What if you’re frugal but your roommates aren’t?

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?

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groceriescart
groceriescart
13 years ago

I’m pretty frugal, but it seems like you’re being a bit nitpicky. When you live with other people you simply have to compromise when it comes to certain things, suck it up.

GeekMan
GeekMan
13 years ago

Living with roommates who are not as frugal as yourself will still save you money over living alone as long as your combined common bill payment (rent, electricity, cable, phone, etc.) is lower than what you would pay on your own. Eleanore mentioned that she was saving about $200 a month on rent alone, and even in her example of the cable bill she is only paying $20/month as opposed to about $60 if she were on her own. Basically, she seems to be saving money on every expense over living alone so as far as I can tell, Eleanore… Read more »

brad
brad
13 years ago

I think the solution is to pro-rate according to use, but it’s hard to come to an agreement that will feel fair to everyone. You can estimate that you use 20 or 30 percent electricity than your roommates do, but they may have a different view. But really, if you’re using less electricity then you should be able to bargain for paying a lower share of the costs, and that might make them more energy-conscious in the bargain. I have a similiar situation with a family member (my girlfriend’s teenage daughter) who uses more electricity than my girlfriend and myself… Read more »

HC
HC
13 years ago

I’ve been on the other side: My bad roommate #2 argued that she shouldn’t have to chip in for A/C because she wouldn’t use it if she were living on her own. That’s all well and good, but she was getting the advantage of having it while she was there, and it was reasonable that she would help pay for it. (Issues like this are why she ended up leaving and trying to scam in a sublessor instead.) It’s the same thing with Eleanor. She’s getting the advantage of the cable and the internet (and with five people, I would… Read more »

Kraft
Kraft
13 years ago

From someone currently living with roommates, I think you just have to suck it up while you’re with these roommates. There is simply no way to divide up electricity usage that is reasonable. Figure out the amount of energy used by the AC, divide the home into individual zones of control (i.e. bedrooms), add the cost of ACing a particular bedroom with the equal split cost of ACing the rest of the space? That’s only the AC which would be a nightmare. What’s next? Are we going to try to divide the solid waste bill by determining the percentage of… Read more »

Jordan (MamaBlogga)
Jordan (MamaBlogga)
13 years ago

One note about your energy saving: our furnace guy (not employed by our gas company) told us that it would actually be more energy efficient NOT to turn off the furnace (or the A/C) while at work/not using it, because it has to work that much longer and harder to “catch up” and get the ambient temperature into the acceptable range, whereas leaving it running requires only periodic, short adjustments. I don’t know, you can take his word for what it’s worth. Eleanor could apply to be the “thermostat monitor”–the only one allowed to adjust the thermostat in any way… Read more »

Rebecca
Rebecca
13 years ago

Eleanor, get a grip! You are paying about a third in cable cost compared to what you would pay on your own for basic cable. Your electricity even with high usage, in one home/apartment split between 5 is way less than what you would spend for frugal usage in your own apartment. By the way, by completely turning off the AC when you leave, you are actually using more electricity when it turns back on and has to recool the entire house. A much more energy efficient strategy is to turn the temperature up a bit before you leave rather… Read more »

Bill
Bill
13 years ago

It’s much easier to shell out a little money than it is to repair relationships from too much bickering and nit picking. My advice is to enjoy the luxuries you’re paying for and continue to encourage your roommates gently to save costs. A prime moment is when someone is bitching about being broke.

Amanda
Amanda
13 years ago

Agreed that sometimes you just have to suck it up. And this kind of arguing never leads anywhere good. My housemate argues that he shouldn’t have to do the dishes, because when *he* cooks, he makes fewer dishes. It’s the same kind of thinking. However, if your roommates’ habits are starting to push you out of being able to afford living where you are, then it starts to be a real problem. (I knew someone who ran into this.) See if you can replace lightbulbs with compact florescents to save electricity costs. Additionally, if anyone looks at replacing a window… Read more »

Rob
Rob
13 years ago

I realize that every bit helps, but in regards to your cable bill, you’re talking about a difference of eight dollars per month. Eight. Is fighting over eight dollars worth the loss of harmony among roommates? In my experience, the stress created by bad living situations is worth quite a bit more than that. I agree with the other commentators as well–the money saved in rent more than covers this. I have found that roommate living does encourage movement towards the least common denominator in frugality, cleanliness, sloth, and so on (not sure why that is). For me, that meant… Read more »

Bloggrrl
Bloggrrl
13 years ago

Eleanor sounds like a nightmare roommate. Whoa. Why put a few dollars over relationships ? That is way out of whack. And, as others have mentioned, she is getting the benefit of saving money overall anyway.

