Bills, bills, bills.
August 8, 2010 7:21 AM   Subscribe

My roommate is overcharging me on utilities, and I feel a bit misled. How can I address this with her?

We're on very friendly terms and we've had no trouble communicating thus far. But I'm having some trouble finding the right wording to address this with her.

I moved into her place in June, and our rent is evenly split. At the time she told me that in addition to rent, she thought it best that I just give her an extra hundred dollars each month for utilities, because that's around what they normally come out to. (Electric, internet, joint Netflix.) Since it's not outrageous for those things to come out to almost $100 a person in NYC, especially in the summertime, I agreed. We have no written agreement.

Today I saw that our electric bill is a mere $60 (Shame on me for not asking to check it out sooner, but I'd trusted her word.) Internet is about $20, and the Netflix account is something like $14. That does, indeed, come out to around $100 - TOTAL, not per person. There are no other utility costs, and we both chip in pretty equally when it comes to house stuff like cleaning supplies and toilet paper. Except, I am singlehandedly paying for our utilities.

I don't think it's fair that I am paying more than $50/month, especially while she assumes none of the cost. I'd like to express this in a way that is not accusatory "You lied to me!!" or too pissed off "You're overcharging me, bitch!" How can I assertively address this with her, without burning any bridges?

(We normally communicate about apartment-related stuff via email, since we have very different work schedules and don't see each other often.)

Thanks, hivemind!
posted by blackcatcuriouser to Human Relations (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

Tell her you have been wanting to keep better track of all your individual expenses in a spreadsheet, to better understand where your money is going. Tell her, for this project, you needed to know the exact amounts of each utility bill. Tell her, since you'll already be making this thing, you can send her that portion of the spreadsheet each month so it's easier to divide the utilities exactly in half. She cannot say no to this.

I think it is important to know whether you want to be retroactively reimbursed, or you just want to pay your fair share henceforth.
posted by millipede at 7:27 AM on August 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

Just ask to see a breakdown of the expenses. Let her know you want to make sure you are paying your half. Then if things are indeed as you say they are, ask her why the breakdown is so uneven.

Then fix it, decide how you;re dealing with your overpayment, then get something in writing.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:29 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Could you suggest to her that instead of splitting each month's bill, the two of you alternate paying the full bill every other month? It shouldn't be too hard to make up a rationale (tax writeoffs/ new personal budgeting system/"trying to be more organized with my money"/whatever) to justify this, and it's a sneaky way of making sure things get divided down the middle.

There might be some slight difference in the total yearly cost for each of you depending on which set of months each person takes, but you could solve this by letting her pick. Either way, should work out cheaper for you than paying the full bill every month.
posted by Bardolph at 7:29 AM on August 8, 2010

Don't approach her with the assumption she's being malicious straight off the bat, just say "hey, I saw our utility bills today and it looks like the total only comes to about $100. So in all fairness I'll be paying just $50 from now on, or we can start dividing the bills perfectly equally. Let me know what you'd prefer. Thanks! " and wait for her to respond.
posted by lizbunny at 7:30 AM on August 8, 2010 [9 favorites]

Talk to her. Do not assume the worst until you know the facts.

The electric company doesn't usually charge for what you actually use each month. They make estimates and when they read the meter, they send you an adjustment.

It seems she might be doing the same thing to you - making a rough estimate.

Why don't you ask her to go through the bills every 3 months or so and make adjustments as necessary?
posted by three blind mice at 7:30 AM on August 8, 2010

Response by poster: That may work. Except, I have no spreadsheet. But I guess I could make one.

I would just like to pay my fair share henceforth.
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 7:30 AM on August 8, 2010

Response by poster: ^ that was directed @millipede, fyi.
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 7:31 AM on August 8, 2010

What I've always done with my roommates is keep a running tally on a small whiteboard magneted to my fridge. I'm always the one in in charge of the utilities, because for some reason I'm the only one who's ever been competent enough to pay the bills on time.

Whiteboard is set up as such (please excuse all the dots...metafilter will auto space me):

............roommate owes phunniemee | phunniemee owes roommate
elec: $50 |.......$25
gas: $40 |........$20
net: $50 |........$25
t.p.: $12 |...... $6

And then anything that I ever owe my roommate (which never happens anymore, but back when I had more responsible roommates, they would buy things like toilet paper, so they'd subtract the amount from their side and note it on mine) is tallied appropriately.

This way, he knows exactly what he owes me and why, and I know exactly what I owe him and why. At this point, I generally have to hound him for my money, but I'm always ready to present the bill as proof if there's a question.

