May 19, 2024

Bucks: A New Tool,, for Roommates

Many of us look back fondly on our postcollege years, when we shared apartments or entire houses with a motley collection of other recently graduated 20-somethings. Overlooked in the nostalgia, though, is the constant stress about paying bills. Who still owes me for the rent? Did someone stiff me for those pizzas we shared last night? Why am I still $20 short for the electric bill due tomorrow?

But in the Internet age, even roommate budget negotiations can be handled online, thanks to a new free Web service called The site’s creator, Jonathan Bittner, 26, a graduate student in astrophysics at Harvard, first introduced the site in February to help roommates figure out fair and equitable rent arrangements. “I’m a math nerd, and I love ethics, too,” he said.

Just plug in some information about the apartment, and the calculator will tell you how much you should you pay if you, say, have the smallest bedroom in the house, your bedroom lacks windows, your bedroom lacks a door (!) or your bedroom is a long walk to the bathroom.

I only wish such a tool had been available when I was a new college graduate, working at a local newspaper and sharing an apartment with two other young women. My room was a converted closet, while my roommates each had digs large enough to fit queen-size water beds and, in one case, a collection of (mostly empty) bottles of Jack Daniels. I later learned that Ms. Jack Daniels wasn’t paying any rent at all, but was subsidizing her expenses with my rent check.

Of course, a calculator may not help in that sort of situation. “If you have a bad roommate, there’s nothing the site can do to make your roommate a good person,” Mr. Bittner conceded. But for well-intentioned, but busy or easily distracted types, he said, calculators can help simplify group finances, encourage on-time payments and prevent hurt feelings.

Toward that goal, Mr. Bittner has teamed with Ryan Laughlin, a Yale computer science student, to expand the site’s offerings. They have just started a beta version of a new bill tracking tool, aimed at helping roommates keep on top of who owes what to whom. Everyone can enter what expenses they’ve paid. The calculator tells you how much you owe the other roommates — or how much they owe you. It will even e-mail progressively sharper reminders, as the due date for, say, the rent draws near. At first, the e-mail says, “Did you forget?” But if you haven’t recorded a payment by the due date, it is more direct: “You’re leaving your roommates in the lurch!”

The purpose of the calculator, Mr. Bittner said, is to avoid having one roommate getting stuck with being the heavy, and to eliminate the need for complicated spreadsheets — not to mention too many sticky notes on the refrigerator.  Users of the site must still write a check or hand over cash to their roommates, but Mr. Bittner and Mr. Laughlin are working on a way to automate payments.

How do you handle bills with your roommates? Let us know if you find the calculators helpful.

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