Balance is good. I hope she finds it, or she is going to have a lot of cats someday.

James
James
13 years ago

1. Jordan (from #6): Your furnace guy is wrong. It has been proven. I don’t feel like digging up the links right now. An OK compromise if you don’t like it being really cold or really hot when you get home would be a programmable thermostat, set it to keep things at 10-15 degrees closer to ambient (warmer in summer, cooler in winter) than you typically like it, but make it kick back to a normal setting ~ half an hour before you get home, then it should be at or close to the right temperature when you walk in… Read more »

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
13 years ago

I think we have differences in our home. I have two roommates. I’m by far and away the frugal one. Another is middle of the road, and the third struggles paycheck to paycheck. However, I think that’s mainly a function of our differing incomes (mostly). The struggling roommate I talked to last night. He had applied for a job and but didn’t think it would have enough money. After figuring out his net after taxes, I walked him through the budgeting process I learned (Essentials, then Wants). After paying for his essentials (Rent/Utils, Car Payment, Food) and his savings (he… Read more »

dong
dong
13 years ago

I with the other on sucking it up. When you live roommates as long as you agree to system in the beginning then that’s how goes. In this case the majority has spoken, and eleanor’s side lost.

I also think this issue splits along gender lines. Most guys haven’t had these financial nitpicking fights while women I know on the other hand have. Guys fight about other stuff like getting the good space on the couch. Everyone fights about cleaning.

Creature
Creature
13 years ago

I wouldn’t sweat it. The difference in cable packages costs Eleanor only $12 a month. As others have said, this is just one of the compromises you make when you live with other people. You may have some success encouraging your housemates to do things from an environmental perspective as well as a fiscal one (turning out lights, turning taps off when doing one’s teeth, etc) but don’t go to extremes here. If you can divide stuff by usage (eg. itemised telephone bills) then do so, but you’re entering a world of pain if you try and do so with… Read more »

Joe
Joe
13 years ago

Elanor, you have my sympathies, even if you don’t have the sympathies of some of the commenters above. It’s just impossibly frustrating for me to walk home from my office in the 95-degree heat (because I wanted to save money on gas) only to find out that one of my housemates has had the air conditioner set at 72 degrees all afternoon. As I see it, my housemates get the benefits of my sacrifices (turning off lights, televisions, and radios, turning down the A/C and heat when I’m the only one home, etc.) but don’t give anything in return. You’re… Read more »

Paul
Paul
13 years ago

A couple ways you could cut electical costs, provided you have buy-in: You could: – change all your lightbulbs to CFLs. These use significantly less power compared to incandescent bulbs. – put motion sensors on all your light switches so the lights go out automatically after some amount of time with no one in the room. (though, this is rather expensive in and of itself). – replace all A/C units (assuming it’s not central A/C) with ceiling fans (also expensive, but in the long run, much cheaper and more environmentally friendly) You could also say you’re only going to pay… Read more »

spacenookie
spacenookie
13 years ago

Yeah, living with roommates is the acme of frugality. After a few bad experiences it seems worth it to shell out the extra 500-1000$ per month just to be free from roommates. My advice is to spend 100-200$ a month and do extra chores in exchange for good relations with your roomies, buy them sodas and have in a maid if you have to. If it stretches out the time you can stand having roomies by a couple of years it will be worth thousand$.

Wesley
Wesley
13 years ago

If she’s that nitpicky about managing her own finances, she should be on her own anyway. While that wouldn’t save nearly as much money, a person with this kind of drive should focus on earning more, and managing it wisely on her own.