Possible things you could do to tactfully bring this up with your roommate:
1. I've been running the AC less/being more careful with the lights this month, so the electric bill should be lower for both of us. Can I please see it? (Then get the bill, notice, and take it up from there.)
2. I'm trying to build my credit score, and I'd like to put one of the bills in my name. Can you give me the last bill so I can get all the account information? (Then, again, bring up the overcharging.)
3. (The more direct one.) I saw that the electric bill the other day was $XX, which was much less than I thought it was. I'm really confused why it costs me $100 a month. Can you please explain what's going on? We really need to talk about this.
posted by phunniemee at 7:40 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just ask that when the bills come that she post them on the fridge/forward the PDF to you and you write a check.
posted by k8t at 7:45 AM on August 8, 2010

Direct and up-front. "Hey, roomie, I saw the electric bill, and it's only $60. So I got to thinking about how utilities seem to be a lot cheaper here than I'm used to, and I think I'm overpaying. What do you think?"

She'll be defensive to start with, or else she'll genuinely not have noticed how little things added up to. But just persist in wanting it to be fair. If she's being intentionally deceptive, then any attempt you make to deceive her as to your intentions will just draw you into a mutual web of bitterness.
posted by Etrigan at 7:47 AM on August 8, 2010

This would irk the hell out of me. I think k8t nailed it. Just ask to see the bills each month. It's not unusual to want to keep track of your own finances.

All you're asking is to see the bills, no big deal.

"Just want to make sure I know where every penny is going"

Unless she's a total jerk, this should be no problem.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 8:00 AM on August 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd approach any discussion assuming she's acting in good faith until proven otherwise. You've only lived there in the summer, and your electric bills might be much much higher in the winter. It's possible she thinks that $100 over the course of an entire year would work out to half.

It seems to be that $100 is probably a bit high, even considering the seasons, but it might not be an intentional deception like you're thinking. Maybe $100 just seemed like a nice round number to her. Try to get more information and see if $75 or $80 is more appropriate for the yearly average.

Also, is she paying any other utilities like garbage and sewer? Maybe even amenities to the complex? Occasionally tenants pay those and it might account for part of the difference.
posted by parkerjackson at 8:13 AM on August 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

What about other bills? Gas, water, phone? Heating costs will be more expensive in winter so that single summer electricity bill might not be telling you the whole story. I'm not saying she isn't overcharging you but best to have all the facts before you go about making accusations.
posted by missmagenta at 8:25 AM on August 8, 2010 [9 favorites]

I second the higher winter bill possibility.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 8:25 AM on August 8, 2010

It's entirely possible that she is contributing some money. I wouldn't jump to any conclusions. Just ask for a breakdown. All problems solved.
posted by lakerk at 8:34 AM on August 8, 2010

Do you pay water or gas? Are you sure the internet is $20 a month?

Also, are you positive you're paying 1/2 the rent?

I'd say that you've decided to keep better track of your spending habits, and want to see all of the bills so that you can evenly split them. It might still work out to $100 a month but at least you'll know why.
posted by barnone at 9:25 AM on August 8, 2010

I assume you have a typical heat/hot water-included situation, so this is as high as the bills are going to get?

Do you and your roommate have a preexisting friendship or relationship? Or were you strangers prior to moving in together? I ask because I've known otherwise-good people to justify vaguely unethical roommate behavior with a sort of "caveat emptor" attitude -- for instance asking new roommates to pay more than an even share of the rent, and feeling okay about it because the new roommate could always just say no. That may be what's happening here.

I would say something like, "I know that we agreed I'd pay estimated utilities, but money's tight right now and I'd like to split them exactly evenly." Offer to keep track of the bills and do the math every month in case she just doesn't feel like doing that. Don't accuse; if she is taking advantage of you, she'll get the message, and if not, she'll probably still feel a little sheepish, but take the high road and you'll both forget about it in a couple of days.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 9:40 AM on August 8, 2010

Most apartments in New York include water, heat, and all trash collection charges besides electric and gas.

To me, $100 per month seems pretty fair and pretty average for a two bedroom place in New York (I've lived in three apartments where we divided it that way, and my share was always around $75-100). We now have an average-sized one bedroom in Queens, and our electric bill this month was nearly $200 because of the A/C, which we only run at night. $60 for an electric bill in the summer seems a little low to me -- are you sure that's standard? Maybe it was overpaid the month before, when the previous roommate moved out, and the balance was just $60 this month? Also, $20 for internet seems really low to me -- most places I've lived, it's been $45 or so.

