During my younger years, I lived with ten roommates in total, and thankfully, those days are now behind me. The reason why I say that is because out of those ten roommates, only one of them was responsible and mature. All of the others didn’t like to pay bills on time, didn’t like to pay them period, or were just downright irresponsible.
So, based on all of my experiences and mistakes, I’ve learned quite a bit on how to avoid getting into situations where roommates owe you money, and how to deal with them when they do.
Screen Your Potential Roommate
Think long and hard before looking for a roommate to†move in with you. I would even suggest screening potential tenants with a background check. Just as couples would sit down and have the “money talk,” you too should definitely do this before deciding on a roommate. Having the “the money talk” serves as a way for you to gauge how this person is going to handle paying their half of the monthly bills. Find out their thoughts on money, their spending habits, what kind of savings program they have for themselves, if any.
In addition, without getting too serious about the whole thing, try to get written agreements on how the bills are going to be paid, which bill is going to be in which person’s name, who collects from who, who’s responsible for the actual paying of the bill, and so on. All of this can prevent problems from arising in the future.
Next, I recommend putting some bills in your name, and some in your roommates’ names. This can give you leverage down the road should you ever need it. Finally, keep good records of everything going forward. Write down dates that you gave money to your roommate for a bill, and write down dates when he did (or didn’t) give you money.
Be Organized, Firm, and Responsible
Another way to prevent roommates from falling behind on their portion of the bills is to be organized, firm, and responsible. If you are the one responsible for collecting the money for the monthly bills, buy a calendar to be posted strictly for bills. Hang it on the refrigerator or other common area, and clearly write out all monthly bills and their due dates.
Next, be firm about bill-paying commitments. Give verbal reminders a few days before the bills are due, and make sure you are on point with your share of the bills. Never fall behind with your commitments or your roommates are liable to think that that is acceptable behavior.
What to Do When They Fall behind
So if you’ve done all of that and your roommates still are not timely in paying their portion of the bills, here are a few pieces of advice:
- Don’t Be Shy. It has been my experience that roommates prey on the fact that sometimes money is a touchy subject. Get over these barriers and address the issue head on.
- Don’t Apologize. Your roommate will sense weakness in you if you begin a discussion about money in an apologetic manner. Stand your ground at all times.
- Be Up Front. Don’t beat around the bush when it comes to money and bills. I’d assume you’re both adults, so tell your roommate that and speak to him in a mature fashion.
- Don’t Get Mad. At least in the beginning, getting upset never helps. Don’t raise your voice and remain as calm as you can. Stick to the point of paying bills on time.
- Don’t Avoid the Issue. It’s true that talking about money is sometimes uncomfortable. You’ve got to get past this obstacle, however, and address the important issues that need to be addressed.
Into the End, Propose Legal Action
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to force roommates to pay you back for bills if they really don’t want or intend to. You can threaten to withhold your share of the bills that are in your roommates’ name, but that could easily worsen the situation.
At times, what has worked best for me is to threaten legal action. In fact, it has made some of my former roommates come around and pony up. In a straightforward fashion, explain to that person that you cannot afford to pay their share of the bills, that you have an agreement in place to split the bills, and by that person not paying their part, they are in violation of that agreement. Also mention that you have spoken to an attorney about the option of going to small claims court. However, keep in mind that unless your roommate owes you a large sum of money, the cost of actually going to small claims court is probably not in your best interest.
The topic of dealing with a roommate that owes you money is a difficult one. Use these tips to avoid the situation completely, if possible. Otherwise, be firm in handling the situation without destroying relationships with your roommates.
Do you have any roommate “horror stories” involving unpaid bills? What was the experience like and how did it eventually end?
David Bakke is a member of the Money Crashers blogging team, sharing personal finance tips and guidance on issues like getting out of debt, making a budget, and finding cheap apartments for rent.