How do I tell my sister it's time to start paying rent
July 26, 2011 3:33 PM   Subscribe

Help me tell my sister that she needs to start paying rent. She was going to trade helping around the house for rent, but that's not working out. Details inside.

My sister has been living with us rent free since early June. The deal all along has been that she'll trade us one hour of housekeeping/cooking/yard work per day for rent. We (my partner and I) have rented out the room before for $300/month +utilities and the three of us agreed that $10/hour for that sort of thing was fare, which works out to an hour a day. We agreed at the beginning that if the arrangement didn't work out, she could just pay us rent. Since making this agreement, she's gotten a very serious boyfriend and hasn't been keeping up her end of the deal. When she does clean, it's for more like 1/2 an hour and then she leaves it partially finished so she can go hang out with the new BF. They're now planning on getting married in about six months.

We've tried different methods of making the cleaning in exchange for housing work, and it's pretty much at the end of the rope for us. We're calling it quits and need to ask her just to pay rent so she has time to spend every waking moment on the new boy. She does have money in the bank for it, so it's just a matter of phrasing. We come from a pretty fucked up family where everything was used against us, so I really don't want her to feel like we're upset and angry with her. At this point, we're really not. It's just clear that after trying to make this work for a month and a half, we're just stressing everyone out and it would be better for all of us if she paid rent. We're definitely more Guess than Ask, and I don't know how to put this in a way that won't make her feel like a failure. She's not! She's awesome and motivated and we love living with her. We'd just love it a lot more without trying to make the whole chores in exchange for rent thing work. She's a great roommate!

We have a weekly house meeting to check in, which is when my partner and I would like to bring up rent. The meeting is in the morning. Help me figure out how to phrase this in such a way that she won't feel like we're disappointed or whatever. It's just a course correction that was always a possibility. And if we don't make the course correction, we're in danger of it feeling like she's turning into a freeloader. We're not there yet, but we will be in a couple more weeks. After two months, we're pretty certain that this isn't going to resolve itself.

(Slightly more detail: She's taking a year off school and was never going to stay with us beyond that year. It's now been shortened to eight months or so before she gets married.)
posted by Bottlecap to Human Relations (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
'Hey sis. Since we agreed that you'd do an hour of cleaning a day in exchange for rent and it seems that this isn't working out, can you pitch in $300 each month?'
posted by k8t at 3:37 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why not just make it more about her new relationship, as you did above?

"Sis, I feel really badly that you're having to spend time around the house doing chores when I know you'd rather be spending time with Fiance. I don't want our earlier arrangement to make you feel like you're in indentured servitude or make you resent spending time at home. Would you rather just pay rent?"
posted by stellaluna at 3:39 PM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think there's a bigger question than the $300: the long term impact of driving her into the arms of her boyfriend. If they just met in June and already have marriage plans, that's moving pretty fast. Things could fall apart and she'll need a safe place to land. It doesn't sound like you really need the $300. Don't create a crisis that causes her to move out and cut ties with you.
posted by carmicha at 3:40 PM on July 26, 2011

Just a slight bit of clarification: They didn't just meet. They've been very close friends for a long time, but just started dating. None of the family or friends are concerned about the swiftness of the wedding plans - they're good together.
posted by Bottlecap at 3:45 PM on July 26, 2011

I just got out of a super quickie engagement. I'm wondering what is going on in her mind that created that leap. Wouldn't push the rent dollars thing right now, and would instead try to carve out time with you and her to bond. Because if things go south with Fiance, one of the things he will try to do (statistically speaking) is make their relationship a "them vs the world" thing, and any criticism of her/them will play right into that tactic.

Once that starts (on preview: as carmicha points out) it's a hard train to stop. Watch for signs that she's seeing her old friends less frequently, or isn't making independent new friends if she's living in a place that's new to her.

As for the money thing, sit down and have a talk with her about her budget. Is she saving money of her own?

