my two cents

I Think My Broke Roommate Is Taking Advantage of Me

Email your money conundrums, from the technical to the psychological, to mytwocents@nymag.com

Dear Charlotte,

I’m 25 and live in New York with a roommate, one of my best friends from high school. We moved in together last February, and at first things were great. I work in finance and she was an admin assistant at the time, so there was a pretty big gap between our incomes, but she took the smaller bedroom and pays significantly less rent than I do, and it seemed fair. Then, three months ago, she got “laid off” (I later found out from another mutual friend that she was actually fired for lying about something, but I don’t know the details), and has basically been sitting around our apartment ever since. I think she’s looking for work, but I’m not sure — she’s pretty much shut me out. I think her parents are covering her share of the rent, and I know they don’t have that much money either.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to help in whatever ways I can. I just got a promotion, so I offered to pay a larger share of our rent to give her a break, and she accepted. But now it feels like she’s just taking advantage of me. She borrows my stuff without asking and doesn’t return it, eats food I bought, and never contributes to shared expenses like cleaning supplies — petty roommate stuff, I know, but it adds up. Even worse, I’ve noticed small bits of money missing lately. Nothing major, just a couple of $20 bills from my wallet, and change I’ve left on my dresser. I’m not sure if she’s to blame, and I feel awful for suspecting her, but I don’t know what to do. Technically, I can afford to help her out — should I be doing more, or am I already doing too much? Do I confront her? I’m worried about her, but also losing patience and feeling disrespected.

Right after college, a weird schism crept through my friend group. What used to be a level playing field — meals in the dining hall that we all loved to hate, $5 pitchers at the crappy bars next to campus — morphed into a foreign landscape governed by a mysterious, shadowy force: money. Or more specifically, who had it and who didn’t. Suddenly, some of my friends had signing bonuses, shiny Manhattan apartments, and closets full of Theory suits, while others lived on lentils, internship stipends, and someone else’s smelly couch. We played down these disparities, and even glossed them over by acting richer or poorer than we really were, just to make each other — and ourselves — more comfortable (I think most adults, including myself, do some degree of this socioeconomic posturing every day). But there was no mistaking money’s new, spectral presence in our relationships, nor how confusing it was.

This unsettling shift is at the root of what’s happening with you and your roommate. I’d bet a lot of your friends are shuffling through similar dances with people in their lives, too. Of course, a different income bracket is never an acceptable reason for a friendship to sour, but its byproducts — resentment, guilt, shame, stomach-churning envy because you just watched someone drop $300 on a nice dress and goddammit, you wish you could do that — are perfect ingredients for “growing apart” and “not having that much in common anymore.” Consider this conflict to be a training ground for the many times you’ll encounter this breed of tension throughout the rest of your life, because it won’t be the last time that you suspect someone resents you for having more than they do (or vice versa). The feelings around money tensions are tough to navigate, especially when their source is sitting on your living room couch every day, but there are graceful ways to let it roll off your back and prevent it from getting to you in the future.

First, the obvious: Remember that this situation is temporary. Assuming you signed a one-year lease, you will most likely no longer be living together in six months, tops. That may seem like a long time to put up with someone thieving your snacks and constantly using up the toilet paper, but it’s doable. And have you considered the possibility that she may want to move out right now, either back home or to someplace more affordable, but is too ashamed to tell you? Don’t suggest this outright, says Preston Cherry, a Texas-based financial planner, but open the floor to discussion. “Avoid being ‘the offerer,’ because it gives your friend permission to avoid talking about the real issues at hand,” he explains. “Extending you own ideas for solutions might seem like the right thing to do, but it can make things worse if you bypass a dialogue about what exactly your friend needs.”

Instead, put out more general feelers. Friend to friend, ask how she’s holding up. Keep your tone neutral, and don’t offer feedback unless she asks. “Make it clear that this is a safe zone with no judgment,” says Cherry. “Just listening may take down the shame wall and make your roommate feel more comfortable talking about her financial stress.” It also might take some coaxing to get her to open up, so keep chipping away.

Your goal, in addition to shooing the awkward vibes out of your apartment, is to hammer out boundaries for her expectations of you and vice versa. Up until now, it seems like you’ve readily provided things she never explicitly asked for (a break in rent, free cleaning supplies); her assumption that you won’t mind if she doesn’t ask for other things too, like unlimited access to your wardrobe, isn’t a huge leap of logic. It’s time to clarify this give-and-take. From here on out, make a point to ask about what she needs, specifically — whether it’s a dress for a job interview, or to move back in with her parents for a little while — so that she has more agency in seeking your support. You should also think about the conditions you want to set in these exchanges. Do you want a heads-up before she borrows something? If she does move out, how much lead time do you need? Negotiating these terms may seem transactional and cold, but it’s a gesture of mutual respect.

As for the potential theft: You might drop hints, but pointing fingers probably won’t get you very far. “Instead, you could say something like, ‘Hey, I thought I left $20 on the dresser. You haven’t happened to see it, have you?’” suggests Amanda Clayman, and L.A.-based financial therapist. “That’s a subtle way of letting her know that you’ve got eyes on the situation.” And don’t expect back payment for any of the stuff she’s used or borrowed — it’s not worth it. “Accept that it’s a sunk cost, and learn to have more definitive boundaries in the future,” says Cherry. (You could also install a lock on your bedroom door. It’s not the subtlest move, but she’ll get the message.)

Finally, just because you can afford to help her financially doesn’t mean that you should, or that it’s the kind of support she really needs. I’m also curious about why it’s your first instinct to do so, especially as it doesn’t fix her larger problem (finding a job so that she can support herself). Do you feel guilty about how you’ve gotten to where you are? If so, why? “When you’re rising in your career, making more money, and shaping new parts of your identity, there can be some anxiety about losing touch with where you came from, and feelings of loss around it,” says Clayman. “It’s almost a form of imposter syndrome.” Herein lies the crux of your issue: You are complicit in ignoring your boundaries, because you don’t want money to interfere with your friendships. In fact, you may not even know what your boundaries are. But they clearly exist, and while money shouldn’t define them, you can’t ignore its role.

I Think My Broke Roommate Is Taking Advantage of Me