Here’s How To Have Those Awkward Money Convos With Your Housemates

Photographed by Serena Brown.
"My ex-flatmate still owes me $200 from a night out two years ago. I passive-aggressively request it in an app every few weeks," says 27-year-old civil servant Harriet. "Her most recent reaction was, ‘Well, I owe Isobel $6000'."
"I had a housemate who paid their monthly rent to me $3 short, with a message saying they took money off because they bought the ketchup the other day," says Jennifer, a 36-year-old beauty editor. "It worked in reverse too; I once picked her up a cucumber from the shop and they forced 80c into my hand and wouldn’t take no for an answer. They weren’t exactly stingy — they never tried to skip rounds at the pub — but they counted every single penny which was a bit of a mood killer."
"My friend owed me a steadily increasing amount the entire time we lived together, which never bothered me until my financial situation changed and I started to really need it," says Jade, a 26-year-old graphic designer who went freelance last year. "I tried to remind her casually a few times but she always seemed to forget. I ended up asking my parents for a loan instead because I felt too stressed at the thought of confronting her."
Talking about money is awkward. Talking about money is a mood killer. Talking about money is an immediate confrontation and should be put off at all costs. Or so we think. 

If you’ve borrowed money from your housemate and you know you can’t pay it back straight away, make sure you say so and explain why.

"There is a huge social taboo that tells us talking about money is awkward, difficult, shameful and something to be done behind closed doors," says Alex Holder, author of Open Up: Why Talking About Money Will Change Your Life. "But actually, it's really necessary to talk about money on a practical level for there to be no grudges, especially when you're sharing finances with strangers or friends." 
According to the Money & Pensions Service, embarrassment is the most common reason why adults avoid talking about money to friends and family. Fearing an argument is another. According to a Lloyds Bank/The Times study, 30% of adults say they’ve argued with friends about money, with lending it being the main cause. Money may seem like a simple math problem, but it’s actually an extremely emotional subject and we leap into defence and attack modes from the get-go. 
"Remember that a conversation about money doesn’t have to be confrontational," continues Holder. "It might be emotionally difficult for you, but it's completely necessary." Holder assures that the more conversations you have, the easier they get.
So, how do we talk about money in a healthy way?
You might be the kind of person who thinks putting 90p for green beans on a Splitwise account is stingy, or you might’ve come from a previous flatshare where this was the norm and feel adding every item makes sense for an inarguably even split. To avoid underlying resentments, you need to set rules or expectations in advance, says SpareRoom director Matt Hutchinson.
"If you can talk about money before there's any actual money involved, it always makes conversations much simpler," says Hutchinson. "Sit down with your housemates and formulate a system for how you’ll share household items like toilet rolls and cleaning products, whether that be adding everything to an app like Splitwise, taking it in turns when something runs out, or having your own individual items." 
Holder agrees: "By the time there’s a dispute or unpaid bill, tension has already built up, and it's much harder to have a calm conversation. That's when passive-aggressive notes start or breezy-but-not-really-breezy WhatsApp messages get sent."
But realistically, it’s impossible to prepare for every scenario before it’s happened, so calm communication every step of the way is vital. If you’ve borrowed money from your housemate and you know you can’t pay it back straight away, make sure you say so and explain why. If you’ve lent a flatmate money and you know you need it back by a particular date, tell them that! You’ll likely have to remind flatmates about owed money frequently, so settling on a system that works for you is necessary.

Talking about money is tricky, but as with every relationship in life, communication is key.