Finally, grab a copy of the Deborah Tannen book about sisters. Read the whole thing before you mention the rent. There's some social sister stuff/tension that I'd be willing to bet neither of you is conscious of.
posted by bilabial at 3:45 PM on July 26, 2011

"We've been evaluating the whole housekeeping-in-exchange-for-free rent thing and it's not working. So we're going to need you to start paying rent."
posted by The World Famous at 3:46 PM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Is this the book, bilabil?
posted by Bottlecap at 3:51 PM on July 26, 2011

It might be as simple as asking her to think honestly about how she thinks it's going; she's probably aware that she's not doing as much as you've asked, but might feel awkward about bringing it up. Either way, that might be a good way to start the conversation, because you can find out what she thinks and then tell her what you think; that way it's really a conversation instead of an announcement from you two. You can say you're asking because you don't necessarily feel like it's working (because it's not getting done and because you think she'd probably like to be with her boyfriend more), but this gives her room to have an opinion as well, so it's less likely to feel like criticism.
posted by dizziest at 3:55 PM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think the key to minimizing the possibility of hurt feelings is to make the fact that the situation is not working about you and specifically how you're stressing out, rather than about her being a freeloader. No matter how wonderful a sibling she is, sitting her down and being like "You're not pulling your weight! You don't clean enough! Here's examples A, B, and C!" is *extremely* likely to result in her panicking, feeling defensive, and either arguing each example or swearing up and down that she'll shape up. That way is drama-land, plus you may both end up with her grudgingly doing an hour a day of housework just to save face.

Instead, framing it as: (1) something you've thought about and already pretty much decided, so you're not using the conversation to guilt her into doing more; because (2) it's not working for you anymore; and (3) you're pretty sure it's not working for her either; is not guaranteed to avoid drama but really minimizes the chances.

I'd pick a time that is low-stress, like when you're making dinner or eating breakfast or something, and casually say:

"Hey Sis. I've been meaning to talk to you about the whole cleaning and cooking thing. I had really good intentions when agreed to that arrangement but it's starting to really stress me out and make me feel like I'm constantly monitoring what you've done every day. It seems like it's not working that well for you either, especially now that you've starting dating Fred. What do you think about scrapping it and just paying rent instead? I don't want this to become a big thing that drives a wedge between us and I'm a little worried we might be starting to head in that direction."
posted by iminurmefi at 3:56 PM on July 26, 2011 [23 favorites]

Sis, I feel really badly that you're having to spend time around the house doing chores

Don't say this unless this is really how you feel.

iminurmefi's advice is great, and I'd let her know that you are enjoying having her live with you.
posted by Specklet at 4:07 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

iminurmefi's advice definitely comes across the best, I think. The only question I would have is the part where you ask for her to contribute money. Is there any chance that she'll say she'll start pulling her weight and then it might taper off again, leaving you with a bit more resentment? I think if your decision has been made you can let her know basically everything iminurmefi said but say that you feel like it's best for her to pay some rent and be a bit more firm (but kind!)

Or maybe she'd like to work a third of the money off? Something like that?
posted by smirkyfodder at 4:13 PM on July 26, 2011

I'd either go with the above suggestions of "I've got a feeling our arrangement is not working out for you any more, now you are seeing boyfriend and want to sped time with him - would you prefer if we reconsidered on the rent?" Or else maybe think of different time distribution - what about if she did a big spring-clean once a week, whilst your out enjoying the sun? Boyfriend could help with that, so they would kill two brids with one stone.

Saying that, from your post it seems you are financially very exact about this. I mean, figuring out the actual sum per hour! If I ever got into that kind of transactional stage with my sister, I think I would seriously consider sister-divorcing her...
posted by miorita at 4:15 PM on July 26, 2011

Eh, we're very exact people. Wishy-washy stuff stresses us out (see messed up family). You should hear us planning on which showing of a movie to go to...
posted by Bottlecap at 4:19 PM on July 26, 2011

Hey sis - we love living with you and we think you're a great roommate. This chores for rent thing is stressing me out though - I feel like I'm paying attention to what you do around the house instead of just being happy that you're here. I would feel better if we went to just a regular rent arrangement. is that okay with you?
posted by mrs. taters at 4:24 PM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

Sorry, I came on too strong there.

