personal finance

‘My Roommates Never Pay Rent on Time. What Do I Do?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

I am having a conundrum about rent and bills for my apartment. I currently front the entire rent and other bills for myself and my roommates every month and have been doing so for nearly a year now. I am a graduate student, so I’m not working and I don’t have any savings or rainy-day funds, so it’s not like this is a minor inconvenience. It’s really hard, not to mention frustrating, to have to pay everything myself and then chase my roommates to make sure that they pay me back, which literally takes ages. Recently, it took four months to get reimbursed for utilities, and it’s been 20 days since bills were due, and one of my roommates still has not paid me. Rent is never paid to me on time and is usually delayed by two weeks to a month.

To be fair, for a while I just didn’t say anything about it and tried to be really chill and relaxed about the whole thing, so I don’t think my roommates knew how much this was stressing me out. But as I have impending student-loan repayments and am returning to the working world, I truly cannot keep it up. I sent a long (but actually nice) text to my roommates last month to explain that the stress of rent and bills is weighing on me and that financially I can’t front rent any more anyway and requested that they pay me on time moving forward. They both responded really kindly and felt horrible that it was stressing me out, but they still did not pay me on time for July. It’s awkward because they are also my close friends, and I know that one of them has also been struggling to get paid on time by her boss. 

At this point, I am wondering if I can at least ask for interest on the bill payments since they are sitting on my credit card and accruing interest that I end up being responsible for. Is that crazy of me? And I don’t even know what to do about the delayed-rent situation — I know that I am not being charged interest when I pay rent, but I am paying transfer fees and have been for the whole year as well. I don’t want to nag them and remind them again to pay me on time because (a) I feel like it isn’t my responsibility to remind them to pay rent every single month, and (b) it makes me feel icky to ask for money from anyone, especially my friends. I don’t know what to do and would really love some advice! 

To answer your question, yes, you can (and probably should!) ask for interest on bills that your roommates fail to pay on time going forward. But there are two larger issues at play here. One is structural: You need defined rules around finances with your roommates — period. The second is interpersonal: How can you draw a harder line with your roommates in a way that doesn’t make you more uncomfortable than you already are?

Another thing to consider is moving out. (When I asked a financial adviser about your situation, this was her emphatic advice.) I recognize that this might sound unrealistic. Moving is expensive and annoying plus you might like where you live, etc. But given how untenable your current situation is, and how long it’s been going on (almost a year!), it seems pretty clear that your roommates don’t deserve the privilege of living with you anymore. As you mentioned, it’s not your responsibility to make sure they pay rent on time nor is it your job to cover for them when they don’t. So as soon as possible, look into other options for housing. (The alternative is asking them to move out, which they probably should if they can’t afford the rent, but that may be more logistically complicated.)

In the meantime, you still need to address the challenge at hand. One action you can take immediately is requesting that everyone participate in a roommate agreement, says Traci Williams, a psychologist and certified financial therapist based in Atlanta. You can find various templates for roommate agreements online, but the overall gist is consistent: It’s a simple document that outlines your respective financial responsibilities in the household, when payments are due, and what happens when they are late. This is where you should stipulate that interest will be owed on late payments from now on and that transfer fees will be shared. (I don’t suggest trying to charge interest on late payments from the past; the policy should start after you communicate it.)

Of course, whipping out documents in your living room and demanding signatures might feel aggressive and intimidating, especially as you’ve tried to be “chill and relaxed about the whole thing” in the past. And conversely, no one likes to feel ambushed with paperwork, especially in their own home. So you do want to be thoughtful and respectful in how you propose this.

Williams recommends finding a time for everyone to sit down together. “I would start off by asking to have a household meeting,” she says. “And with any conflict, you want to start off with the positive. These are your close friends, so you can talk about what you appreciate about them and about living with them.”

She also advocates for planning out your points ahead of time and keeping them matter-of-fact. “I don’t think it will be helpful to get mired in your emotional experience,” says Williams. “It’s important for your roommates to know the financial effects of their behavior, and I would focus on that.”

For instance, you can explain that when their payments are late, it costs you money in credit-card interest, and give some concrete examples. You could also bring up that your student-loan payments will be due soon, and you no longer have the ability to float the rent like you’ve done in the past. But presumably, money is stressful for your roommates, too, so I’d steer clear of delving into your respective financial anxieties and hardships. No one ever wins a competition of Who Has It Worse? And anyway, it doesn’t change the bottom line of what your bills are and when they must be paid.

It might take a few days for everyone to wrap their heads around the roommate agreement. You could introduce the concept at one meeting and then reconvene the following week to sign and date it. Make sure that everyone has their own copy to keep. (A lawyer would tell you to get it notarized if you can.) Again, keep the conversation positive. As we’ve established, it’s not your job to police your roommates, so it’s important for this to feel like a collective effort. Ideally, this exercise will convey to your roommates that they need to be accountable, and that will be enough to galvanize them to stick to their word. Even if they still have money problems, that shouldn’t be your problem anymore.

I also suggest using an app or other automated tool for splitting bills and rent, like IOU or Splitwise, so that it doesn’t fall to you to keep track of everything and follow up (the apps have alerts built in when payments are overdue). When you build more external structure, it takes the pressure off of you to play the role of enforcer. It also creates a paper trail when someone ignores their bills.

This brings us to the unfortunate possibility that your roommates’ behavior might continue. If so, you’ll have to make some uncomfortable decisions, which could include taking them to small-claims court. Even if you didn’t have your roommate agreement notarized, it will probably hold up, says Williams. She also recommends keeping the text messages you exchanged with your roommates last month as well as any records of other conversations you’ve had with them about rent and late payments. The more you have in writing, the better.

At the very least, I hope you will come away from this conundrum with new tools for handling financial conflicts and standing up for yourself in the future. “I know people in their 30s and 40s who are still dealing with these types of issues,” says Williams. “They never learned conflict management, so they tend to be taken advantage of by other people.”

I learned some roommate lessons the hard way, too. In my mid-20s, I had to stop talking to one friend after we lived together. (She was pretty lackadaisical about paying rent on time too.) Ironically, the person I lived with after that — whom I found on Craigslist — was the best roommate I ever had, probably because we had healthier boundaries. I emerged from both scenarios with a better understanding of how to advocate for myself and have sticky conversations about money early and often. I hope the same happens for you.

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‘My Roommates Never Pay Rent on Time. What Do I Do?’