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Work Off the Debt

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Dishes Timmy's life now.
"In order to pay off these damages, you two are gonna work for me... forever!"

Characters go to a place where they are expected to pay money for something they have already consumed and can't return. However, they are unable to pay for some reason. The owner is called out and agrees to let them work off their debt.

A common setting for this trope are restaurants, where the characters will be required to wash up the dishes. Even though most modern restaurants have machines to wash dishes, the unfortunate victims will invariably have to wash up by hand. Usually unexplained is how the restaurant was going to get the dishes clean if no deadbeats showed up that night.

For some reason, this remains an Undead Horse Trope, even though, in most countries, a restaurant's only legal recourse to a customer being unwilling or unable to pay is civil action, which in almost any situation would be more expensive than it's worth. Additionally, there are likely certain legal problems involved with having someone working who is not actually on the payroll. No doubt a Shockingly Expensive Bill will be involved. Related to Trapped by Gambling Debts. Indentured Servitude is where this is formalized and legally enforced. Dine and Dash is an attempt at defying this trope.

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Other examples

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  • A Georgia lottery commercial had a couple consigned to washing dishes at a restaurant in which they dined after the man attempted to pay his bill with Monopoly money.

    Asian Animation 
  • Adit & Sopo Jarwo: Jarwo and Sopo have a lot of debt to Kang Ujang's meatball shop, and since they don't have the money to pay for the meatballs, they (well, mostly Sopo as Jarwo just orders him around) regularly clean Kang Ujang's dishes to pay for it.
  • Lamput: At the end of "Lamput Checks In", Lamput escapes from the docs once more, but the docs themselves, who are in a hotel diner, are held off by hotel officials who notice they had ordered a chicken and ask them to pay. The docs don't have any money, so they're forced to wash dishes to pay off the debt.

    Comic Books 
  • One "Calamity James" story in The Beano ended with the Born Unlucky protagonist having to wash the dishes in a restaurant, and suggesting to his Personal Raincloud that it could wash, and he'd dry.
  • Both Smiley and Phoney Bone (much to his chagrin) have to work off their debts at the Barrelhaven Tavern. What's infuriating to Phoney is that he had money, but because the residents of the valley use a barter system, his cash was worthless.
  • The Dandy Comic Library #14 "Baby Crockett in: Baby Goes to Town" had the baby visit a posh restaurant and, not realising he had to pay, order everything. After having to wash stacks of dishes, he was hungry again, and found a Greasy Spoon where the proprietor cheerfully told him it was on the house.
  • Used on several occasions in Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, usually to add insult to injury when Uncle Scrooge is temporarily denied access to his fortune because of unfortunate events. In a variation unique to Scrooge, he and the rest of the ducks once end up washing dishes even though he has the money—he doesn't have anything smaller than a thousand-dollar bill and the clerk can't break it for him.
    • One story had Donald working off a debt only to learn it was already paid. Not wanting to part with money, Scrooge agreed to work for Donald, who had Scrooge pick some rare flowers (Donald wanted to impress Daisy). Unfortunately, that action resulted on Donald having to pay a fine three times the original debt's value. Scrooge paid it and now Donald had to work for him again. Scrooge congratulated Donald for turning a credit into a thrice as big debt.
    • Donald once found himself with no money to buy a turkey for Christmas so he decided to disguise himself as a foreign businessman to trick Scrooge into treating him to a turkey dinner at the Ritz. Unfortunately, Donald underestimated Scrooge's stinginess. Donald and Scrooge spent a whole day trying to outwait each other until Scrooge figured out Donald was tricking him. Scrooge then asked if the restaurant was for sale. It was. For one million dollars. He then took that amount out of his pockets, bought the place and had Donald wash the dishes.
  • Subverted in Fables, where Flycatcher works off his crimes by being a janitor, but keeps getting caught doing the same crime again and has his sentence extended. He does this because he likes being a janitor; it makes him feels fulfilled and he can forget about his other regrets. Becomes a Double Subversion when Bill Willingham turns Flycatcher into Tinkerbell Jesus.
  • Gaston Lagaffe takes Jeannie on a date where everything goes wrong, and the evening ends with them having to wash a mountain of dishes because he discovers too late that he forgot the wallet. The joke is not so much this, but rather that Jeannie is so smitten with Gaston that she gleefully makes up excuses for every mistake he does. When Gaston can't find his wallet, she remarks that "geniuses are absent-minded".
  • Superman invokes this trope when he stops off at a diner during the Grounded storyline. He's eyeing a cheesesteak on the menu, but doesn't have enough cash, and to protect his secret identity, he can't use a card. The waitress was willing to give it to him on the house because he's Superman, but he insisted on doing something to earn it. They settle on having him organize the supply closet, which he does in a matter of seconds.
  • Occurred in one incarnation of Teen Titans where Captain Marvel Jr. ended up washing dishes and Argent waiting tables. Justified in that this was ordered by Lex Luthor (who owned the restaurant and who they had just accidentally doused with a bottle of soda) in order to teach them a lesson.

