First comes love, then comes marriage, then come … roommates?
These days, it isn’t just college kids and recent grads who are taking in extra housemates. As it turns out, the post-college roommate arrangement is making more and more financial sense for married couples looking to reduce their housing expenses.
“It’s definitely more common the more expensive the rents are in your city, but it’s going on more or less everywhere,” says Robin Owsley, co-owner of RoomieMatch.com. After all, according to a report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and Enterprise Community Partners, 11.2 million U.S. households paid more than half of their income on housing in 2013. That number is projected to increase to nearly 13.1 million households by 2025. What’s more, a report from Rent.com forecasts rental rates to inch up another 8% in 2016 alone.
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Up until about five years ago, says Owsley, the trend seemed to be more about couples looking for a new roomie to fill their extra guest rooms—but now the tables are turning. “Couples lately seem about as likely to be looking to move into a new housing situation already complete with roommates as they are to be looking for someone new to move in with them.”
But considering that living with a new spouse can be enough of a challenge, introducing another roommate dynamic can prove tricky. That’s why licensed marriage and family therapist Paula Levy says it’s important that a spousal relationship is on solid ground before even thinking of bringing in another person. However, the solution could be a good one for cash-strapped couples, and benefits can even go beyond the financial.
“The question you have to think about is: What are you gaining?” Levy advises. “If you’re gaining economically and it’s reducing overall stress, that can be a good thing. You just want to make sure it’s not creating a new, different problem.”
Looking for some more insider tips? We found one couple who’s been living the “married with roommates” life for years, and another who’s about to take the plunge this summer. Read on to see if the financial trade-off is worth it.
Married with Roommates … in Seattle
The Couple: Kirstin Naumann, 28, mental health therapist, and Eric Naumann, 32, educator
For the Naumanns, living with housemates just makes sense. Since leaving Houston (where the two owned a 2,400-square-foot home) and moving to Seattle for Kirstin’s graduate program in 2011, the couple has had roommates off and on. But after spending a solid year renting a one-bedroom on their own for $1,030 a month, the expense just got to be too much.
“We were sick of paying crazy-high rent,” says Kirstin, adding that the overall building was old and not well kept.
Money was also top of mind, as Kirstin was still in school and not yet earning a steady income. A desire to simultaneously build their savings and reduce housing costs is what ultimately nudged the couple to return to communal living.
A year and a half ago, they made the leap into their current situation: a four-bedroom house with some friends they’d made through their church. Today, Kirstin and Eric have one room, while the other three are occupied by single roomies. The shared space also houses two dogs, and one roommate has partial custody of his son.
For just $800 per month, the Naumanns have much more space in a higher-quality building located in a very walkable neighborhood, making it easier to share a car instead of getting a second vehicle.
The reduced rent combined with Kirstin graduating and working full-time as a mental health therapist has revolutionized their finances. The couple now has more room in their budget to dedicate toward larger financial goals—like paying down their combined $112K in student loan debt, rebooting retirement savings completely with $300 monthly contributions and saving for Eric’s own grad school pursuits. The Naumanns also enjoy the more immediate benefits of having more spending money to buy healthier groceries, be more generous with charitable donations and boost travel funds to visit family back in Texas.
Married with Roommates … in Queens, New York
The Couple: Jessica Mathis, 29, physical therapist, and Brandon Mathis, 31, artist and gardener
For the Mathises, sky-high housing costs are also motivating the couple to rent out their second bedroom.
“Even though we love living by ourselves, we really want to be able to save money,” Jessica says.
Soon, a friend will be moving in with them and Jessica and Brandon think the timing is perfect. By splitting rent with a third person, the Mathises will see a reduction of about $500 to $600 per month in their housing costs—a sizable chunk that will go toward their savings.
“Our short-term financial goals are to save enough money to purchase a vehicle—we have a dog, and it would be much easier to take her on outings and trips, plus Brandon would be able to transport materials for his sculptures much more easily to his studio,” Jessica says. “We also want to have enough saved up for emergency payments without having to immediately go to our credit cards—or at least be able to pay them off right away without accumulating a ton of interest!”
“The plan is for this to be temporary—maybe about a year or so,” she adds. “We eventually want to save up and move to somewhere cheaper.”
The couple isn't sure where their post-roommate life will take them, but they've considered putting down roots in cities like New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Make Way for Roomie: Striking a Balance Between Spouses and Housemates
Fortunately for Kirstin and Eric, adjusting to life with roommates has been drama-free. “It can be difficult to have a conversation with a roommate who, say, isn’t doing their dishes, but overall it’s been pretty easy,” Kirstin says. The most difficult thing, she notes, is the initial period while everyone gets accustomed to living together in this kind of situation. "Of course there have been issues, but it hasn’t been a headache to resolve.”
