In 2020, my husband and I moved to a two-bedroom apartment in a great neighborhood in Brooklyn. Initially, we used the extra bedroom as a home office, since we were both working from home. We are now trying to have a baby, so we plan to convert it into a nursery eventually (we just renewed a two-year lease that will last until mid-2025). But in the meantime, it is often occupied by a friend who treats it like her second home.
Starting about a year ago, our friend (who I really do love, as a person) began visiting and staying with us about once a month, usually for a few days to a week. She lists our address as her business address because she wants her clients to think that she lives in the city (she started her own interior design firm and most of her clients are here). To be fair, she did ask our permission to do this, and always says thank you, but I didn’t realize she would be here quite so much, and my husband in particular is getting tired of it.
While it doesn’t really cost us money to host her, it does take time and energy to get ready for her arrival, wash her sheets after she leaves, and coordinate things with her. My husband and I mostly work at our respective offices now (outside of the house), but it’s nice to work from home occasionally, and it’s hard to do that when she’s visiting.
My husband recently suggested asking her to pay a portion of our rent — like 10 percent a month (about $650). This would also help us out a lot; I recently started fertility treatments and money feels tight. It would also make me feel less like she’s wearing out her welcome.
We haven’t mentioned the idea of rent to her yet, and I’m worried it would hurt her feelings. I do enjoy spending time with her, and it’s not like we’d rent the room to someone else if she wasn’t using it. But I’m not sure what’s fair, or how to bring this up. What do we do?
To start with the obvious: Yes! It’s absolutely fair to ask your friend to pay rent. As for the amount, that’s less clear. Ten percent of your monthly housing costs seems reasonable — generous, even, considering she spends more than that much of the month there, by your description. It’s also a steal compared to what she would pay for comparable time at an Airbnb or hotel room in Brooklyn, which typically costs more than $200 a night. But $650 is nothing to sniff at, so this will be a delicate conversation.
While you’re at it, you may also want to clarify the maximum number of days she can visit per month. If you want to be mathematical about it, you could stick with the 10 percent rule and say three. Or cap it at a week, maximum. Either way, you don’t want her to feel entitled to stay more than she already does once she becomes a paying guest.
So how do you bring this up in a way that doesn’t hurt your friendship? I think it’s worth considering your situation through the lens of what’s known as the “favor economy”: Usually, acts of generosity between friends and acquaintances carry an implied — if vague — expectation of reciprocity at some point in the future. It isn’t tit for tat; no one expects (or wants) their friendships to be strictly transactional. Rather, it’s a swishy intermingling of kind gestures that should feel warm and nice and somewhat equally weighted between both parties, most of the time.
Doing favors — and accepting them in return — is a vital part of our social fabric. In the early 20th century, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss studied historical patterns of gift exchanges and concluded that the obligation to receive and reciprocate is an essential building block of social systems and alliances. (His book on the topic, The Gift, is considered a watershed anthropological text.)
More recent research shows that asking for favors can deepen social bonds, too. According to a study published in Psychological Science last year, people tend to underestimate others’ willingness to help them out. Conversely, they overestimate how much a favor might inconvenience the favor-giver. The takeaway is that we should all feel better about asking for help because most people are happier to give it than we anticipate.
Obviously, your friend has bucked these trends by taking advantage of your generosity, or so it seems. But you could also consider this situation from another angle: She might be more willing to pay rent than you think she is. Chances are, she’s aware that she is running a favor deficit and would welcome the chance to make it up to you. (It’s too bad she hasn’t explicitly offered, but maybe she’s worried about the awkwardness of this conversation, just like you are.)
One way to diffuse that awkwardness is to deploy the tried-and-true “donut” method with the tough message encased by two soft, positive ones (also known as “the shit sandwich”). Start with a positive (“We love having you here, and I’m so glad we get to see each other so often”), then deliver the harder news (“Since you come so regularly, we thought it would make sense to formalize things a little bit and have you contribute some monthly housing costs”), followed by another affirmation (“I really look forward to your visits, and I hope you can keep coming for as long as we have the space”).
I also think it might be worth saying that your fertility treatments are expensive and money feels tight right now. (On that note, I’m so sorry that you’re struggling to conceive — that’s stressful, and I hope that your friend can be a source of emotional support, too.) Her paying rent isn’t a favor, exactly — she’s basically a part-time roommate who’s crashed for free all these months — but if she can see that it would help you out, it might feel better to her than if it’s portrayed as a debt that she owes you.
From there, depending on how she responds, you can hammer out the details. Ideally, she’ll be glad you brought it up and happy to pay the 10 percent that you propose. If she balks, though, you’ll have a harder situation on your hands. The conversation might not have an immediate resolution; she might need to look at her finances and consider what she can afford. Either way, having to think about what 10 percent of your rent looks like might nudge her to respect your space and value your hospitality more seriously.
It’s also possible that she can’t afford to pay at all. If that’s the case, it’s worth considering other ways she could pitch in. Are there household chores she could help with, like preparing and tidying the room where she stays and laundering the sheets she uses? You mentioned she’s an interior designer — perhaps she could offer trade discounts on furniture or other things you might need or want? Otherwise, you may have to establish some boundaries, like asking her to make alternate arrangements or to come less often.
Ultimately, you’ll have to decide what sits right with you (and your husband). If you, like me, have some people-pleasing instincts that occasionally put you in a position of doing something nice for someone but feeling grumpy or resentful about it, then it’s especially important to notice those moments. I’ve found that good litmus test questions include: Does it feel good to do this nice thing for this person? Would this person go similarly out of their way for me? Would this person be gracious if I said no? (If yes, go forth; if no, reconsider.) Also: How much time and effort will this favor take, and will I enjoy doing it?
The good news is that, when a baby does eventually enter the picture, this conflict will end. But I hope you’re able to resolve it proactively before that, and that your favor equilibrium feels more balanced going forward.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to email@example.com.