David
David
13 years ago

I actually wrote about something tangentially related to this yesterday on my blog. There is a site similar to iOWEYOU called BillMonk which my girlfriend and I use to track our bills it appears to be a little bit more flexible/tweakable than iOWEYOU. You can find it at http://www.billmonk.com

My blog entry dealt with tracking bills and shared expenses with roommates in Quicken – you can see it at http://www.davidgiesberg.com

Family Savings
Family Savings
13 years ago

I’m sorry to say this but you just need to move out. Why live with people that don’t agree with your way of living? I know it’s hard to get 4 different roommates to agree but you should at least try to live with people that you can talk to and agree on ways of living.

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

I’ve lived with many roommates in the last 5 years and what I’ve found is that you are fighting a never ending battle. I’ve lived with people that constantly complained about the high electric bill but then left their computers, lights, tv’s on all night long. They wouldn’t turn the lights or tv off when they left the house and when they were there they would have all of the lights on. I could go on and on… I’ve had an odd phenomenon happen to me with my last few roommates, they all had severe problems with spending money coupled… Read more »

Rich Lafferty
Rich Lafferty
13 years ago

You can even ignore the relationships part and treat it purely financially, and still see that you come out ahead. Package 1 includes roommates, rent, fast internet, cable, and higher electricity bills. The cost of package 1 is the sum of rent, fast internet, cable, and electricity bills divided by the number of roommates. Package 2 includes rent, slow internet, no cable, and lower electricity bills, but no roommates. The cost of package 2 is the sum of rent, internet, and electricity bills. Unless those electricity bills are *very* high and the rent very low, then you’d be hard-pressed to… Read more »

Jill
Jill
13 years ago

I sympathize with Eleanor. A few years ago I lived in a house with three other girls, two of which were, shall we say, not very green or aware of electricity usage. They were also Southerners living in a colder climate. They wanted the house to be 78 degrees in the winter and 70 degrees in the summer. This made no sense to me (and still doesn’t five years later). Some days in the winter I would come home to find the thermostat at 80! After many disagreements, I came to the conclusion that I should move. Yes, it cost… Read more »

gusgus
gusgus
13 years ago

Way back, my roommate got cable. I didn’t really want this for myself. I considered it a waste of time or money. But since there is a consensus that the group wanted it, I chipped in. (But also kept the key to access pay-per-order movies & porn. That would have been an argument waiting to happen as to who ordered it. It sounds like from your description, you still came out ahead. Saved $200 for rent, spent an extra $20 on cable & a few extra dollars on utilities. Net sum win for you. There is a cost for being… Read more »

Monica
Monica
13 years ago

I don’t think you can fight it if there’s a consensus among the other roommates. You are already being frugal by living with roommates rather than living alone. The downside is that you have to compromise on some things. I only see three options:
1) live with it,
2) find new roommates who are interested in cutting costs (and agree certain things from the get-go),
3) live alone (obviously more expensive).

Jesse Bilsten
Jesse Bilsten
13 years ago

I think this is just plain complaining. You PICKED to live there with those roommates. Suck it up and pay for what the majority wants. If you don’t want to pay for those things, then find a new house w/ different roommates who think the same as you. I run a house that is pretty frugal about bills, but we’ve had a few nit-pickers which just create nothing but trouble. I now have a specific line in the lease that states every roommate splits every bill evenly because the debate about pro-rating use is just plain ridiculous. You live in… Read more »

Hexar
Hexar
13 years ago

I had a roommate once who was absolutely horrible, for many reasons, but one of the fights we got into was because one time it was freezing in March in Boulder, CO and I wanted to turn up the thermostat to something reasonable (like 68-70 degrees) but he wanted to turn it completely off. I asked if we could compromise, and he said, “We’ll compromise at zero”. What an ass. When I told him that was BS, he told me to go put on a sweater. Did he want me to put gloves on too so I could use my… Read more »

Chess Thinker
Chess Thinker
13 years ago

I think Eleanor has all the info she needs to make a decision or to feel better about the situation! Hopefully, she will write back and tell us that she decided to look at the positive side of the situation… that she will never ever save more living alone than she is living with 4 roommates right now! How great is that?! I lived with 3 roommates at one time – and when one moved out, I had only one. There were times when I felt like things were not fair, a dish was not washed here and there… and… Read more »

Chess Thinker
Chess Thinker
13 years ago

I just wanted to say I got a good laugh (sorry!) out of comment# 28 from Hexar! I can’t imagine putting up with somebody like that… 😉

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

HA!

