Money College: Collecting from roommates

roommatesYou've just moved into your sweet new house a half-mile from campus, free from nagging RAs, lackluster dining hall food and Draconian quiet hours that cramp your music-blasting study methods.

It's the end of summer and you happen to be the first person to move in, so you call up the cable company, the gas company and the electric company to put the utilities in your name before your roommates arrive. No one can go that long without BitTorrent, after all.
So what happens a month later when you get $150 worth of utility bills, not to mention a $1,200 rent payment? Here's how to divvy up the bills fairly, and make your roommates pay their share on time:

Call your utilities and get estimates of what your monthly bills will be. Gas and electric utilities will usually tell you the average monthly amount the previous tenants paid. Write down those amounts on a whiteboard somewhere in the house where everyone will see it. Putting up those amounts before the first bill comes will give everyone an idea of what to expect.

Next, set a regular schedule for paying the bills. Rent will always be due on the first day of the month, and chances are the bills will either be due shortly before or shortly after that. As financial planning expert and radio show host Dave Ramsey advises his listeners: "Make the roommates pay you a few days before the bills are due. This allows you little grace period just in case someone pays you late."

Consider setting up online bill paying for the utilities, and schedule those payments in advance so you don't get dinged with late fees. "Automatic bill pay only works for people who are aware of their financial situation," Ramsey cautions. "Do a budget every month and you can't go wrong." Another way to do this is through online banking; banks such as Citibank offer automatic payments sent to various accounts, regardless of whether they can deduct from your bank on a monthly basis.

Now comes the hard part. You'll need to be proactive about collecting money.

Don't expect your roommates to just hand you a check on the due date you set. You're all busy, and odds are someone will forget. At the breakfast table, in the bathroom, during an ad break during NCIS – don't get caught up thinking there's a "right time" to ask. This isn't rocket science, and it shouldn't be uncomfortable.

If you're all at home, have people write you a check or hand you cash then and there. It will get easier as everyone gets in the habit of pitching in for utilities at the same time each month.

But what do you do about the roommate who doesn't have a job, slacks off or is never around the house? Get to him early. Be respectful, and ask him if he'll be able to pay the rent utilities on time each month.

"The first step is have a sit-down talk with him about the finances and find out what's going on," says Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of scholarship Web site FastWeb. He suggests having that roommate prepay monthly bills so you aren't left picking up what he owes.

Offer to split up the amount that's due -- $100 a week instead of $400 once a month, for example. And most importantly, be persistent. After all, hopefully this is someone who is your friend. If he truly can't pay, the money for the bills won't come out of thin air and you may have to front some. But if you notice that your buddy who says he can't pay managed to come up with gas money to drive to the city and see a show the next weekend, don't be afraid to call him out on it.

"It's always a difficult situation," Kantrowitz says. "At the very least, you need to have a backup plan where if things don't get fixed, you move out to a different apartment or you force him to move out."

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