How to talk to your roommate about splitting bills and other money issues

How do I talk to my roommate about sharing expenses?

Talking money with your parents is tough enough. Talking to a roommate? You may be thinking, “No way!” You’d rather write three term papers in one night. But here’s the thing: If you’re living with someone else, you have to talk finances to keep the relationship healthy. Keeping it to yourself gives resentment a chance to start festering, and pretty soon you’re pulling passive-aggressive stunts like taping your drugstore receipts to the medicine cabinet. (“Just a friendly reminder: Tom’s of Maine cost me five bucks a tube.”) And chances are, your roommate is wondering how to bring up the subject himself.

To introduce the topic, be casual but direct. Something as simple as, “Hey, when’s a good time for us to sit down and figure out how to pay our bills?” can work. It’s important to present this as something the two of you are doing together, rather than a Mafia-style shakedown involving crowbars and kneecaps.

Write down what you decide. Yes, really.

First off, you and your roommate need to figure out what things you need to pay for, and what things would just be nice to have. If you’re in college and living on campus, you may decide that a dorm fridge, a fan, a couch, and a rug for the common area are must-haves. If you’re sharing an apartment, you’ll have a monthly rent payment as well as utility bills (electricity, heating or gas, Internet, etc.), and you’ll need to buy practical items like a shower curtain and a frying pan.

Items that go under the wants column include HBO Now (yes, you can survive without this), any furnishings for the living room/kitchen that aren’t strictly necessary (like that life-size Yoda statue, or an espresso machine with all the bells and whistles). You should only consider buying wants once the needs items have been covered.

For each recurring expense, you need to designate one of you to be the “point person” who will pay that bill. Otherwise, the Internet bill could sit around unopened until your service is cut off. Once one of you has paid a bill, the other needs to fork over her share ASAP. If that doesn’t happen, the bill payer has essentially made a loan, for free, to her deadbeat roommate. (There are numerous ways to do this, from old-fashioned cash to Venmo, Square, PayPal, Google Wallet, and the like.) Decide up front what will happen if a bill isn’t paid on time and a late fee is assessed. Is the point person responsible for that late fee?

For one-time expenses, the main thing is to agree together on the item you’re purchasing (not simply, say, “a microwave,” but the make, model, and, most important, price) before the money is spent. Then, reimbursement should follow promptly.

Don’t let tension build between you.

For many expenses, it’s both practical and fair to divide the bills evenly. For some things, one roommate can offer to pay more of the cost of an item if that person anticipates using it more. If your roommate is really lukewarm on that espresso machine because he drinks tea most of the time, you shouldn’t expect him to pay for 50% of it—and you should probably offer to cover the full cost of the item. (And you really can’t make this assessment after the fact: “I gave up caffeine, so you need to pay me back for my half of the espresso maker.”) On the other hand, if you find that your roommate is pressuring you to buy something that you won’t use much or can’t afford, you need to spell that out now to avoid hard feelings down the road.

If you’re not going to be able to pay your roommate back for something right away, say so and explain why. Just don’t make a habit of it. If you find that you are constantly asking your roommate to carry you for a few days or a couple of weeks, it’s time to look at your cash flow and figure out a way to catch up and then stay caught up. Tardy payments build resentment and can put your roommate in a financial bind.

Last piece of advice: Write down what you decide. Yes, really. If your roommate is going to pay the landlord by the first of every month, and you’re going to pay the power company on the 10th, that should go on a piece of paper tacked on the fridge.

Even the most open conversation and thorough planning can’t prevent financial friction completely. Issues will come up—it’s just part of living together. That’s when you and your roommate need to sit down again and hash it out. Don’t let tension build between you. You want to keep the heated arguments to more appropriate topics, like the true heir to the Iron Throne.

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