    Film — Live Action 
  • In D3: The Mighty Ducks, the Ducks are stuck with the bill at a fancy restaurant after the varsity team leaves, forcing them to wash dishes.
  • In the opening scene of The Gay Divorcee, Guy and Egbert are threatened with having to wash dishes at a Paris restaurant when they both forget their wallets. Guy (a professional dancer, played by Fred Astaire) eventually agrees to dance for his supper, only for Egbert to find his wallet after all just as the number finishes.
  • Laurel and Hardy:
  • In Love Finds Andy Hardy, Judge Hardy has to deal with a 12-year-old boy who went joyriding with a neighbor's tractor. Judge Hardy, being a Reasonable Authority Figure, sentences the boy to work for the farmer until he works off the repair damage.
  • Treated in greater depth in the absurdist film The Music Of Chance. A professional itinerant cardsharp and his chance-met companion unexpectedly get into debt to two apparently gormless lottery millionaires when it turns out the latter have been taking poker lessons. They have to work off the debt through what amounts to slave labor on a grueling and utterly pointless task: Using stones salvaged from a medieval castle to build a useless wall. Several levels of tragedy ensue.
  • Happens in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, with the added bonus of showing viewers the one way Pee Wee Herman could possibly look sillier (i.e. decked out in a hairnet and apron).
  • Thoroughly Modern Millie. Jimmy (who is secretly an absurdly wealthy tycoon) has deliberately not paid for dinner so he can wash dishes with Millie.
  • In The Three Stooges short "Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise", the Stooges accidentally damage a farmer's saws; he orders them to work for him until they can pay for new saws. However, in the next scene, they aren't shown doing said work and are back out wandering the countryside. It's never established if they did work off their debt or ran off when the farmer wasn't looking.