I agree — Hexar’s comment is hilarious.

Baddriver
Baddriver
13 years ago

When I read this I got scared because I thought it was one of my roommates. I live in a house with six total people though. I guess these issues are very common in shared living situations. In our house we also have some people who want the super duper cable package and others (like me) who don’t even have a tv. We just divide the expenses by the people who use them. Three of the housemates wanted cable. They agreed on a package and they split the cost among themselves. Everyone in the house agreed on high speed internet.… Read more »

Karen
Karen
13 years ago

I sympathise with you. I’ve had roommate problems in both directions. My old roommate (who was a total bitch in general) would turn the heat off if she left the house, but I was still there!! Half an hour later I would be freezing, and go to the thermostat to find the heat off in the dead of winter. But one current roommate leaves his fan on high pointing at his chair all day while he’s gone, and both of them leave the lights on sometimes. Also, sometimes things that don’t affect me at all can still annoy me- like… Read more »

db
db
13 years ago

All I had to say was the last time I had roommates, it turned into a miserable experience because two of them had to turn it into an experience in precision hair-splitting. It was so bad that I came home mid-way through the lease to find that they’d marked off sections (using lipstick!) of the refridgerator for each of the four of us with initials as to who could put what where. That was the day I vowed I’d never have a roommate again after the lease was up unless I was related to them by blood or marriage. And… Read more »

beth
beth
13 years ago

I sympathize with Eleanor. I’ve had roommates and now live alone because I moved away. Overall the specific roommates I had were a good fit for me, but I was SO READY to live alone when I moved. You’ve got a few options: 1. suck it up – it really isn’t that much money and is likely outweighed by the savings 2. look for different roommates whose values align better with yours 3. get your own place Even just lightly pursuing options 2 or 3 may help you get clarity on option 1: maybe you’ll find places are far more… Read more »

Presh Talwalkar
Presh Talwalkar
13 years ago

This is a great topic. I agree with many of the comments that shared living can be tough. Here are a few of my thoughts: 1. Big picture–if you’re able to complain about paying a bit extra for cable, that’s actually a good sign since it means you’re not worried about bigger roommate issues like paying rent on time, cleaning up, and keeping the noise down. No living situation is perfect so first tackle the big issues. 2. Clear communication–before moving in or soon after, it is important to state what normal shared expenses will be. When we found a… Read more »

Moon
Moon
13 years ago

@dong Guys fighting for the best seat on the couch is one of the great struggles of mankind! Back in the day when we still had land-line phones, we had ONE great chair and a bunch of broken down furniture. So, it was important to get and remain in the best chair. Then the phone would ring, and it was ALWAYS for the guy in the best chair. ALWAYS. At that point, you had to judge the veracity of the person who answered the phone. Was he lying to steal the CHAIR or was it an actual call? And nobody… Read more »

andy
andy
13 years ago

It was nearly 20 years ago, but I had nearly the same situation. The biggest battle we had was over utilities. My girlfriend and I lived in the front of the house, the other two roommates in the back. We always set the thermostat to 68 degrees but the others liked to go around in short sleeves during the dead of winter. I got to the point of sabotaging the thermostat and other now-ridiculous-seeming strategies. Older and wiser now, my advice is honest and direct communication and be ready to act on it. Tell them that you are willing to… Read more »

Roomate1
Roomate1
13 years ago

Suck it up Be-Arch. You can always move. It is amazing that she complains about the little stuff, but having your own place you would be footing the entire bill for Internet, phone, electricity, gas even if you didn’t want cable. For starters you are complaining about maybe total extra 20-25 dollars amonth, while on the other hand you are saving 200 per month. And if you had to pay for all the utils yourself you would be in the hole the 200 + at least another 100 it would be costing you. So by my calculations you should just… Read more »

Billy
Billy
13 years ago

You’re worried about an extra $8 a month on the cable/internet bill? ((100-60)/5)

Get real. When you live on your own, you will quickly realize that the amount for the ‘Customer Charge’ alone on your gas, electricity, phone etc bills will be much more than $8 each. Currently you are only paying 20% of those charges as well.

