The Complicated Financial Etiquette of roommates
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock, Graphic: Apartment Therapy

9 Extremely Specific Roommate Finance Questions That’ll Solve Any Tiff You’ve Ever Had

published Oct 12, 2020
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Navigating personal finances can be challenging enough without the added complication of roommates. Add in the fact that we’re living in a pandemic, and things get even trickier. No matter how amiable your relationship with your housemates, conversations involving money can be uncomfortable and emotionally charged. And unfortunately, no degree of vigilance can prevent the occasional unpredictable financial pickle—damaged furniture, an unusually high bill, and broken appliances happen. Fortunately, there are simple and effective ways to navigate the etiquette and ethics of these financial mishaps without destroying your roommate rapport. Below, experts in finance, etiquette, and conflict resolution walk us through different scenarios and offer guidance you can bank on.

After roommates split the purchase of major furniture pieces, like a couch or appliance, who gets the furniture when someone (or both people) move out? 

One of the toughest financial conflicts roommates face actually happens at the end of the lease. While there are plenty of interesting ways to navigate this (I once justified taking most of a former roommate’s and my IKEA furniture because I was the one who dedicated hours assembling them), experts suggest there’s a better way. Elaine Swann, etiquette expert and founder of The Swann School of Protocol, suggests considering who can actually use the pieces in question: “It wouldn’t be fair for one person to take it and it just sits in storage, whereas the other person can actually use it; so I would say, have a discussion, make a determination to who can actually use the furniture at that time, and then be gracious and allow that individual to take it.”

Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist and Prudential’s financial wellness advocate, offers an alternative, noting, “One of you could buy the other person out of the furniture,” or “if you both have bought multiple things for the house together, you can split up the belongings.” 

Apartment Therapy staffer Anita Chomenko and her roommates developed a system in advance to prepare for this exact situation. “We kept a Google Sheet that said who bought what and how much it cost so when we moved out we used that as a reference,” Chomenko says. This method served the roommates throughout their lease by effectively balancing out their contributions in every aspect of their financial situation. “I think the original intent was that we would end up spending similar amounts, so if we needed something and one person had spent [$200] more, the other person would go pick up the item to kind of even it out,” she says.

I moved back in with my family during the pandemic. How do I share finances now that I’ve returned home?

Nationwide, renters of all ages and walks of life are returning to their parents’ home to save money and stay connected during this pandemic. While saving money is a critical component of the phenomenon, it’s worth it to offer financial assistance to your family when possible. “It’s important to have that conversation either before you move back home or early on in the living at home arrangement,” Clayman says. “It goes a long way to offer or ask how to contribute to expenses, as that can help support a larger discussion about ground rules and financial boundaries.”

Swann agrees, and suggests places for those moving back home to contribute. “You can come to the agreement that the individual would contribute to some particular portion of the living expenses, perhaps that’s the utilities or the homeowners’ association or something to that effect.” While financial assistance is valuable, it may not be realistic for everyone. Offering to take on certain household tasks and projects can be an effective way to earn one’s stay when monetary contributions aren’t possible.  

If I buy butter and eggs for everyone to use, is it alright for me to put a dash of my roommate’s oat milk in my coffee or mustard on my sandwich?

My friend Karl and his roommates recently vacated their apartment, and they found upwards of five bottles of mayonnaise in their fridge. Communal foods and supplies are logical, sure, but someone has to pay for them. Ultimately, this is a simple matter of manners.

“If when you moved in together everyone agreed that some grocery items would be shared items—butter, milk, eggs, sugar—then you are welcome to use the milk for your coffee. But if that was not agreed in advance, you should ask your roommate if you can use the oat milk they purchased for your coffee,” says Anne Chertoff, chief operating officer of Beaumont Etiquette. Hopefully, the roommate will politely oblige. “If they say no, you may want to rethink how you purchase and share groceries. If everyone is buying their own, you can divide the fridge, freezer and cabinets into sections that are clearly labeled whose is whose,” Chertoff notes.

Clayman wholeheartedly agrees that you need to secure approval prior to consumption. “There is no ‘OK’ that doesn’t require conversation and consent in this situation. The key to a happy life is making sure what is an ‘OK’ boundary for you is also an ‘OK’ boundary for the person you share a living situation with.”

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My roommate’s friends and partner frequently sleep over at our place, help themselves to shared food, and even use our washer and dryer. Do I deserve financial compensation for these guests and their habits?

At my lowest roommate point, I kept a calendar and marked each time I’d return home from class or work and greet my roommate’s boyfriend (perpetually on our couch watching sports) to no response. In. My. Own. Apartment! If you’re dealing with the partner or guests of a roommate who are helping themselves to your belongings (not even to mention with an attitude!), there are steps to take to address the issue. (Is anyone else conjuring up an image of Bevers on “Broad City” right now?)

Says Swann, “If it’s frequent and they’re utilizing the amenities in the home as if they are a roommate… then I do think it would be a gracious gesture for that guest to contribute.” In terms of who is responsible for establishing that conversation, she notes, “Now, it’s going to be up to the host of that guest to call them to that. So, I would say for the roommate who’s not friends with that person to have a conversation with their fellow roommate and tell them exactly what they expect.”

Clayman encourages roommates to dissect their intentions before bringing up the issue. “Sometimes we don’t want to have a conflict about something and we feel that focusing on the money aspect will buy us out of our feelings. If it really is about the money, put a dollar amount on it but understand that your roommate might not see it the same way that you do.”

All my roommates pay rent to me and I pay the lump sum to the landlord. Is it fair to ask for a small fee for the trouble?  

