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Surviving the Roommate Experience

While most of us love the idea of having our own space to do exactly what we want in, the reality is that living alone can be expensive. It can also be lonely, so some of us choose to have roommates for companionship. Whatever your reasons might be, living with roommates can be a lovely—or disastrous—experience.

The Good

Splitting living costs means you have more money for other things. You can also create great memories with roommates. I’ve had roomies off and on in my life, particularly in my university years. One of my favourite aspects of living with others is the meshing of traditions and cultures around the holidays. One year, three of us celebrated Christmas and two celebrated Hanukkah. We decided to mash everything together and made a Chrismukkah tree. It was a traditional Christmas evergreen tree, but we covered it in blue and silver decorations (the colours of Hannukah) and used a big Star of David as a tree topper. It was fun watching the roomies who’d never had a tree try to figure out how to hang balls and baubles, as those little squeezable hooks aren’t really used for anything but Christmas decorations. We also got to teach our roommates all of the lyrics to cheesy Christmas songs. And later that school year, I learned how to celebrate Passover. We always enjoyed our combined holiday events.

Being students, we had lots of silly drunken nights and sometimes came up with imaginative solutions to our problems. We had been given a TV by one set of parents, but it had no remote control. We were entirely too lazy to get up and change the channel, so one night we found some duct tape and taped all of our wooden spoons and spatulas together in a long line that reached from the couch to the TV. It served as a handy, and remarkably sturdy, remote control for the rest of the year.

And having roommates means there is often someone there to talk to and do things with without having to schedule plans days in advance, which is a nice bonus.

The Bad

Having roomies isn’t always idyllic. Living with others is often fraught with annoyances and drama. One of the most common fights is over cleanliness, or lack thereof. I’m sure our bathrooms were teeming with germs, as no one ever wanted to clean them. We had the same problem with dishes. No one ever believed it was their turn to wash, so the dishes just piled up in the sink in ever-teetering towers.

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Your best bet to avoid similar problems is to have a conversation with your roomies right at the start, to decide what is and isn’t acceptable for everyone. You may also want to create a chore schedule so everyone knows exactly who will be doing what and by when.

Another issue can be sharing food or other resources. You should decide right away if you are sharing food or keeping things completely separate. This does not guarantee success, by the way. We had one roommate in university (I’m calling her Jane to protect the guilty) who never bought her own food and pilfered from everyone else when we weren’t around. It wasn’t something we were able to successfully stop, and it was one of the reasons she ended up moving out before the year was up.

The Ugly

Some problems grow from small to breathtakingly bad. We had one roommate (surprisingly, not Jane) come back from summer break in second year with a large package in tow. She worked on her parents’ travelling carnival every summer. That year, she had fallen for a 6’8” carny and decided to bring him back to university with her. He was supposed to stay a few days, maybe a week or two, before finding his own place. He never left. He spent the entire year living with us, moving from job to job, and never contributed anything towards rent or utilities. It was an ongoing fight all year to get him to pay up or move out, but we didn’t get the big mooch to leave until we all moved out at the end of the school year.

Most roommate situations don’t turn out this badly, but it’s important to know something about the person you are living with and to set clear ground rules from the start. It’s no fun if you suddenly find yourself in need of a new living situation because things have become untenable at home.

And the Downright Weird

Some roommate situations just become weird. Like Jane, who had a revolving door of friends constantly in our apartment. It’s a little disconcerting to walk into your bathroom at 7 am and find some guy you’ve never met before passed out over your toilet. (Hello, awkward conversation.)

In our student apartment building, people regularly set off the fire alarm with burned popcorn and toast. But when Jane decided it would be a great idea to butt a cigarette into a wastebasket full of paper, the ensuing full-fledged fire didn’t set off the alarms until our apartment was fully consumed by smoke. Most of the damage was contained to her room, but the entire apartment had a distinctly smoky smell for weeks after. I guess my tip here is to choose your roommates wisely.

Bottom Line

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There are benefits and drawbacks both to living alone and with others. You need to pick the option that best works for you. If you have roommates, spend a little time making the right choice or you could spend a lot of time regretting it. Set clear ground rules and expectations, and be prepared to have frank discussions when things don’t run smoothly. This happens sometimes, even with great roommates. And if you have some bad experiences, remind yourself they make great fodder for party stories later. (And share them below!)

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