If nothing else, you could certainly have a conversation with her about how you'd like to actively be involved with the bills and pay your share directly (both Con Ed and Time Warner allow partial payments that you can make yourself), or that you'd like to write her a separate check once a month for the exact amount. Saying you're keeping track of all your spending is a very good reason for doing so. This conversation would be a handy time to create a written agreement with her, which you could say you need for renter's insurance purposes. (You have renter's insurance, right?)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:58 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry, you live in NYC and your internet is only $20? That seems really low to me.
posted by newpotato at 10:13 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

To me, $100 per month seems pretty fair and pretty average for a two bedroom place in New York

Except that the OP has seen the bills, and it's obviously not half of what the utilities come to.

I think "I'm keeping a spreadsheet of all of my expenses in order to create a monthly budget; may I see the bills so that I can enter the exact amount of each bill?" (I would find it odd that the bills add up to *exactly* $100 per month -- bills always have cents as well as dollars.)

The other suggestion about asking to put a utility bill or two in your name in order to build up your credit # is also an excellent idea.
posted by tzikeh at 10:15 AM on August 8, 2010

Ask for a copy of all the bills because your accountant thinks you can deduct some stuff. Be vague but ask for the necessary copy each month.
posted by filmgeek at 11:35 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're hesitant to ask (though you shouldn't be), you can call the electric utility company and ask for the previous year's average bill. You only need the address. It is for the benefit of potential/current tenants that they provide this information. I wouldn't be surprised if the bill doubles for the winter. Also there could be water surcharges and garbage removal fees, as others have pointed out. To your roommate, I would just casually be like "hey i'm curious, i'm paying you a flat rate, but are you basing that on last year's use? how do things break down? ... "
posted by bread-eater at 11:59 AM on August 8, 2010

Response by poster: @peanut_mcgillicuty
We do not pay water or gas. I've actually never paid for water or gas, in any apartment I've lived in, so I'm not sure if that's the norm.

We seldom use the A/C in our apartment and aren't home very much, so I think our bill is about right.

I am going to ask her what other expenses my monthly $100 is covering. I will update here when I talk to her.
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 1:26 PM on August 8, 2010

Others have mentioned it, but if you geniunely assume good faith, it shouldn't be hard to speak directly to her. Sort of like, "this doesn't seem to even come out to $100 total, so I figure I'm missing something here."

Keep us posted!
posted by mreleganza at 4:09 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I usually charge a flat rate + some extra for utilities.

Some utility companies only read your meters only once every 3 months but bill you on a monthly basis. That means during the winter months, they may be billing you based on your autumn usage, which means less heating = cheaper. Then suddenly in spring you get a massive bill all at once for "catch up" for what you spent in winter. You can get majorly screwed this way if a housemate moves out just at the end of winter before the catch up bill hits, which can be in the hundreds of dollars. That's why I do a flat rate and not a monthly split.

The other thing is that I assume "utilities" would include all other expenses I incur: you don't have to worry about negotiating utilities, managing the repairs, paying bills. Time is money. Also it's my name on the 2 years contracts that I've signed for those utilities - I won't be able to recover the costs from prior tenants who've moved out if something happens and I have to leave. Also, being the main tenant, I own most of the white goods / furniture, so this extra will cover the wear and tear on them. I think of the world in a capitalistic, free market way: I'm a reasonable person, this is what I'm charging, if you don't like it, you can move out. There's plenty more willing to take me up on this rate.
posted by xdvesper at 5:55 PM on August 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have tracked our utilities bills and now put aside the same amount every month to pay the bills as they arrive (some are monthly, some are every two months, some are quarterly). Our winter gas bill is 4-7 times as much as the summer bill. When we have had housemates on a long term basis, I suggest we split the bills as they arrive. For shorter terms, I go with a monthly amount since not all the bills are monthly and people seem to have the knack of moving out days before the huge winter bill arrives.

So, that's why I might have done something similar, although I generally explain it to people. I would go with lizbunny's suggestion above and just ask right out about it.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:34 AM on August 9, 2010

Nthing also that it could just be that she is evening out for seasonal discrepancies. I pay only electricity (A/C and heat are on the electric bill) and my bill ranges from $75 in the Summer to $350 in the winter (this past January, when it snowed and was below 0 for like half the month, it was awful).
posted by CharlieSue at 10:46 AM on August 10, 2010

Response by poster: We talked about it and we are making a monthly spreadsheet. All worked out. Thanks!
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 4:39 PM on September 10, 2010

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