If you need to know what's what, one other option might be: "Dear sister, I know young love is heedless of the more prosaic aspects of life, so chores are the last thing on your mind. So what do you say if we da away with our arrangement for a month or two as a romantic holiday-type thing to you and lover, and we go back to the old arrangement in September? If come September you are still feeling too all-over-the-place to honour our arrangement, we can go the boring old paying rent route".

And, maybe consider taking down the rent a bit, as a wedding present or something. They probably need any extra money for the wedding. You giving a bit on this now might mean that once she is all settled she will become the most awsome aunt to your kids, or the most considerate Christmas-present maker, etc. Your kindness and helpfulness now doesn't mean you are taken for granted - it just means that the transaction-part of the arrangement might come later, and in steady increments until you are both old (hopefully). Sometimes, what goes round comes round is a worthy and wise principle.
posted by miorita at 4:28 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

stellaluna: ""Sis, I feel really badly that you're having to spend time around the house doing chores when I know you'd rather be spending time with Fiance."

If this isn't the most direct way to say exactly what you feel, saying this would be pretty gross and manipulative.

Take iminurmefi's advice, because it is stellar.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:29 PM on July 26, 2011

Yes! That's the book. I'd recommend not having amazon send it to the house. When you get your copy, make it clear that a friend has a sister, you have a sister, she insisted every woman with a sister needs to read this book. I do that to people, in real life.

So, you can take turns reading it. Or, if it fits in with what you do for work that makes a good cover.

I'm not saying this to encourage sneakiness, but to offer caution that when we read books about communication, our interlocutors assume it's because we think they're terrible communicators. And you can guess how that assumption leaves most people feeling. (defensive? insulted? hurt? you win the guessing prize!)
posted by bilabial at 4:35 PM on July 26, 2011

Do you need the money? Because frankly, if you don't actually need the money (which, it seems like you don't) since you're willing to swap her tiny rent income for chores, you should just let it go. It sounds like you two have been through a lot already and this is a golden opportunity for you both to bond as sisters -- away from your previously chaotic home-life and painful memories.

If she's as awesome as you say, try not to think of her as being a freeloader. Instead, think of this stress-free time as a gift you're giving to her before she moves on to the next important phase of her life (marriage). Let her catch her breath a bit and enjoy this wonderful time in her life. Insist that she clean up after herself, at the very least, but giving her a big list of chores to do every day is kinda -- ugh. Too much. My house is pretty immaculate and even I don't clean for an hour every day.

If, otoh, she's not cleaning up after herself or not pulling her weight in relation to the mess she generates -- and this is causing friction between you and your husband -- well, then maybe she needs to find other living arrangements.

I think your intentions were noble when you made the original deal, but in my experience, giving most people (especially family members) the option to do "chores" or pay rent doesn't usually work. The word "chores" is too nebulous a concept for most people and they'll do either a rushed, sloppy job just to get it over with, or a truly fantastic job and end up resenting you for basically making them your maid/gardener/whatever.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 4:35 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

FYI - Please don't assume Partner = Husband.
posted by Bottlecap at 4:37 PM on July 26, 2011

People keep suggesting alternates to asking for the rent money, when the poster has said "We're calling it quits and need to ask her just to pay rent."
posted by Specklet at 4:43 PM on July 26, 2011

FYI - Please don't assume Partner = Husband.

Sorry, Bottlecap. Absolutely right. I misread because you mentioned your sister is getting married and typed in haste.

It's just clear that after trying to make this work for a month and a half, we're just stressing everyone out and it would be better for all of us if she paid rent.

I would tell her that while you're enjoying her being with you, it's gotten to the point where you need her rent income rather than the chores. Even if you don't actually "need" the money, you could say you want it to pay for additional maid or gardening services since you're all so busy with what's going on in your lives.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 4:44 PM on July 26, 2011

Ugh, people, stop with the conflict-avoidant lying.

