MV Ps & Qs: Paying the late plumber

Kate Feiffer

Dear Nicole,

My plumber takes six months to send me a bill after the work is complete. Can I wait six months until I pay him?  What about a general contractor?  He has taken more than a year to finish the job.  Can I make him wait a year to pay him the balance?

Thank you,


Dear Plunged,
I’m sure there is a legal response to this, which I am not qualified to offer. That shouldn’t be a problem, since I don’t get the feeling you’re looking for a legal answer. You’re looking for an emotionally satisfying one.
Let’s start by acknowledging the existence of “Island time.” Things do not get done as quickly as the customer thinks they should. It’s no good debating who is right about why there is such a thing, but there is.
Assuming you are pleased with the work that’s been done, once it’s done, I can think of some good reasons not to pay your bills on time. They include:

  • Unanticipated financial hardship. In this case, talk to your contractor or other professional. Explain your situation, and set up some kind of payment plan that will work for both of you. (That’s a benefit of living in a small community where most people are tolerant of most people’s weaknesses.)
  • Anticipated financial hardship — i.e., you knew you wouldn’t be able to pay for it when you got it done. I’m not going to offer you justification for defrauding the Island’s workers.
  • That’s about it.

Your situation does not fall within those parameters. Yours seems to be a tit-for-tat sensibility: They did X to me, so it should be OK for me to do X in return. I hope you don’t need me to lecture you on the Golden Rule for you to realize why this really isn’t the optimal way to go through life.
Don’t get me wrong: There is a scenario in which the tit-for-tat approach is called for. If somebody is snubbing you, go right ahead and snub them back (the cool kids call this “throwing shade”). But generally, to steal from Michelle Obama, here’s how to apply the Golden Rule to most life circumstances: When they go low, you go high.
So even if somebody is being a jerk, being a jerk back at ’em isn’t defendable. And in this case, the person isn’t even being a jerk. He’s just being tardy. Do you like that he is being tardy? You do? Lucky you! Chances are he will continue to be tardy no matter how quickly you pay him, so you might as well pay him as quickly as you comfortably can, just because that is the upright thing to do.
If you don’t like his tardiness, consider this: Your being tardy in response is not going to cause him to be less tardy. It will not retroactively cause him to reflect upon the annoyance of tardiness, regret his tardy ways, and be not-tardy-for-you in the past tense. I’m really quite confident about that claim. Nor will his response to your revenge tardiness be, “Hey, I don’t like this tardy vibe I’m getting from this customer … so next time, I’ll make sure I myself am not tardy, so as to model good behavior for them.” No, no, my friend — it is you who must model good behavior, since you’re the one who wants change.
At least I think you do. Maybe I’m wrong — maybe you are writing me out of a sincere and non-snarky curiosity about payment plans. If that’s the case — I mean if it is really, truly a genuine curiosity about how to pay your bill — I suggest you ask the person to whom you owe the money. Sounds like he operates on Island time, so he might say it’s totally fine. And if he’s cool with it, and you’re cool with it, there’s no problem.

That’s my take.

Bemused readers ask New York Times bestselling novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to