If you’re the designated bookkeeper for your household, you’re technically taking on some additional responsibility, and the time you dedicate to that task may be taxing. But is it fair to ask for compensation for that labor? “If before you moved in together, you all agreed that you would collect the monthly rent from your roommates and pay the landlord, and you didn’t stipulate a fee for yourself, you cannot charge a fee to your roommates,” Chertoff says.

However, she does make one concession: “If you find that you’re chasing someone down every month to get their rent, you may want to discuss taking turns collecting rent month by month to ensure one person doesn’t hold the burden.” If this compensation is important to you, you should address the issue before moving in with roommates—but be prepared for some pushback. Chertoff notes that bookkeeping is just one of many shared household responsibilities, and roommates may be reluctant to place a monetary value on every task.

If one roommate uses significantly more electricity than another, how should roommates navigate that financial discrepancy? 

Whether one roommate has a private AC unit, another has an extensive gaming setup, or another’s bedroom’s string lights rival the Las Vegas strip, people find a myriad of ways to surge the electricity bill. Clayman’s recommendation for navigating this tricky issue? Specificity. “Since this is a hard thing to actually measure, see if you can distinguish the difference in energy use when that roommate is not home for a long period of time. Then, use your best judgment on whether or not you think it’s necessary to bring it up.”

This might also be a sensitive spot for roommates who are just trying to customize their private space in the shared home. Rae Kyritsi, programs director at the Center for Conflict Resolution in Chicago, says, “My first piece of advice is that you have a conversation before the thing happens. When I buy the mini fridge, when I buy the AC unit but then put it in my room—that’s actually a great time for that conversation.” And remember, the roommate with the AC unit is focused on staying cool, as the gamer is focused on gaming, and the string light enthusiast just wants to feel hygge. “Most people are not out to be unfair, and so being prepared to frame a conversation around what’s important to you as opposed to what you’re mad about can be a really helpful way to engage in that,” Kyritsi says. Frame the conversation around the equity of the bills, not the roommate’s personal choices.

Is it cool to charge a subletter more than the previous tenant’s share of a room for rent? (They won’t know!)

Part of what makes financial conundrums with roommates so challenging is the gray area that surrounds many of these scenarios. Fortunately, the laws and formal procedures surrounding subletting are a little more black and and white. Keisha Blair, author of “Holistic Wealth: 32 Life Lessons to Help You Find Purpose, Prosperity, and Happiness,” puts it simply for renters: “It’s not very ethical to [ask more from a subletter] because you’re basically transferring a portion of your rent payment to the other person that you’re subletting.” She asserts that even if the roommate is responsible for finding a subletter for an available room, this price needs to be determined by the landlord and must adhere to the lease agreement. “You’re not supposed to really just arbitrarily increase [their rent] just because you want to offset your rent payment.”

For landlords renting a room in a unit they personally own, Clayman clarifies, “This is a market economy and if you think what you are charging is the market value for the room that you are renting, I don’t see any ethical issues here.” Always defer to your landlord, and if you are the landlord, analyze the market value of your area before establishing a price.

During the pandemic, my boyfriend’s roommate moved home, so I’ve been living with my boyfriend. Am I responsible for contributing to his rent?

The pandemic has totally shaken up the living situations of so many, with roommates vacating their rooms for months while remaining on the lease for their uncertain return. This has brought to light a whole new set of financial scenarios that can be difficult to navigate. Chertoff offers her etiquette expertise for these situations. “Did you give up your own apartment? Were you invited to move in? Were you planning to move in together anyway?  The answers to these questions can help resolve what rent you may or may not be responsible for.” 

In this case, the boyfriend and his roommate will need to have a frank conversation and try to set guidelines that allow for a little uncertainty, given *gestures to everything, everywhere.* Says Chertoff, “If the roommate is still paying rent to ‘hold their spot’ because they plan to come back, you can ask your boyfriend how you can help with expenses, such as utilities and groceries.” 

So, what are some basic financial guidelines to set before I move in with a roommate?

All of the experts agree, the sooner you and your roommates can sit down and have an open discussion about your finances, the better. When you come together as a household for this dialogue, there are a variety of ways to make this a more effective process. Swann recommends drafting a roommate agreement, noting, “The first thing you do is of course list all of the financial expectations that you’ll have as roommates, and then have a discussion about how exactly you’ll tackle those things because when you move in together we always think about the rent, but there are so many other things that come up… whether it’s cable, whether it’s subscriptions services, if there’s renter’s insurance, and all these extra things that we may not necessarily think about.” Having this written summary is a constant reminder of the detailed agreement. 

Blair urges roommates to have a tough conversation with themselves before entering this dialogue with roommates. “[Be] aware and [have] your own personal financial identity so that you’re not swayed by others in terms of their spending habits.” Establishing and maintaining your own financial boundaries is key.

And remember, while financial conversations are technically about the household’s bookkeeping, there’s a great deal of emotion tied to and surrounding spending habits. To keep the peace and maintain healthy relationships with roommates, conflict is inevitable and needs to be navigated with care. “The biggest thing to be aware of, know about yourself, and ask about your roommate is ‘How do you approach conflict, how do you like to approach conflict?’” Kyritsi says. Knowing how to have these conversations, and not just when, is vital. 

Kyritsi explains that communication is necessary to bring an issue to light for both roommates. “The other roommate is probably completely oblivious to the fact that the other roommate is upset about something—and it’s so easy to do that.” Approach the conversation with intention, she says. “Think about what’s important to you—not what you’re mad about, but what’s important to you.”