Work Off the Debt

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"I am not gonna go back in there, tell them the truth, and wind up washing dishes. [Gilligan Cut] I can't believe I told them the truth, and I wound up washing dishes."

HelgaHey Arnold!!

Characters go to a place where they are expected to pay money for something they have already consumed and can't return—usually (but not always) a restaurant. However, they are unable to pay for some reason. The owner is called out, and agrees to let them work off their debt, almost always by washing dishes.

Even though most modern restaurants have machines to wash dishes, the unfortunate victims will invariably have to wash up by hand. Customers in real restaurants are also generally not careless enough to leave their wallets or checkbooks at home. Even if they did, the owner would most likely allow them to call home and have someone else bring in their money for them. It also goes further than that, if you're a regular customer and they know you, the owner will simply let you come back with the money later.

Usually unexplained is how the restaurant was going to get the dishes clean if no deadbeats showed up that night. Did their current dishwasher just quit / call in sick / die or did they just tell him to take the night off so the protagonists can work off their debt?

For some reason, this is far from becoming a Discredited Trope. No doubt a Shockingly Expensive Bill will be involved.

Examples of Work Off the Debt include:

Anime and Manga

  • The premise of Hayate the Combat Butler.
  • Izumi needs to pay off a debt incurred by breaking a vase in He Is My Master.
  • Aisha in Outlaw Star, working as a waitress rather than a dish washer, although she wound up washing dishes by the end of the episode.
  • This is the basic premise of Zombie Loan, with characters who are Back from the Dead having to work of the literal life debt they owe in order to stay alive as "Z-Loaners".
  • In Samurai Champloo, a procurer for a Yakuza-owned brothel stages one of these on Fuu by bumping into her and causing the "accidental" breaking of a vase, then insisting she work to repay its value.
  • Similarly, in Ouran High School Host Club, Haruhi is forced to become a host after she accidentally breaks a monumentally expensive vase.
  • In Katekyo Hitman Reborn, Tsuna's pals order expensive food, then dine and dash. Tsuna has to work off the debt.
  • An episode of Monster Rancher had the Hare treating the gang to a night at a fancy restaurant and inn... and then slipping off in the night without paying. Cut to a scene of Golem in a frilly pink apron.
  • In an episode of Digimon Adventure, Matt and Joe have to work off a debt, since their money isn't accepted in the digital world. The digimon running the restaurant keeps them in debt by breaking dishes and blaming it on them.
  • In a cute omake for D.Gray-man, Allen is shown wearing a frilly apron, washing dishes, and taking food orders at the cafeteria in the Black Order. His reason? Because apparently General Cross got him more into debt, so he has to work it off.
  • ×××HOLiC has Watanuki having to pay off an increasingly larger debt of working. It's not even his debt. Thanks a bunch, Syaoran. Though by building his own set of relationships and memories, Watanuki is cementing his own existence.
  • This kicks off the plot of Ghost Hunt - Mai accidentally injures Kazuya's assistant and breaks his expensive camera. Not being able to afford a replacement, she has to act as his assistant until the debt is paid.
    • And later discovers that, because Naru-chan's equipment is insured, he didn't technically need to get her help to pay for the replacement. He just wanted extra help and the broken camera gave him an excuse. Lin's injury was more reasonable grounds, though.
  • Tenchi Universe episode 19 "No Need For Runaways!" The group is eating at a diner in a space truck stop. After two punks steal their ship the Yagami, most of the group rushes off in pursuit. Ayeka and Sasami are left behind but have no money to pay the bill. They're still washing dishes 92 hours (almost 4 days) later.
  • In One Piece, Luffy is forced to work at the Baratie as a chore boy for a year after damaging the restaurant when he deflects one of Fullbody's cannon balls. Ultimately, Zeff releases him from his debt in exchange for defeating Don Krieg, largely because with his incompetence, the restaurant wouldn't last a year with him around.
  • The title character of Squid Girl is stuck working at the Lemon Beach House to work off her debt, although in her case she's working to pay to fix the hole she blasted in the restaurant's wall. When she asks how long it will take, Eiko replies that it would take her 5 or 6 years to pay it all off. Even a squid girl who until recently had no concept of debt or money realizes that this is ridiculous:

Ika: "What kind of lame wage are you paying me, de geso?!"

