord told me he’d be in town the day I returned from my two weeks in Africa. He needed to pick up something from the apartment. It didn’t cross my mind until too late that maybe I should leave rent money for him. He never mentioned it, however, so I assumed I could just pay later, even though I didn’t know when I’d see him again that month and even though I was heading out of town again.
On my end, I was recovering from travel and experiencing a complex cash flow. I couldn’t simply run to the ATM; I needed to delay paying until I absolutely had to pay. And in my American mind, it was the responsibility of my landlord to establish our payment timeline and terms. So if he wasn’t worried about it, I appreciated the financial cushion his relaxed stance ostensibly gave me.
Not so, my French friend explained. In France, he said, it’s very bad manners for someone to have to ask you for money that you owe him. You’re supposed to pay before he asks. In other words, I was supposed to leave the money at the apartment at the beginning of the month so whenever Mr. Landlord came by, even without much warning, it would be there waiting for him.
We worked it all out in the end, and everyone stayed friends, but the whole scenario caused me to think a lot about my cultural assumptions regarding money and payment.
Is Timeliness Next to Godliness?
Even if talking about money matters feels more comfortable in America than in France, where it’s a conversational taboo, paying in a timely manner makes up an important component of paying well, whether it’s paying a friend back for the concert tickets he bought for me or paying someone for work she did.
We’ve probably all been in a situation where someone owes us overdue money, and we struggle to know when and how to ask for it. Part of loving our neighbors as ourselves means not putting them in the awkward situation of having to ask for the money that’s due to them. These are the situations that can strain friendships.
In a professional context, too, paying in a timely manner can be a sign of integrity and the mark of a person other people want to keep doing business with. I’m a freelance writer and editor, and when clients pay me quickly, I want to keep working for them. Their prompt payment indicates they respect the work I’ve done for them, and they honor that work by not expecting me to wait forever for payment. This contributes to a professional relationship based on trust.
Leaving Positive Impressions
Years ago, I worked as a production assistant for a Nashville-based company that was filming modern versions of Jesus’ parables. The producer-director hired some of Nashville’s finest actors and film crew, not all of whom were Christians. In addition to creating a very positive, supportive tone on set, the producer handed all of us checks for our work immediately upon completion of the last day of filming. The seasoned film folks were even more appreciative than I knew to be because they had often been left waiting for months for checks to arrive.
Being paid so quickly made for a fitting end to a good work experience and left a positive impression on all of us. We had been working for someone who managed his business affairs well enough to have the means to pay us when we should be paid and who appreciated the hard work we had just done for him. And honestly, even if a client can’t pay top dollar for the work but respects contractors enough to pay us quickly, well, that can make the check feel worth a lot more, not to mention aiding our personal cash flow.
At times, I struggle not to be a bit bitter when a client requests a project on short deadline, asking me to do interviews and write an article within a week or two, but then takes two months to cut a check for my work. It feels tantamount to asking me for a loan, though I never receive any interest. And unfortunately, in my experience, my Christian clients can be some of the worst offenders.
Given all these experiences, I’m working to keep shorter accounts than ever on my own debts, despite a cash flow that is highly unpredictable. I’m aided in this endeavor when those who owe me money keep short accounts, too. As people who want to be above reproach and who believe all of life is under the Lord’s domain, we can live this out by creating relationships of trust with those who work for us and those we borrow from.
After we published a week of content with the theme heading Making Money, we received a message encouraging us to consider the flip side, as well. What about Christians who fail to pay well, who complain about leaving a tip or who balk at paying an honest rate, especially when doing business with other Christians? What does the Bible have to say about this, and what is fair to expect when doing business with Christians and non-Christians alike? Is there a difference? Should there be? What has been your experience? Join us for this series, Paying Well, as we consider personal stories and biblical instruction for leading well as Christians in the world, especially when it comes to determining what to pay.