Eleanor wrote with a question that could test even the mightiest personal finance expert. “What,” she asks, “can you do when you want to save money and your roommates don't care?”
I share a house with four roommates. This saves me at least $200 a month from what I would be paying if I lived in an apartment. But roommates raise expenses in other, unexpected ways. I have been trying to cut down on monthly bills and am finding it incredibly difficult.
For example, I live with roommates that want digital cable and high-speed internet bundle. I can live without the cable (I don't watch TV) and don't mind having a lower-speed connection. But because three of my five roommates want the more expensive package, that's what we get, and instead of splitting a $60/month bill five ways we're splitting a $100/month bill. I end up paying more money overall. While I can simply not watch cable and argue with them that I won't pay for that fractional cost of the bill, there's no way I can somehow use a lower speed internet connection without some serious technological finagling.
Another way I find it difficult to cut down on monthly bills is electricity usage. I try to turn off lights, appliances, the air conditioner, and my computer when I'm not using them. My roommates would prefer to leave their computers and air conditioner on and are not as vigilant as turning off lights. The electricity bill is higher, but it still gets split five ways. Again, I have no idea how I would go about dividing the bill by individual electricity usage — how would you even start to go about measuring such a thing, when no one remembers who left the kitchen light on?
But perhaps I'm being too nitpicky — as annoying as these extra expenses are, I doubt they make it worth moving to an apartment.
It's been a l-o-n-g time since I lived with roommates — wife and cats notwithstanding — and I've forgotten some of the stuff that occurs. I certainly remember the passive-aggressive games we used to play out of spite, but I think that, in general, I never had a living situation in which splitting money was an issue.
AskMetafilter often has roommate-related questions. Many of them involve money problems, but none that I could find involve this sort of problem. Though it doesn't address Eleanor's specific concerns, UK-based iOWEYOU looks like a great little web tool for tracking roommate accounts:
iOWEYOU is an expenses sharing calculator. It is ideal for people living in a shared house. To use iOWEYOU, you log all the items you buy that you share with your group. This may be bills, food shopping, light bulbs, TV license, etc., etc. iOWEYOU then tells you how much you all owe each other.
What general advice do you have for keeping money matters between roommates peaceful but fair? What specific advice do you have for Eleanor?