  • In Peach Girl, Kairi Okayasu gets his wallet stolen by street punks at one point. He doesn't realize it until he gets the (rather cheap) bill at a restaurant, and winds up washing dishes.
  • In Pokémon Special, Black is forced to work for White after she shows him how much she paid to cover for the scenery and equipment he destroyed. Which is just fine for White, as she really needed his Tepig for a movie shooting.
    • In a slight subversion, White proves to be a Reasonable Authority Figure as she doesn't expect Black to pay off the entirety of the debt. She plans to let him go after just a few more shootings. And this trope is further played with when it turns out that Tep and Gigi make so much money together that Black has most of the original debt payed off anyways. After that revelation, Black and White form a sort of partnership since their respective goals work out better if they stick together - they're even willing to directly help each other out.
  • Spice and Wolf subverts this a little. 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 traveling 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.
  • Sakuya from Sensual Phrase has this in his backstory, as his Parental Substitute raised him as a musician to pay the huge debt that his Sakuya's Reiko left behind after her death.
  • In the second episode of El Cazador de la Bruja, Nadie accidentally demolishes a pinball machine in an out-of-the-way diner and the owner makes her work it off by being a waitress for a couple days. Ellis joins her in the job, although it appears the owner didn't actually require it of her.
  • This is how Hestia pays Hephaistios for creating the Hestia Knife, in Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?. Considering how much it cost, it's a good thing that both goddesses are essentially immortal; the working arrangement will be going on for a long. long time.

Comic Books

  • 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.
  • Occurred in one incarnation of Teen Titans where Captain Marvel Jr. ended up washing dishes and Argent waiting tables. Justified Trope in that this was ordered by Lex Luthor (who owned the restaurant and who they had just accidentally doused with bottle of soda) in order to teach them a lesson.
  • 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. The subversion was subverted by Bill Willingham when Flycatcher was turned into Tinkerbell Jesus.
    • Bit more to it than that: Bigby was deliberately harsh in his enforcement of their Masquerade because as long as Flycatcher is on community service he doesn't have to resume his search for his lost family and thus take the risk of remembering what became of them.
  • 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.
    • At least a small part of the trope is justifiable in this case: The majority of the duck comics genuinely take place before dishwashers were in widespread use.
    • Scrooge constantly uses Donald's debts to make him do stuff 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.


  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Thoroughly Modern Millie. Jimmy (who is secretly an absurdly wealthy tycoon) has deliberately not paid for dinner so he can wash dishes with Millie.


  • Used more than once in Robert A. Heinlein's books, including Between Planets and Job: A Comedy of Justice.
  • Quishan in Lords of the Bow is working as a slave for Chen Yi due to "gambling with him, and losing."
  • 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(?). Apparently they just really felt like using this trope.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Live-Action TV

  • That '70s Show
  • Kenan and Kel. The duo are trying to prevent the former's family from returning home to find that it had been robbed. When Kenan's parents request their bill, he secretly steals his father's wallet, and they are forced to wash dishes. All of this is deliberately done to buy time for the police to arrest the burglars and recover the stolen furniture, and for Kel to unload that furniture back into the Rockmore residence. Kel, being Kel, ruined the plan by unloading different furniture for liking it better than he likes the stuff he should have unloaded.
  • Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, sweeping floors in a convenience store.
  • An extreme case of this was the basis of seasons 2 through 5 of The Facts of Life: The four girls were working off damages inflicted to school property (with Rich Bitch Blair's parents not bailing her out as a growth experience).
  • I Love Lucy.
  • Tsuyoshi in Sh15uya had to do this.
  • In an episode of Corner Gas, Lacey catches Oscar counterfeiting, when she says she has something in mind for him, the scene cuts to him washing dishes, when Lacey walks in and tells him she just wants him to pay her off in real money.
  • In an episode of Married... with Children, the Bundys went to dine at a restaurant and realized they forgotten the money at home. Bud and Kelly went home to pick it but decided to keep it for themselves and let their parents to fend for themselves. Once Al told Peg she'd probably be forced to wash dishes to pay the bill, she quickly devised and implemented a plan to escape and it worked.
    • And the time Al had to work as a bellhop to pay off fraudulent credit card debts. And the time Peg had to work a fast food job to pay off her Patty Bright makeup debt.
  • In an episode of Victorious, Robbie orders a large amount of caviar, unaware of it's price. As the gang don't have enough money to pay for this, Tori ends up paying the debt by singing for the guests of the restaurant.
    • The next episode, The Squid and the Coconut, has a plot where Tori and Robbie must work at Nozu after they forget their wallets and can't pay a bill for their food.


