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How to Talk About Money with Your Roommates

Paying bills and having roommates for the first time is fertile ground for awkward situations and strained conversations.

by Marco Margaritoff
Jul 12 2018, 4:32pm

Photo by Stocksy / Joselito Briones

I once came home to foul-smelling garbage still not taken outside and perfectly formed piles of dog shit scattered throughout the apartment, all of which were a result of a blissfully unaware roommate who still owed me $57 for last month’s power bill and the pet she kept forgotting to take out for walks.

After deliberating whether or not I should once again clean this mess myself, I had a moment of clarity: I finally realized that clear and open communication was my only recourse here. Expecting things to change wasn’t going to result in reliable roommates or timely payment of shared costs.

When my roommates got home that night, I sat them down and kindly asked if we could set some rules together: clean your mess, pay what’s fair, and think of the others. Fortunately, that actually worked—she seemed profusely apologetic, paid me what I was owed, and I never got home to dog shit again.

The choice is yours: when dishes pile up and nobody’s budging to spend $6 on soap, you can either take the hit and silently fume or sit everyone down and set some rules—ideally as soon as you all move in together. “Because when you don’t do that, what happens is people each go into what their own implicit understanding of what the contract is—unless you luck out,” says Stanford psychologist Keith Humphreys.

For Tim Haber, a working actor who shares a railroad apartment with three roommates, living together peacefully and dividing costs fairly should be simple and non-negotiable. ”As long as they are respectful of the apartment, don’t go in my room, and clean up after themselves, I don’t care,” he said. “We just split up utilities: one does Con Edison, another the internet, and so on. We just Venmo each other the split costs.”

Hashing things out is a lot easier if you get along with your roommates in the first place. “You can say almost anything to another human being—if they know that you care about them,” says Humphreys. So maybe go out for a drink together first, then talk about how you’ll split expenses.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore the problem. Talk about what the issue is and work out a solution. While some things are non-negotiable, like paying the rent on time, other household matters like cleaning schedules and who buys the kitchen sponges definitely are.

And while you could write up a roommate agreement, like this one from Nolo that spells everything out, don’t get too nit picky about every little thing. Inevitably stuff is going to slide, and you’ll be the asshole for complaining at all times. And maybe, if they buy you a beer one night, you can go ahead and pick up the dish soap next time you run out—even if it’s their turn.

With that in mind, here are some pointers on handling everything from making sure everyone pays their share of the rent on time to deciding whether you need to hire someone to clean your place:

Paying the rent on time is not negotiable

Landlords usually want just one rent check, meaning one of you needs to collect the funds from everyone else. The easiest way to do this is with an app like Splitwise and CheddarUp, which make it easy to divide any shared bill, or the old standby Venmo.

While the actual transaction of splitting bills is virtually done for you, it’s the interpersonal stuff that could delay payment. What then? “You want to be clear in your own head about what you want,” says Humphreys, adding that you need to “be mutually clear about what your expectations are.”

It’s also important to stay empathetic and friendly. “If you have a good environment with the person, it’s actually pretty easy,” he said. “You can say, ‘Look, it’s easy to misunderstand things, and it’s easy to forget things,’” and then remind them of their responsibilities. “In an environment of trust and respect, that’ll work.”

How to split utilities fairly

If you move in first, register for all utilities yourself. That’ll give you the power to change service plans at any time, be aware of deadlines, and give everyone proper warning. It will also make it easier for everyone to remember who to pay what. if you move in with a friend, on the other hand, it may make more sense to put one person in charge of internet and another in charge of the gas and electric bill, since the two bills could work out to about the same amount each month.

The more roommates you have, the more likely you are to need faster internet, which you'll want to split evenly. However, if one roommate works from home and blasts the air conditioning all day, it’s only fair that they pay more. Same goes for someone who wants to add an expensive cable TV package to the communal bill.

Who buys the toilet paper?

Chances are you don't want to be the only one stocking up on supplies for the apartment. An easy fix is to put one roommate in charge of dish soap and paper towels, the other on toilet paper and bathroom cleaner, while you keep cleaning supplies in stock.

Photo by Wikimedia / Santeri Viinamäki

You could also keep a running list of all expenses and try to settle it later, based on how much each person spent, but that can be hard to keep track of if you have more than one roommate. This is where being flexible with how much each person buys pays off in reducing roommate friction.

Don't be the only one who cleans

A rotating cleaning schedule is preferable to passive aggressively sighing as you do it all yourself for the 100th time. Draft a basic schedule and keep it pinned to the fridge. It takes ten minutes to wipe the kitchen counter down, do dishes, and check the fridge for spoiled foods, so give yourselves a break by switching off every few days.

If one of you never cleans, however, it’s time for drastic measures. This is when you may want to hire a cleaning person via an app like Handy or TaskRabbit or get a recommendation from a friend. Just make sure everyone agrees on the cost and that they pay you in advance.

That's not my couch

If your roommate buys a $700 couch and expects you throw them a few hundreds you don’t have, that’s premeditated financial assault. Talk about furnishing as soon as you’re all under one roof. That way, you won’t be surprised with a $500 espresso machine you never even asked to own a third of.

So take a breath, buck up, and talk to your roommates. You’re going to have to speak up from time to time. There’s simply no way around it—if you want to see some clean and timely change, that is. The key is to be clear and open without coming off as a jerk.

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