- Where is the line?
- Let’s say that you live with a roommate who has a new girlfriend. At first, the girlfriend spends the night just a couple of times a month. You see her in the mornings, but it’s hardly a bother. After a while, she starts hanging around nearly every night, eating on the couch, watching TV, and taking showers in the morning. It’s almost like you have a new roommate! She’s not paying for your bills or rent, and she says she has her own place too. You don’t want to make her pay for everything twice. But is it fair that she uses your air conditioning, your kitchen, and your living room without contributing a dime?
Most of us don’t really want to pry into our roommate’s private lives, so we usually don’t discuss how often romantic guests stay over when we split the bills. On the flip-side, long-term boyfriends and girlfriends may use nearly as many resources and spend as much time in common areas as a full roommate. In order to respect both privacy and fairness, there needs to be some dividing line between when a romantic guest is none-of-your-business and some kind of partial roommate. But where is the line? To find out, I asked over 100 users of my bill-sharing site Splitwise.com what they thought, and analyzed the results.
When to start charging a romantic guest
A strong majority of my survey respondents think it’s none of their business if a significant other is staying over a few (2-3) nights a week. The majority also thinks that if they are staying nearly every night of the week (more than 5), they should be chipping in something. The tipping point is at 5 nights a week, where our survey respondents are roughly split 50/50. Here are the raw results:
If you have a significant other staying more than five nights a week, my judgment would be that you should err on the side of being polite and ask your roommates if you should chip in a little extra. Your roommates don’t get a say if you are dating someone they don’t like, and acknowledging the little inconveniences caused by your partner in a share of the bills will help everything go more smoothly.
How much to contribute
But how much extra should you or your girlfriend or boyfriend contribute? We tested this for two cases: a romantic guest who stays once every other night, and one staying essentially every night. The difference between these cases is quite striking and should give you a good idea of what to do if you are in this situation.
In the case of a romantic partner who essentially lives in the apartment, the simplest thing to do is ask them to contribute to utilities. These are most of what they are using while they are there, and they are not using much electricity, water, or internet back in their home apartment. But since they are presumably paying two sets of bills, most respondents stopped short of asking them to chip in for rent on top of utility bills.
So bottom line: if a roommate’s significant other stays about half the time or less and has their own place, they shouldn’t be expected to systematically contribute to bills or rent (but might want to bring a few host gifts out of politeness). If they have their own place but are staying five times a week or more, there is less consensus on what they should do. The median answer is that they should probably count themselves as a “half-person” (at least) towards bills, but not rent. They should, however, be prepared to count themselves as a full person if the roommates ask, depending on the specifics of the situation. If the roommates don’t ask at all, the significant other should at least try to be very polite and contribute a nice gift.
Some points of clarification: If a girlfriend or boyfriend lives in an apartment full-time (i.e., isn’t renting another place of their own), they should pay a full share of bills and rent. Most people have different expectations for living with couples than for living with roommates who have significant others. Live-in significant others come with their own set of space demands, social baggage, and expectations for how common space is used. (My first project, the SplitTheRent calculator, advises you on how to split rent between couples living with roommates.)
There is also an important trust/honesty issue here. Good roommates need to be up front with each other if a girlfriend or boyfriend starts living in full-time, and concealing this or simply not saying this is an abuse of the roommate relationship.
Lastly, this discussion ignores any non-bill items, like shared groceries, that the partner might consume. Of course, either the roommate or their partner should make sure that they are paying two shares instead of one on any item like groceries.
We analyzed 104 respondents who clicked on a survey link from within the interface of Splitwise.com. Ninety percent of my respondents were between ages 18-30, and 71% came from the US, 14% from Australia, and 15% from other countries. The average personal rent (not total apartment rent) was $588/month. Fifty-seven percent of respondents split their rent equally per person, while 43% did not. The data was collected over about six weeks spanning some of June, July, and August. The original survey can be viewed here.