5 Ways to Co-Manage Living Expenses in College

One of the biggest advantages about living with roommates (besides having a live-in squad) is having other people there to help you split the costs of college living. Splitting costs means potentially getting to splurge every now and then on things that you might not be able to if you lived alone. However, while everyone in your room might be totally okay with using excessive amounts of electricity to watch a Friends marathon, there might be slightly less interest when it comes time to pay the bill.

Sharing expenses in college can be a sensitive topic, but it’s definitely an important one. When it comes to money, everyone has a different perspective. Some people are spenders and some are savers, and having to manage money jointly can be very frustrating. We have five ways to co-manage your money that will leave you (and your roommates) happy and stress-free!

1. Initiate the conversation                                                                                                              

For a lot of collegiettes, money can be tight between paying rent, buying groceries and the millions of other things that money goes toward in college. For that reason, having a conversation about money can sometimes be a bit awkward. No one wants to be that roommate who brings up the college version of “the talk,” but expenses are something that should be discussed as soon as possible to avoid future arguments and uncomfortable situations.

Hitha Herzog, chief research officer at H Squared Research and author of Black Market Billions, recommends protecting yourself when it comes to shared expenses and not being afraid to talk to your roommates about money. “If people are acting weird about paying for stuff,” Herzog says, “let them know there are two options: they can figure out a payment plan that works for them, or they can move out. Don't put yourself in a potentially bad financial situation, like paying for someone else’s stuff, because they don't want to talk about it.”

Be upfront about expenses, but also be understanding. Everyone's financial abilities are different and in order to be able to co-exist without money-related passive aggressive texts, this is a talk that needs to happen as soon as possible.

2. Discuss a plan—and stick to it!

This is definitely not the type of plan you want to discuss in a group message. The best time to talk about shared expenses is in person, when there are few distractions. Make sure that everyone understands the payment system and is clear on what they have to pay and when they have to pay it.

In your plan, it is also a good idea to clarify how exactly you will be splitting the rent and other expenses. An example of how to do this is visually splitting costs using a Google Doc spreadsheet. If you put in an algorithm that automatically splits each expense and categorizes who paid for it, then at the end of the month it is quick and easy for everyone to see what they owe.

“Be direct, write down all the expenses and figure out who is paying what,” says Herzog.

Making sure that all your roommates have easy access to your payment system, like in a Google Doc, is a sure-fire way to keep everyone on track.

Related: How to Live With Any Roommate

3. Split common items evenly

Some roommates may choose to evenly split the cost of groceries while others opt to go through the checkout line separately. For this reason, it is sometimes tricky to determine whether or not food will fall under common items. It is a good idea to determine whether you will share your grocery expenses with roommates when coming up with your plan.

Giana Grimaldi, a senior at Boston University, created a compromise with her roommates for splitting their grocery costs. “We all buy our own groceries mostly because we are all on our own budgets and all eat differently. Right when we moved in, we each sort of claimed a cabinet or shelf for ourselves in the kitchen where we could put our own items. Then, we left all of the other cabinets and drawers for things that could be shared by everyone, including food,” says Giana.

It is easy to take shared items for granted if you are never the one who has to buy them. If you notice that you're out of an item that you and your roommates usually share, step up and chip in. Your effort will be greatly appreciated. 

4. Hold each other accountable

We all know how annoying it is to live with roommates who refuse to take out the trash or do the dishes, but sometimes it’s nothing that a quick note or text can’t fix. However, when it comes to money, lack of accountability becomes a bit more of an issue. Now, we aren’t saying that you should bang on your roommates’ doors at five in the morning to harass them about the money they owe, but you shouldn’t be passive about the situation either.

A great, efficient way to keep roommates on track as far as payments go is to utilize a money app. Herzog suggests using an app called Square.

“One way to make sure everyone is paying on time is to use a payment system like Square, where you can run people's credit cards and that money gets deposited into your account. The second is to make sure you set a date five days prior to when bills are due. This ensures if someone is having cash flow issues you have a time buffer so you don't get charged late fees,” says Herzog.

“If you need to, ask them. I don't run into this with my SO because we have open lines of communication and consider all money coming in or out for either of us 'shared finances,' but in college with roommates we did run into this,” says Alaina Leary, a first-year graduate student at Emerson College. “I'd just bring it up in casual conversation, ask them about the money and when they could get it to me by, without making it seem like a threat.”

The way that you hold your roommates accountable might differ whether they are friends, strangers or a significant other, but it is important to figure out how you will address the situation. However, it is also important that whoever you are living with doesn’t feel attacked when the conversation comes up, so make sure to adjust the way you bring up the topic if need be.

5. Make division of expenses fair

They say that you get what you pay for, but we also believe that you should pay for what you get. This means that if you got stuck with the smallest room, when it comes time to pay the rent you shouldn’t automatically be stuck with an equal portion of the bill. Typically, it is considered fair to divide the rent by room size. “I always felt if you are the lucky person who has a larger room or more space, you should pay more. If you want to get really wonky, you can figure out how much people are paying per square foot and charge accordingly,” says Herzog.

Also, if someone is guilty of always leaving the lights or air conditioning on when no one is home, make sure you take that into account as well. You shouldn’t always have to deal with unnecessary spikes in your utility bills because of a forgetful roommate. In order to avoid anyone paying more than they have to, Herzog suggests creating a rule for your roommates. “Make a rule that the last person leaving must shut off the air conditioner or heat again to mitigate extra costs,” she says. Keeping things fair will allow you to avoid unnecessary arguments, because the question of who is going to take out the trash already creates enough of those. 

6. Be flexible

As with anything in life, and college especially, it is helpful to be as flexible as possible. Roommates come and go, but the rent will always need to be paid. So don’t stress out if your best friend tells you that she is studying abroad or you split with your SO and need a new roommate. Just revamp your expenses plan and go with it. If you get involved with subleases, make sure that you and your roommates are clear on how you will be handling the money gained from them.  

“My friends at another local college sublet their apartment to several girls and they split the money they got from these girls among the four of them,” says Alaina. Splitting the money that you get from subleases among you and your roommates is a no-brainer solution. 

Living with roommates isn’t always the easiest thing in the world, but it is definitely cheaper than living alone. You don’t necessarily need to create a full blown roommate contract, but if you make a plan, keep everyone in the loop and hold them accountable, roommates can be fun and economical!