Thursday, January 13, 2011

Alone Together

Besides being the title of Dave Mason’s debut album (1970; boy am I old), “alone together” is how many a roommate has felt, while sharing a dorm room, apartment, or house while in college.  At the start of a new semester, many students have embarked on new roommate relationships or are planning them for the upcoming school year.  I know this to be true as my youngest son is moving from the residence halls and into an apartment for the fall.  While he was visiting for the holidays, we had a little talk about roommate living – as it is not the same as living at home or in the residence hall.  What are some tips that I can give, given forty years of experience with college students.  (Yes, I started college the same year as Mr. Mason released the aforementioned album.)


A key issue is where you plan to live.  The following questions matter.  Do you need to be close to campus?  Is there adequate transportation, if you live a distance from campus?  Where do you park your car and what does it cost?  Do you prefer a house, an apartment in a house, or an apartment in an apartment complex, as each have a different effect on your expenses and lifestyle?  Once you know the rent, do you know the monthly cost for electricity, gas, cable television, internet, renters’ insurance, and other things?  How do you plan to pay for these items?  I would suggest that you plan to split them equally with a provision that you reconsider the decision, should a member of the group begin to use more than their share – like through the addition of a new, “very close” roommate of a roommate.


A huge item, for many roommate households, is food.  Anyone who has shared housing with others has asked the questions, “Whose food is this?” or “Who ate my food?”   You know that it is costly to eat away from home to excess.  Yet, if you cook your food at the apartment for one person at a time, you lose the economies of size that comes from “family” meal preparation and you face the daunting task of inventory management (aka, “Who ate my food?”).  One practice that works is to share at least one meal a day and to equally share the cost of all the food that comes into the home.  (I am purposely leaving purchased drinks out of this discussion.)  This solves two problems: finances and communication.  First, assume that everyone pays equal shares for all rent and utilities.  Or, if not, the proportions are agreed upon before you sign the contract. Then, whenever a roommate purchases food items, they bring them home and everyone has rights to eat the food, thus negating the “Whose” and “Who” questions.  When something is purchased, the purchaser puts her name on the back of the receipt and places the receipt in the “receipt place”.  (Ours was a beer mug on the top of the refrigerator.)  At the time rent is due; the “manager” totals the receipts by purchaser and adjusts the rent that is due from each person to share the costs for the food.  In this way, if someone takes a larger role in buying food for the group and, perhaps, preparing the group meal, they pay exceedingly less rent and the accounts are balanced each and every month.  This reduces food disputes to zero, particularly if there is a plan for washing the dishes and keeping the place clean.


Why do I recommend eating one meal together?  Eating together helps with the second problem - communication. It is good practice to communicate with your roommates and what better time to communicate than when you are eating – just like home.  There is something special about sitting down and eating together, which is probably why it is so widely practiced by our fellow humans across all cultures.  You can share good stories and you can be honest about matters that are annoying and, hopefully, adjustments can be made that resolve problems before a real battle erupts.  Don’t be mean or critical in these communications and you will not be, if you keep the communication lines open. 


Importantly, you should do your best to establish rules before huge issues infect relationships.  The time that you prefer to rise, retire, eat, study, listen to music, and et cetera can make a huge difference in your successful habitation, as well as your roommates’.  Try to reach some agreement and compromises about such matters before you commit to living together or, if you’ve passed that point, do not be afraid to talk about issues before they magnify. Your individual needs could easily dictate the type of housing that works the best for your mix of individuals.


Naturally, you must be prepared to compromise for the mutual benefit of all and you will be surprised at how different your roommates are, when compared to your family or your perception of what roommates should be, prior to sharing housing.  That being said, your place of residency can have a tremendous effect on your future and your college roommates can still be your friends – forty years later!  All of us in the business of university education have seen the huge difference the place of residency can make on a student’s performance.  While some may benefit from the social/scheduled life of living in a residence hall or social organization, others do exceedingly well when they have control over their time, their study environment, and their sleep hours.  Whichever type of person you are, make choices that support your academic success.  Your academic success is one of the keys to your financial success.  The Cherokee used the word currahee which meant “we stand alone together”.  Similarly, if you succeed alone, we succeed together.

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