Living on your own in the real world for the first time can be daunting, to say the least. You have to keep track of bills, clean your toilet, and actually buy the food you're going to be eating to keep yourself alive. But there are other, more subtle aspects of adulthood that can be challenging to navigate, like talking to your roommate about money and other financial details, which can be awkward at best and downright hostile at worst.
For example, I have a friend who routinely receives Venmo payment requests for random, small amounts of money from her roommates, like a $4 box of aluminum foil, or a pasta strainer split four ways. When you find yourself paying someone 78 cents for the carton of almond milk your roommate "bought for the apartment," you might start wishing you'd clarified these financial issues when you first moved in together.
When you're figuring out how to navigate these conversations, it's all about creating an open, communicative environment where both people feel safe and respected, even if the topic is a little bit uncomfortable. Living with a roommate (or multiple roommates) means you're dealing with multiple aspects of finance and, inevitably, several questions that need to be answered.
Generally speaking, there are two types of questions you need to consider here: the obvious ones you should ask at the beginning of moving in — like who is going to be the account holder for utility and water bills, and how you plan on splitting rent — and the less obvious questions that'll pop up over the course of your time living together, like what to do if someone's significant other is using a bunch of water at your place.
Regardless of the exact topic, though, the key is to be as direct as possible with any questions and concerns you have, and to not postpone the conversation.
According to licensed marriage and family therapist Nicole Richardson, the best thing to do when talking to your roommate about money is to be clear on your finances in relation to your shared living space.
"It's important to know what you can each afford before you live together," Richardson says in an interview with Elite Daily, adding that it's not necessarily crucial for your roommate to know your actual salary.
"As long as you have a reasonable assurance that they can consistently cover their share of the bills, the rest is private information," she says.
Besides, your roommate will likely be making a different salary than you anyway, and when you're in your 20s, these pay disparities might be pretty big. Regardless, Richardson says you shouldn't worry about salary too much when you're deciding who's going to pay for what. Instead, she recommends splitting things as equally as possible.
"I think [splitting bills unequally] is a dangerous idea," she says. "What if, for example, one roommate works on a commission basis, and their income shifts heavily month to month? If one roommate makes less money, it may be wise to find a home that is within their budget and split things down the middle."
If, however, you find an apartment with unevenly sized bedrooms, Richardson says this could be an opportunity to set different rent costs based upon these differences. Either way, she explains, you should establish these plans prior to signing the lease, if possible.
Talking about rent should be an easy enough financial topic because it's a constant, fixed amount. The bills, on the other hand, can get a little tricky.
Since bills fluctuate from month to month, they can lead to potentially awkward moments — like, for instance, when your roommate has friends visiting every weekend, and the water bill at the end of the month is suddenly $100 more than usual.
According to psychotherapist LeslieBeth Wish, MSS, Ed.C, author of Smart Relationships and founder of LoveVictory, in an ideal scenario, you should try to talk about these hypothetical situations before they happen.
"The goal is to discuss as much as possible ahead of time," she tells me.
This could mean sitting down with your roommate to talk about what to do if you suddenly get a really high bill in the future, or how to handle things if one of you constantly leaves the lights on all night, turns the thermostat up really high, or takes long, hot showers on the reg, Wish explains.
However, no one's perfect, and you may not get the chance to talk about these things before they happen. In that case, according to Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and romantic getaway leader, the best thing you can do is be totally honest with your roommate when a financial issue does come up, and to have that conversation in a completely neutral, non-judgmental way.
Tell your roommate, without accusing them of anything, that you feel uncomfortable or surprised by the bill, and let them tell their side of the story, Dr. Fisher advises. Depending on the specifics of what the bill is, and why it was higher this time around, your roommate might feel comfortable paying a little extra, or you'll simply come to an agreement about how to keep the bills a bit lower next month.
TBH, it might not be worth arguing over an electric bill if you both use the lights with more or less the same frequency, but water and heat can often run you hundreds of dollars, so it's worth bringing those things up if the use has been vastly uneven for a while.
But it's not just the apartment bills that you need to talk about with your roommate.
The other major financial topic to hash out with your roommate has to do with who buys the mundane, day-to-day stuff, like toilet paper or dish soap. One easy way handle these little things is to switch back and forth: Maybe one month, your roomie's responsible for the paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, and any other paper goods, but the following month, it's your turn to cover those expenses. Or, as Wish recommends, you could split the costs each time on a money-transfer app, like Venmo.
"Apps can help provide some emotional neutrality," she tells Elite Daily. "But be absolutely sure you have agreed ahead of time who pays what — no surprises."
Above all, what you don't want to do is let frustrations or questions simmer under the surface. As all of these psychologists have pointed out in one way or another, a healthy relationship is an honest and communicative one. Your relationship with your roommate(s) can be whatever you collectively want it to be, and there's obviously room within all of these scenarios to create a financial situation that makes everyone comfortable.
Even if you're already halfway through a lease with your current roommate, and you guys have never discussed these things, that doesn't mean you've missed the opportunity altogether. It's always a good time to be open and honest with your roomie, and as long as you're both coming from a calm, non-judgmental point of view, this talk should be smooth sailing.
Adulting is hard. No one gets it totally right on the first shot (if they ever get it right). But if you're working on an honest, open, and supportive relationship with your roommate, you're definitely moving in the right direction.