  • Clocks that Don't Tick features people known as Thralls. They were so afraid of death that they took out a loan in order to go through the setting's incredibly expensive procedure to become immortal. Said loan also 'graciously' provides them with housing and a place to work. However, the interest rate is so astronomically high that paying it off is nigh impossible, essentially making Thralls immortal slaves.
  • The Hardy Boys ended up doing this once. They had their wallets, but the restaurant reserved the right to increase the prices after a certain hour without telling people. The price differential can happen in real life when people expect lunch prices and are charged dinner prices—sometimes because they got there just after the time for the price switch and sometimes because the restaurant accidentally (or so they say) gives them the wrong menu.
  • Used more than once in Robert A. Heinlein's books, including Between Planets and Job: A Comedy of Justice.
  • A variation in the Knight and Rogue Series. Fisk went on trial expecting that he wouldn't be able to pay the fines for his crime, and was suprised when Michael—a total stranger—was willing to pay the hefty difference between his fines and his funds. Since the law actually has a system for making criminals work for those who pay their fines, he's stuck playing Michael's 'squire' for the remainder of the book.
  • Michael Haller's limo driver in The Lincoln Lawyer is a former client of his (he's a criminal defense attorney) who agreed to let Haller keep half the wages as payment of Haller's fees until they're paid in full.
  • Quishan in Lords of the Bow is working as a slave for Chen Yi due to "gambling with him, and losing."
  • In the short story "The Necklace", Mathilde loses a diamond necklace she borrowed from her wealthy friend and she and her husband take out a huge loan to buy a replacement necklace to prevent her friend from finding out. It takes them ten years of grueling work to pay off the loan — and then when she finally tells the truth to her friend after the loan has been paid off, her friend tells her the necklace she lost was a cheap imitation that was worth only a tiny fraction of what she paid to replace it.
  • In Paper Moon, this is why Addie stays with Moses in the beginning after her mother is killed in an auto accident, he uses the threat of a lawsuit to collect $200 from the responsible family, then spends most of it to repair his car. Addie threatens to report him to the police unless he raises the money to pay her back.
    Addie: "I want my two hundred dollars!"
  • Reborn as a Space Mercenary: I Woke Up Piloting the Strongest Starship!: Hiro accidentally ends up with a Hero's Slave Harem when he buys out the debts of two women who fell on hard times due to legal problems, planning to have them pay him back by working as his Bridge Bunnies. It's not until way later—after they've both slept with him—that either girl bothers to explain that by local custom, if a male captain takes on a female crew member, she's consenting to be his bed-warmer in addition to her other duties.
  • Spice and Wolf
    • Downplayed with Holo. While Lawrence insists that Holo sticks with him until she's paid off her debt, and she agrees to do so, it's merely their excuse for travelling together, and it doesn't fool anyone. Except Amarti, who assumes that Lawrence is tying her down. They set him straight, but not before lightening his purse quite a bit. When Lawrence sees Holo's wolf form, Holo is worried that Lawrence won't want anything to do with her. Lawrence responds by demanding that she continue travelling with him, as her rampage had damaged some of his property.
    • Lawrence ends with a bad bargain that not only bankrupted him but also ended with him having a debt of 47 gold coins which he has to pay in two days or face 10 years of rowing a long distance ship or working in a minenote . He Takes a Third Option by using his connections and the help of his creditor he chooses to smuggle gold into the city, which is no easy feat but he happens to have met just the right person for the job.
  • In Spinning Silver Wanda enters the story when the moneylender's daughter Miryem, unable to get any sort of material payment plan from her father Gorek, sees the strapping farmgirl and demands she work for her family with her wage applied to the debt. Wanda is privately thrilled because it keeps her away from her abusive father and an arranged marriage; when Miryem gives her a raise, she takes the difference in coin to stretch out her service.
  • Slow Life in Another World (I Wish!): A batch of potions that Itsuki meant to sell to the Adventure Guild is broken in an altercation, and the beautiful knight Aina offers to sell herself into slavery to cover their value after his guildmaster demands compensation (her partner Solte tags along to keep an eye on her). Unable to talk them out of it, Itsuki puts them to work gathering alchemy ingredients for him, planning to free them as soon as the money is paid off.

  • The slaves in The Temple of Aria in Doom Breaker are forced to work until they pay off their debts.

  • Rare musical reference:
    You go out to eat, can't pay, y'all can't leave
    There's dishes in the back, he gotta roll up his sleeves
    But while y'all washin', watch him
    He gon' make it to a Benz out of that Datsun

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Happens in the Alex comic strip during the period when Alex was unemployed. Alex wanted to wash dishes for longer so the other kitchen hands didn't assume he'd ordered the cheapest item on the menu.