Golbguru
Golbguru
13 years ago

Life needs a little adjustment all the time. I have lived with three other roommates for quite a while (when I was single) and we all had our differences and whims and fancies. There were arguments over bill splitting and stuff, but nothing that could not be solved by a few minutes of peaceful thinking and some calm discussion. You should realize that you guys have an opportunity to forge a lifetime friendships here, don’t blow it away over a few dollars. If the differences are causing too much pain and suffering, then probably it’s time to move on and… Read more »

Edmond
Edmond
13 years ago

You are saving $200/mo for an investment of…. The added cost to living with roommates due to cable is $8. You are paying more money for cable alone but NOT overall living expenses. I suspect the real problem is that they aren’t doing things that you feel are important to do, which is to sacrifice everything you can think of to save money. Look at the big picture. You probably made the right choice financially. Your roommates are helping you save $200 rent, even though you are not happy helping out their rent and the extra $15-$25 in cable and… Read more »

Livingalmostlarge
Livingalmostlarge
13 years ago

live alone. Too much whining, sure it will cost more but it’ll gain you peace of mind. Sounds like you need it since you are somewhat nitpicky.

Amelinda
Amelinda
13 years ago

This is why I live alone. One single woman, no pets, and a sewing habit in a 2 bedroom apartment. By looking around, I found a place hardly more expensive than my boyfriend’s 1 bedroom apartment. I can trade off things like “no tv” to save some money (and am fortunate enough to have almost no debt), and I can decide that it’s worth the extra money to me to keep the thermostat in winter at 73. Having a place of my own is worth it. Not wearing outside-wear jackets and gloves -inside- my apartment is worth it. Having a… Read more »

Erin
Erin
13 years ago

“But perhaps I’m being too nitpicky – as annoying as these extra expenses are, I doubt they make it worth moving to an apartment.” That depends on what “worth it” means to you. I pay much, much more to live alone than I would were I to live with housemates, but to me it’s worth it. Financially, it may not make the best sense, but I am free to make my own decisions when it comes to what I do and do not want to pay for. If you are truly this concerned about not being able to pay for… Read more »

Andrea >> Become a Consultant
Andrea >> Become a Consultant
13 years ago

If utility bill usage is your biggest concern, don’t sweat the small stuff. It sounds like you’re losing, at most, $15 a month. If you were to get new roommmates, you might run into problems that would cause you some much stress that you’d pay 50 cents a day just to end it.

When I was in college, $15 or $50 a month would have driven me crazy. But roommates proved to drive me crazier. So this is advice in retrospect.

radiantmatrix
radiantmatrix
13 years ago

The furnace & A/C running issue is something I hear a lot. I’ve spoken to two experts on the issue, both engineers who have worked for major HVAC companies (Honeywell and Trane). Both said the same thing, and I’ll share it with you here: For a furnace, the more you run it, the more energy you use. Period. Keeping a given constant temperature uses the most energy. I keep my house at 45F during the day (while I’m gone) in the Minnesota winters, and heat to 68F in the evenings before I arrive home. Changing to that from keeping the… Read more »

Neil Kelty
Neil Kelty
13 years ago

I know this is a little OT:

But I love how people state that the AC/heat/electric Company tells them to leave their heat/air on all day. Why in the heck would they tell you to turn it off? They make less money that way.

60 in 3
60 in 3
13 years ago

Either move out and find a better living situation or renegotiate your agreement. For example, don’t accept paying for the cable/internet. You didn’t want it. If they want it, they can pay for it.

If that doesn’t work, start looking for other living arrangements.

Gal

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

Another great way to overcome this problem is to move into an apartment with roommates that has utilities included. I’ve always been the “energy nazi” turning off lights, and other energy using items that didn’t need to be on.

Now that I’ve moved into an apartment with utilities included the “stress” level of constantly maintaining a minimum of energy usage is gone as well as any arguments about utility bills.

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