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Friends And Money

The general rule seems to be: Do Not Talk About Money With Friends.

Now, I’m not actually on board with this rule personally – I think it’s fine (even healthy) to talk about money with close friends, so long as all involved approach the conversation with sensitivity – but in many relationships, a No-Fly Zone when it comes to talking about money is often more comfortable. But sometimes – such as when your finances become tied up with those of a friend’s, whether because you live with them or because you work with them – a little money talk is impossible to avoid.

A reader recently sent me an email asking how to deal with a tricky financial situation involving her friend – who is also her roommate – and a miscommunication about who owed what to whom and when:

Q. Jordan,

I’m in a bit of a prickly situation. My summer roommate ended up arriving at our sublet later than we’d anticipated (I arrived on the expected move-in date), and seems to expect me to swallow the first month’s rent save for the few days when she’ll actually be living in the apartment. I was wondering if you have any advice on dealing with this?*

A. Oh man, I hate this kind of thing, and I really feel for you.

I lived with a very close friend for awhile, and it was awful whenever a money issue arose, because tension with a roommate is bad…but tension with your best friend is worse. The worst fight we ever had was over money, actually: her boyfriend was staying with us every night, and I felt that he needed to be contributing to the rent if he was going to be essentially living in our home. In retrospect, the real issue was probably (definitely) less about the money than it was about me: I was jealous that he was taking up all her time, lonely, panicky about pretty much everything in my life, and annoyed that there was a boy sitting in my living room in his underwear. But regardless of who was right, the fact was that I handled it extremely poorly, by basically saying nothing but silently broadcasting my resentment until things got so awkward between us that we had a total blow-up. Not good. So don’t do that.

Here’s the thing: when it comes to any issue involving money, people tend to get so heated so quickly that your ability to keep a level head and be calm and direct will speak volumes about the attitude with which you’re approaching this (and your reasonableness and flexibility will, hopefully, rub off on your friend). If you’re living with her for awhile, it’s vital that you learn how to disagree in a calm way, so think of this as a learning experience.

Do:

– Talk in person (no texting or emailing! Way too easy to misinterpret emotion), and preferably in a neutral environment.

– Remember that this is not a personal issue: anything having to do with money should be handled in a calm, professional manner (just like you’d handle things at work).

– Get things in writing. Yes, you’re friends…but money has a way of making people conveniently “misremember” things. I cannot emphasize this enough: if money is involved in any way, get things in writing. Get things in writing! Got it?

Don’t:

– Make the issue bigger than it is, or bring up past arguments (even if they seem relevant) – keep the focus on the matter at hand.

– Allow the conversation to escalate (no yelling). Pretend you’re at work and dealing with a difficult coworker.

Try something like this: “I want to be honest with you about my situation: I was under the impression that we would be sharing the cost for the first month regardless of when each of us moved in. I understand that there was a miscommunication here, but unfortunately it’s put me in a tough spot, so I’m hoping we can find some way to compromise that’s comfortable for both of us.” Clear, calm, and open to discussion.

You have to assume a little bit of responsibility, since it seems that the terms of the rooming situation weren’t entirely clear, so if she doesn’t want to cut you a check (and she likely won’t, since the month is already over), try presenting a few options that would be acceptable to you (for example, perhaps she could take care of two months’ worth of utilities). The goal is for both of you to leave the conversation feeling that you’ve been treated fairly, with your friendship (and finances) intact.

And if she really resists and won’t find any way to compromise…well, lesson learned. You’re out some money, which is certainly unfortunate, but I’d say put it behind you, try to enjoy the rest of the summer, and maybe rethink living with her in the long-term (or at the very least be sure to lay out crystal-clear terms prior to any move-in dates in the future).

*Email has been abbreviated to remove identifying details. Question printed with reader permission.

  • Amanda

    I had issues with a roommate for the past year. It wasn’t so much a “I don’t want to pay rent” as a “I don’t want to keep my promises”. She really wanted a dog, but as we were both in our last year of college I vetoed for the sake of the dog (we wouldn’t have been able to take good care of it) and we compromised with a cat. When we adopted the cat it was in my name (as he was welcome at my mothers after graduation), but it was agreed that we would split the “pet rent” and other finances.
    Other issues arose personally (both of us were guilty of being stubborn) and she kept threatening to stop paying that “pet rent” even though we’d signed an addendum assigning her half of it.
    In the end I caved and paid it, but I learned through all the drama that living with friends is very dangerous. She and I are no longer friends (nor am I friends with her boyfriend anymore, even though we’d been friends for years, because he only saw her side of every argument which I call booty blindness), and I doubt we ever will be again.

    I hope this reader’s situation is less dramatic and emotionally painful. I would suggest that she see how the lease is written out, she might be able to point out that the lease requires the split if it had been drafted that way. Otherwise, diplomacy and writing down any agreements is the best option.

  • Sasha

    Living with friends (sharing space, mixing standards and habits, and sharing monetary responsibility) is one of those things that can be fabulous, but takes a bit of effort and compromise. I’ve lived with good friends but not best friends which I often think is the easiest. I’ve also lived with best friends, lost a friend through that, become closer through that, and come out the same. Here’s my basic steps for successful living with friends: 
    1. talk before, talk now, talk during, talk always. Think about what matters to you in term of money, cleanliness, neatness, visitors, etc. I am super neat and lived with someone who was not. She kept her mess behind her closed bedroom door and out of our shared space, which worked great. We also had a great friendship and I knew it was ok to move her stuff out of the shared space if it was bothering me. Having had that discussion before living together was essential.

    I also lived with two other girls when we were both quite busy and despite living together did not see each other very often. Though I generally agree with Jordan that talking in person in best, we had a great system of emailing to keep track of things that we all need to be on the same page about from money owed for utilities to visitors to dishes to be done and conversations with our landlord. There was always a record of written record of what was said and what needed to be done. I particularly recommend this when living with 3 people – it avoids many of the left out issues that can develop since 3 is kind of a funky number.

    Finally, have a standard with roommates that allows everyone to share their issues/troubles without other roommates taking things personally. Reminding your roommate to do her dishes or pay her part of utilities should be an easy conversation and does not have to feel awkward or uncomfortable.

    2. Work out money before and sign something. This will not ensure that you stay friends, but it will hopefully ensure that you don’t end up paying way more than expected.

    3. In each situation, figure out what matters most to you. Sometimes you will have to choose between your friendship and winning the argument. It’s the effort and compromise part of living with friends.

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