As for our couple in New York, Jessica says she and Brandon are optimistic about having their friend move in.
“When you’re younger, you always hear that you shouldn't move in with your friends because you’ll end up hating each other,” she says. “But I feel like the older you get, the better you know your friends, so we’re excited to have him move in. We all get along, we’re not passive-aggressive and we can confront each other when things bother us.”
5 Tips for Married Couples Living with Roommates
If you’re considering making the jump yourself, Owsley and Levy offer up these additional tips to help ensure the transition goes smoothly:
A happy marriage means a happy roommate. Of course, you’ll want to make sure your marriage is on solid ground before inviting another person to share such close quarters—not only for your relationship’s sake, but also to assure would-be roomies that they’re entering a stable living situation.
There have been many situations, Owsley says, where people have moved in with a couple, expecting it to be a longer-term situation, and then suddenly things changed. “The couple broke up, decided they did not want or could not afford the home anymore and sold it out from under the roommates with very little notice.”
So understand that you may need to reassure potential roomies about your commitment to the situation—and each other—especially if they've been burned before.
Approach setting house rules as a two-way street. Before the person ever moves in, Levy advises laying out financial expectations as well as what’s expected in terms of household upkeep. For example, if a bathroom leak calls for repairs, will the costs be split among the number of people in the household or the number of rooms being occupied? Additionally, any expectations around guests and entertaining must be nailed down in advance.
In other words, have a plan for addressing all shared aspects of the living space and be sure to frame the conversation in a non-confrontational way, Levy suggests.
“As opposed to saying, ‘John and I have been talking and we have a few things we want to make clear with you before you get here,’ it works best if you say something like, ‘I’m sure you have concerns that you want to talk about, and we’ll probably have some too. Why don’t you think about it ahead of time and we can all sit down and hash it out [before move-in day].’”
Schedule periodic check-ins. While you’re setting ground rules, make a habit of having regular house meetings to go over what’s going well and what might need some work.
“You just know things are going to come up, but the moment you say you want to speak with someone about something, they can get defensive,” Levy explains. By penciling in agreed-upon meetings, you can come prepared expecting to receive feedback, and you can have your own at the ready too. “That way you can nip something in the bud before it gets off track,” she says.
Build in a timeline. Because the Mathises are new to having a roommate move in, Levy says their decision to give the arrangement a year-long timeline is a sound one.
“[It’s wise to say], ‘Let’s do this for X amount of time.’ Then, say, in a year they decide that it isn’t working, they can move on with no hard feelings,” she says. “What works and makes sense for the couple on day one may not later down the road. Many people don’t want to have the awkward conversation of telling the person that they no longer want them here, so have a built-in timeline.”
Accept that the household dynamic will evolve. Living with a housemate of any kind—whether they’re a stranger, a friend or your spouse—requires compromise, and that means your relationships will likely begin to change from day one. Acknowledging that this will happen and welcoming the change can mean better fostering a happy home.
Of course, as in the case of the Naumanns, the roommate dynamic can also evolve for the better—even on the marriage front. “We’ve had to navigate things like how we manage conflict differently,” Kirstin explains. “Some married couples will just yell and have it out wherever, but we weren’t going to do that in front of roommates, so it’s forced us to develop healthy communication and conflict resolution skills [as a married couple].”
And then, there’s the matter of living with roommates who come to be close friends.
“We also just really enjoy having roommates,” Kirstin adds. “My work can be emotionally draining, so it’s important for me to be able to come home to people I really love and trust and just relax.”
What’s Next for Our Couples
Overall, Kirstin and Eric plan to continue having housemates for the foreseeable future. “We’ve even talked about buying a house with one of our roommates,” says Kirstin, adding that the two women she lives with have come to feel like sisters to her.
Of course, the fact that children are not in the picture certainly makes this easier. If they do cross that bridge eventually, having housemates isn’t something that turns her off. In fact, Kirstin adds, having roommates around the house can mean a stronger support system while raising kids.
As for Jessica and Brandon, time will tell if their one-year plan turns into something longer (or shorter) than anticipated. In the meantime, Jessica is hoping to reap some of the non-financial benefits from the arrangement.
“As well as having someone around to feed and walk our dog if needed, I think having a roommate will make us more considerate and conscientious toward each other,” she says.