Hutchinson believes regular in-person house meetings are the answer. "It doesn’t have to be a really formal meeting with a list of agendas, but a casual sit down every month where you check in with each other over a glass of wine, perhaps," he says. Hutchinson thinks this kind of in-person forum is going to be much better received than texting on the group chat. "The group chat is a modern equivalent to a Post-it note on the fridge, even something that’s meant kindly can sound passive-aggressive and devoid of any tone of voice," he continues.
But for many people, bringing up topics they find uncomfortable IRL is daunting, if not downright impossible. It’s likely we’ve all experienced that awkward kitchen chat where you ended up not saying everything you meant to due to the sheer panic of it all. Holder believes there’s nothing wrong with hiding behind a WhatsApp message. 
"Lots of people find having verbal conversations about money really difficult face-to-face, so using technology to your advantage shouldn’t be seen as any worse," she says. "In a message, you can very clearly lay out what money needs to be paid, by what date and the workings behind it."
Sending a message also means neither of you will forget the amounts discussed, as you can easily save it and refer back. You can also remind someone without rehashing the dreaded conversation by bringing the original message to the forefront of the chat again. I like to say ‘Gentle reminder xxxxxxx’ but if this feels a bit too pass-agg for you (even with the excessive kisses), let apps like Splitwise or Beem It do the dirty work for you. This way, the reminder notification comes directly from the app and helps provide emotional neutrality.
Whether opting for an in-person chat or sending a message, choosing your timing wisely is paramount. You need to be aware that bringing the topic up at 11pm on a Monday when your flatmate is tired and stressed might not yield the result you’re hoping for.
IOU reminders aside, different living standards is another huge area of contention. What happens if you’re getting Beem It requests for flowers or fancy bathroom soap, but you just don’t see them as essential household items? Or what if your flatmate assumes you will be splitting a microwave or coffee machine even though you know you’d never use either?
"It’s so important to discuss every item you’re splitting before you’ve bought or requested it, instead of assuming everyone will be fine with it," says Hutchinson. "Everyone has different priorities and allocates money to different aspects of their life. For example, someone might buy cheap household items so they can afford to eat lunch out once a week."
Remember the Friends episode (‘The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant’) where Ross splits a restaurant bill equally, then Phoebe, Joey and Rachel get upset because they specifically had smaller meals? They couldn’t afford the same as Ross, Chandler and Monica, and this scene shows just how easy it is to forget friends can be on very different budgets.
"You’ve got to realise that not everyone can afford to share the same standard of living you expect," says Holder. "Plus not everyone has the same standards as you anyway. Remember, your expectations aren’t just the normal, standard way of living."
One very common way to tackle salary differences in house-shares is by ordering rent by size of room, giving the largest to the higher earner. This happens in most households, but have you ever heard of splitting utility bills differently?
Rising electricity bills are a worry for us all, so is it reasonable to ask to split the electricity bills unevenly if you know someone puts on their electric heater every evening, for example? What if they WFH every day and you don’t? Holder thinks it’s technically reasonable in certain situations, but you need to weigh up whether it’s emotionally worth it. 
"You have to ask yourself if saving say $40 a month is worth having the conversation," says Holder. "It might be, but you also might decide that having equal, shared ownership of the space is more important." If, like me, you’re someone that whips yourself into emotional turmoil by overthinking awkward conversations, then it may just be better to grin and bear it.
The boyfriend-girlfriend stay-over is one scenario where utility bill changes are more commonly up for discussion. We’ve almost all experienced a flatmate’s partner’s stay extending from days to weeks, and sometimes even months, when they’re trying to find a new place. Asking them to chip into bills (if they haven’t already offered) is definitely acceptable for these full-time stays, but what if they live in the same city but always seem to be at your place? 
"One way to solve this is ‘the boyfriend/girlfriend rule’ where your flatmate’s partner can stay at your place as many nights as they stay at theirs, which creates some balance," says Hutchinson. "As well as the money for bills like using more water and electricity, the issue is with the extra person in the morning bathroom queue, the fact your flatmate might behave differently and the general change in house dynamic."
Money feels as unreasonably and painfully personal as being told you aren’t doing your fair share of the house cleaning — but it doesn’t need to be that way. Talking about money is tricky, but as with every relationship in life, communication is key. However you decide to tackle your money talks, just make sure you start.
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