    Visual Novels 
  • In Big Sky Country, Cliff tells Morgan that there's one rule if they're going to stay on the ranch going back generations: You sleep here, you work here. Even his own granddaughter's not exempt from the rule.
  • Kissed by the Baddest Bidder: Repaying the $20 million she was purchased for as a means of getting herself out of the situation she's in is not always brought up as even being a possibility, but Soryu, at least, seems to consider the protagonist indebted to him. Since it's completely impossible for her to ever come up with that much money, he puts her to work as Mei Ling's companion and then as her stand-in. At the conclusion of Mei Ling's stay in Japan, he declares the debt discharged and the protagonist free... although given that by that point she's fallen for him, she finds herself not nearly as happy about it as she should be.
  • Max's Big Bust: A Captain Nekorai Tale: Max and brad get a $5343 debt to the Coffee Shrine, which Ryley forces them to work off. To do so, they have to transform into fox girls and work four hours every Saturday for eight weeks. Brad/Bonnie is not amused by this in the least. Ryley tries this a second time in Max's Bigger Bust, but ends up arrested for violations of labor and debt laws and illegal use of magic after a few days of getting the duo to work for her again, due to another officer learning about this scheme.

    Web Animation 
  • Manga Soprano: Aki ate at an restaurant that she could not afford, even breaking an expensive piece and asked her sister Haru to pay for her. When she refused she begged the restaurant owner to allow her work off the debt to avoid jail.

  • In Everyday Heroes, when Summer and Carrie get a little carried away at the local amusement park, they have to spend a few weekends working there to pay for the repairs.
  • Heroes in Evil Plan are sponsored by the government run "The Company" which sells hero merchandise and licensing to provide a "superhero economy". In order to ensure their heroes keep earning for The Company they charge exuberant rates for advanced medical treatment to bring them back from near death experiences. These debts are used to keep them on brand and selling their services.
  • Inverted (sorta) in Freefall. After Sam tries to buy dinner with a stolen wallet, only to realize that his victim is doing the same thing, they agree that the only "fair" solution is to find a way to get out without either one paying. Unfortunately, they pick a scam the waiter counters easily, end up washing three times their bill in dishes, and Sam's motormouth actually leads to both paying for both bills. Both then gave the waiter a large tip for being a Magnificent Bastard.
  • In this El Goonish Shive wallpaper, evidently Hedge and Vladia could not pay at the restaurant they are depicted in and, according to company policy, they were zapped by Ellen and made to work off their bill.
  • In I Was Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Outer Space!!!, Betty is rescued by the "hero" Male Man, who promptly presents her with a bill for his services. As she cannot pay, Betty ends up working as his maid/slave for years until she runs away with the pirates.
  • In Sluggy Freelance people who try to dine-and-ditch in the Dimension of Sham-Pain are forced to toil for an eternity in the Sudsy-Dish Mines.
  • In the Touhou Project 4koma doujin Life of Maid, Hong Meiling, the Scarlet Devil Mansion's resident Chew Toy, talks Sakuya into going with her to an ice cream parlor that they find out is run by Letty and Cirno. Meiling tries to eat an entire Super Winter Earthquake, a massive bowl of ice cream that took resident Big Eater Yuyuko 5 minutes to eat, in 30 minutes or less to try to win 30,000 yen. Meiling fails miserably, meaning she has to pay 10,000 yen, and neither she nor Sakuya have that much, so after Sakuya (being Sakuya) bugs out using her time-stopping ability, Meiling has to work off the debt by being a waitress at the ice cream parlor for a while.

    Web Original 
  • The Rising of the Shield Hero: In chapter 76 of the Webnovel, Bitch is shown a piece of paper by Mirelia: a bill with the amount of money the Guild demanded from her for her spending while part of Motoyasu's party. So Bitch must be part of Motoyasu's party as a slave to pay back that debt. Chapter 111 has Bitch try to claim it was "necessary for the sake of the world", but Mirelia said it was for "expensive accessories, precious metals, clothes. A luxury rental estate and several visits to expensive night clubs. Is THAT what you call the sake of the world?".


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Alternative Title(s): Working Off The Debt


China Jones

Confucius says can't squeeze blood from turnip, and better you press shirt than press luck.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

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Main / ConfucianConfusion

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