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.


Video Games

  • In Super Mario RPG, you're able to sleep at a certain hotel for more nights than the one you initially pay for. If you don't have enough coins to pay for the extra nights, you have to work it off as a bellhop.
    • Not only that, but if you even try to approach the lobby's save block, the manager won't let you save until you were debt free, although you could still save by leaping off one of the people's heads and onto the block before the manager can say anything. Even though you're working off your debt, the guests randomly give you tips in the form of items like a Max Mushroom or Flower Box, which are rare items, so overstaying can be a good thing.
  • In the beginning of Animal Crossing you move to the new town, but when it comes time to pay for the house, you don't have enough money. So the store owner (who also runs the realty business) makes you his assistant for a while to work off the debt.
  • Chapter 2-3 of Super Paper Mario forces Mario to work off a million-Rupee (not Coin) debt after smashing an expensive vase by doing mundane tasks to generate electricity (such as hitting a question block or running in a hamster wheel). The payout for these tasks is ridiculously low, as the house is run by shapeshifting trickster Mimi. She actually has the requisite Rupees stored in a safe at the top level of the house, but you have to jump through many hoops to get it.
  • In Suikoden I, the team runs into Vincent De Boule, a man who claims to be an aristocrat, yet lacks the funds to pay for a meal at the inn that he just ate. He runs off and leaves your team to foot the bill. If you currently lack the money for the food, the owner forces your group to wash dishes to pay off the meal. Fortunately, since the meal is only 200 potch and you likely have an amount in the hundred thousands, you likely won't end up working it off (unless you do it on purpose to see the scene).
  • Police Quest II. This happens if you don't have enough money to pay the restaurant bill with your date. Even worse with the credit cards being overextended. Only shown in narrative text that you have to wash the dishes and not awarding you points.
  • In Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale, the player is a young girl named Recette whose father took out a large loan before going adventuring and not coming back. A fairy, Tear, is sent to work out repayment of the debt with her. Together they run an RPG item shop and send adventurers to collect loot for them to sell.
  • In one quest on Kashyyk in Knights of the Old Republic, the player encounters a man being forced to work to pay off his debt. It turns out that the creditor sabotaged the debtor to force him into this situation.
  • In Dragon Age 2, the Hawke siblings work for an entire year to pay off the mercenaries/smugglers who helped the family enter Kirkwall.

Web Comics

  • Inverted (sorta) in Freefall. After going to dinner with a man he stole a wallet from (long story), Sam agrees to race to avoid paying the bill. The loser would pay for both. However, the terms of the race were a little unusual and Sam's motormouth lead to both paying. Both then gave the waiter a large tip for being a Magnificent Bastard. Notable because neither was unable to pay the bill, so they weren't technically working off the debt but trying to avoid paying.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Western Animation

