my two cents

‘My Boyfriend’s Roommate Is Asking Me for Rent Money’

Photo: Lambert

Dear Charlotte,

My boyfriend and I live in different boroughs in New York City, and when the lockdown started, I basically moved in with him. Traveling between our apartments seemed too risky, especially since he has a condition that could make him more vulnerable if he got sick. I have two roommates and he only has one, plus his apartment is bigger, so it made more sense for us to be at his place. We’ve both been lucky enough to keep our jobs, working remotely for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, neither of us thought this would go on for so long. And now that I’m practically living with them, my boyfriend’s roommate has asked that I pitch in for rent. The roommate’s argument is that he should be paying a lower share because he’s getting less common space in the apartment (less room in the kitchen, bathroom, etc.), and I should be paying the difference. He wants me to share costs for utilities, too. He and I generally get along well, so I was surprised, but I also understand. 

At the same time, I can’t really afford to pitch in while I’m also still paying rent at my old place. I like my apartment and the lease isn’t up until next April, so I’m pretty locked in there. Meanwhile, I feel like I need to be saving as much as possible. My take-home paycheck is about $2,600 a month, and I pay $1,200 in rent already. I’ve put my student loan payments on hold since the CARES Act made that possible, and by doing that and cutting back on expenses, I’ve been able to save up about $2,000 since all of this started. But that’s still not enough to feel prepared for, say, losing my job. 

My boyfriend and I are both 25 and not ready to officially move in together yet (plus, our respective leases would make that difficult). Still, our relationship is going really well, and he has been a huge part of my support system during all of this, so it would suck to be apart. He’s not really choosing sides in the rent situation because his roommates is a close friend. It’s all been pretty civil, but I need to figure out what I’m going to do. What’s reasonable? And what can I technically afford? I feel like things are already tight, but I also want things to be fair. 


I’m going to answer your question, but first, a slight tangent. Last night, the air conditioning in our apartment broke. This is a relatively minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, but no one is available to come fix it for several days, and it’s currently 92 degrees outside and inside. I spent a sweaty, desperate hour this morning researching nearby hotels, but it turns out that places to stay in Brooklyn are still shockingly expensive, even on a weekday in July during a pandemic. And because of COVID-19, the alternatives stop there. There are no good options.

Whining about all of this made me think a lot about your conundrum because, even though I’m facing much lower stakes (I can deal with being hot and grumpy in my sweatbox for a few days), we’re both faced with a question of how much it’s worth to be comfortable where we live. In my case, that comfort is physical. In yours, it’s about your relationship and the security you’ve built around it.

But it also sounds like your living situation is overdue for a reevaluation. I’m glad it’s worked out so far, but I agree with your boyfriend’s roommate — he didn’t sign up to have you there all the time for months on end, and it’s reasonable to ask you to pitch in if you’re going to stick around. Still, you shouldn’t. And here’s why.

“The bottom line is that saving is paramount right now,” says Manisha Thakor, a financial adviser and founder of MoneyZen. When I asked her what amount you might offer if you really wanted to stay, she wouldn’t even hear of it. “You can’t afford to spend more money. With the economy so uncertain, you need a sizable emergency fund, enough to cover at least three months of expenses in a pinch. And your 20s are the most valuable savings years of your life.”

Like many financial advisers, Thakor is a firm believer in the 50-30-20 rule: 50 percent of your income goes to “needs” like rent, health care, any necessary transportation, and groceries; 30 percent should go to “wants” like Seamless, Netflix, and other fun stuff, and 20 percent should go to savings. The savings chunk, especially in this precarious climate, is non-negotiable, she says. If you can, pillage the “wants” category to save even more.

This can seem impossibly clinical when you apply it to real-life tradeoffs. Again: There are no good options here. But it helps to do the math and put the numbers in perspective. (Going back to my scenario: The cost of an air-conditioned hotel room is basically the same as our weekly grocery bill. I can’t justify spending that, especially when cold showers are free.) And in your case, you’re correct in that you really can’t afford to take on additional expenses right now. Consider your two anchors: 1) Your $1,200 rent, and 2) the obligatory $520 that must go to savings (20 percent of your take-home pay). That leaves you with about $880 a month — or a little over $200 a week — to cover your groceries, utilities, and other essentials. That’s not much in New York City, and certainly not enough to be pitching in for rent at your boyfriend’s place, and definitely not enough if you need to be putting your emergency fund savings in hyperdrive, which you should.

A note on your 401(k), too: I know it seems ridiculous to prioritize retirement savings during a global health crisis where we’re all just taking things day by day. But the money you put into your 401(k) or IRA right now is worth its weight in gold, literally. “Because of compound interest, your 20s are the most valuable savings years you will ever have, and you will never be able to make up for them again,” says Thakor. “If you start putting an extra $200 toward your living expenses instead of your retirement savings, it may not seem like a lot right now, but in the long-term that will cost you thousands of dollars or more.” (If you want to see for yourself, try plugging different numbers into a compound interest calculator, and see the difference that a few hundred dollars can make over 40 years.) As a rule, aim to put 10 percent of your paycheck into 401(k), and save another 10 percent in cash until your emergency fund is well-stocked.

In the meantime, I’m afraid you’ll need to sit down with your boyfriend and tell him you can’t pitch in. Thakor recommends laying all your cards on the table — her favorite piece of advice is that “truth is the best disinfectant.” You’ll feel awkward; be honest about it! You could say something like, “This topic is difficult for me, and probably for you too. So let’s talk about it before it becomes a bigger sticking point and hurts us.” (For what it’s worth, when I first started discussing finances with my now-husband, I found it helpful to preface each money conversation by telling him that I was nervous, which I was. It sounds simplistic, even sort of embarrassing, but it softened our edges and made both of us less likely to get defensive.)

Then lay out the numbers: Explain that between your take-home pay, your rent, and how much you need to save, you don’t have any wiggle room. You have student loans that you’ll need to start paying again at the end of September. What other options is he willing to consider? Could you limit your time at his apartment to weekends, and discuss safety protocols for traveling there? Would he be willing to spend more time at your place? Alternatively, if he’s more financially secure, would he be up for paying a higher share of the rent to his roommate, instead of transferring the cost to you? What is that amount, anyway? It sounds like your boyfriend and his roommate need to do some negotiating between themselves, too. How often can you be there without his roommate feeling like you’re infringing on their space? What are the boundaries here?

I don’t think that you should try to negotiate with the roommate directly, but for the sake of harmony, you should acknowledge the situation to him. You could say something like, “I understand you’ve asked for me to pitch in, and I really appreciate that you brought it up. It’s a completely valid request, and I’m going to talk with [boyfriend] about it, and we’re going to come up with some ideas and see what feels best for everyone.”

Ultimately, your solution lies somewhere on a spectrum. Worst-case scenario, you and your boyfriend may have to be apart for stretches that are longer than either of you would like. Best-case scenario, your boyfriend might pony up to pay a larger share of the rent so you can stay. Again, none of these options are ideal. But sacrificing any part of your own financial safety net is off the table.

‘My Boyfriend’s Roommate Is Asking Me for Rent Money’