This isn't about you needing the money, or not needing it, or wanting her to spend more time with her boyfriend. This is about you wanting to end an agreement that is no longer working for you. That's reasonable. She would also have the right to say that if it was true for her as well.

So just say that. "Sis, I want to end the work for rent agreement we have. It's not working for me". And then stop talking. Really. Stop. No launching into rapid fire explanations to justify your decision. Count to at least fifteen. Give her a moment to process it. And come to terms with it.

When she starts talking again, see which way the conversation goes. Because it a way it doesn't matter (because you aren't changing your mind), but in a way it does because you need to make it clear that this is your decision. Even if she doesn't start talking, acknowledge that this might be a surprise to her, and be open and honest and answer any of her stated or unstated questions from a you-perspective: "I find myself monitoring you", "I don't know how to approach you when I think you've only done 1/2 because I feel like I'm micromanaging you", "I don't like what this is doing to our relationship", etc. Seriously, you want to end it, and that's okay, but by being clear that this is what *you* want, and agreements like this only work when both people agree, you take responsibility for the decision.

Give her time to question you, and talk it out, and process if she feels embarrassed, or relieved, or angry, or whatever it feels. Help her process. That doesn't mean you need to change your mind, and honestly, it might take all of 10-30 minutes. If she's really upset, acknowledge that you didn't want to hurt her feelings and negotiate the terms later (as in when she will start paying rent). Reiterate that you care for her deeply, and want her to be in the house as long as she wants to be there. Acknowledge that it's hard for you, and you realize it may be hard for her as well. If it's really hard for you and you find yourself stammering, or blaming, take a deep breath and tell her again that this is just really hard for you because she's your sister, and you love her.

Then give her space to be okay with it, and be okay with the fact that she might not be (right now).

You're talking about a potentially difficult conversation for possibly about 30 minutes of you feeling uncomfortable. But it's always better to give a difficult conversation the time and space it needs, rather than rush through it.


1. Tell her you want to end the current agreement
2. Stop talking and let her process.
3. Be honest in your responses, but take personal responsibility for your feelings and actions.
4. Negotiate the new arrangement then, or acknowledge that she's upset and say you'll talk again later.
5. Reiterate that you care for her deeply, and love her as a guest in your home.

Appreciate yourself for having a clear conversation where you respectfully stated your needs. It's not easy to do.
posted by anitanita at 5:05 PM on July 26, 2011 [10 favorites]

Eh, we're very exact people. Wishy-washy stuff stresses us out

In that case, don't phrase it as a question. ("Wouldn't you rather just pay rent?")

I like The World Famous's wording: "We've been evaluating the whole housekeeping-in-exchange-for-free rent thing and it's not working. So we're going to need you to start paying rent."

There's a risk she will then stop doing any/all chores, including cleaning up after herself. Be prepared to be firm.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:07 PM on July 26, 2011

Don't discount a happy-medium route, where she pays $150 in rent and does 15 hours/month of work. Or at least give her this option if you are comfortable with it.

I could see it making her or you feel like she is punching the clock, which may be uncomfortable, but I would appreciate having it thrown out there as an option if I were your sister, and I might consider it if I were you.

But yeah, you're doing a good thing here helping your sister out. If I were in your situation, your sister's actions would drive me crazy. It's good to talk about it before resentment develops.
posted by shortyJBot at 6:27 PM on July 26, 2011

Thank you so much to everyone who has responded. You've added some much needed perspective well beyond some simple phrasing. It's so easy to get trapped in one viewpoint and fail to see the larger picture, and we were missing the forest for the trees as they say.
posted by Bottlecap at 6:42 PM on July 26, 2011

At the house meeting we agreed to have her pay 1/3 of utilities and leave it at that. We need the money, but we need a good relationship even more and the help with the utilities makes it enough to work. Thank you everyone for bring some perspective to the situation, it was much needed.
posted by Bottlecap at 11:07 AM on July 29, 2011

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