  • The Flintstones: Fred and Barney were expecting the Great Gazoo to pay the bill at the restaurant.
  • A Pup Named Scooby Doo: Shaggy and Scooby also had to wash dishes to pay for a restaurant bill. They washed so many dishes the waiter even gave them some money after they finished.
  • In an episode of Earthworm Jim, Jim and Peter, along with Bob the Goldfish and one of Bob's minions, spend about a thousand years of "pseudo-time" washing dishes in a restaurant outside time. And then a further 150 pseudo-years (15%) when Jim insists they have tip the waiter (but the others refuse to do more just to tip the valet).
  • Subverted in Futurama when it looks like Elzar is about to propose this—but has the gang arrested instead. It's only as they're being carted off that Bender suggests working it off and Elzar agrees to "give it a shot". Double subverted as Bender later quits to join the Robot Mafia, and Elzar's response? "'Kay."
  • The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, episode "Bad Fortune in a Chinese Fortune Cookie": After Chugaboom damages the restaurant, the Ant Hill Mob have to work as waiters and dishwashers.
  • Bart Simpson has worked as both a carnie and a burlesque house doorman, and possibly more.
  • In Hey Arnold!, Helga wins a coupon to a fancy French restaurant. When it comes time to pay the bill, it turns out that the coupon was for the fancy French restaurant across the street with a very similar name.
    • Phoebe wonders why Helga didn't just explain the situation to the waiter, rather than order more food while she stalled for a friend to bring a box of cockroaches over, thus causing a greater debt than she already incurred:

Helga: We've gotta come up with a plan to get out of paying. I just need some time to think. We'll stall. We'll order more food. Lots more food.
Phoebe: But isn't that just exacerbating the problem?

    • It happens again with Sid getting into debt to Big Gino. Gino's gang begins threatening Sid, but Sid gets Arnold to talk to Gino. Gino respects Arnold, so he proposes having Sid work for him for two weeks to pay off the debt. Sid ends up getting roped into Gino's gang, and trouble ensues.
  • One Donald Duck cartoon has Donald trying to eat his (packed) lunch outside, but it starts raining. After many comic mishaps, an angry Donald forces his way into a fancy restaurant so he can eat his lunch in peace. The maître d'hôtel charges him for eating his own lunch in the restaurant. After going to court, the judge forces Donald to work off his debt for ten days. The trope is subverted because the closing scene demonstrates the problem with this approach, showing Donald breaking dishes nearly as often as he actually cleans them. The maître d'hôtel begs him to stop, but Donald holds up his court order. (And, of course, knowing Donald, he's breaking the dishes on purpose.)
    • Sometimes he is forced to work off a debt to Uncle Scrooge, with the nature of the task a varying from polishing coins to task of questionable morality and/or legality.
  • In the episode of DuckTales (1987) when Scrooge temporarily loses all of his wealth due to a years-old contract, he and the group (Huey, Dewey, Louie, Webigail, etc.) eat at a high-end restaurant where they were regulars anyway, saying to put the charge on his account. The contract-holder says the account is his as well, and Scrooge says to "Put it on his account." The owner doesn't approve of this and puts them to work in the kitchen washing dishes.
  • The Fairly OddParents: In "The Big Problem", Timmy wished to be an adult. When he decided to dine at a restaurant, he had to wash the dishes to pay for the bill.
  • In another Classic Disney Short, Crazy With The Heat, Goofy, wandering in the desert, hallucinates a soda fountain ran by an Arab sheik. He orders a grand total of six ice-cream floats, none of which he gets to drink because they disappear the moment he tries to. When the sheik asks for the bill, Goofy refuses, and is suddenly holding a pile of dishes for him to wash, under penalty of beheading.
  • In the Warner Brothers classic short, Hollywood Steps Out; Andy Hardy (a recurring role played by Mickey Rooney) gets into trouble, and as usual has to ask his dad for help. Since they can't pay the bill, Andy and dad end up washing dishes to the rhythm of the music being played by the band.
  • An episode of Jimmy Two-Shoes had Jimmy order too much stuff from Misery Inc. and was required to work as a delivery driver to pay them off.
  • Garfield and Friends: Jon and one of the girls he dated had to wash dishes (and some cars) to pay a restaurant bill (and some broken dishes) because Jon forgot his wallet at home. just one of the several ways on which he blundered with that date.
  • Camp Lazlo: "Prickly Pining Dining" ends with the Jelly Beans cleaning the bathroom and Scoutmaster Lumpus working as the restuarant's stuffed moose head.

Real Life