Please stop Splitwising me the cost of a beer. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Please stop Splitwising me the cost of a beer. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMarch 28, 2024

Help Me Hera: I’m surrounded by stingy flatmates and it’s driving me nuts

Please stop Splitwising me the cost of a beer. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Please stop Splitwising me the cost of a beer. (Image: Tina Tiller)

I live with five people I mostly love, but our different ideas about generosity are starting to really irk me.

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Dear Hera,

This is a bit of a random one but here goes. I’m 22 and work an OK job (OK meaning I get paid a living wage) and live with five friends in a big flat. We all get along really great and mostly just take care of ourselves. But I’ve noticed we have different ideas (or would it be values?) around sharing and money and it’s starting to really irk me.

Example: whenever we have a party or dinner at the house, I will buy things assuming they’re for everyone. Sometimes it’s getting a case of beers when I know I’ll only drink a few but others will enjoy them. Sometimes it’s picking up the tab if it’s a small outing or buying a utensil for the kitchen that we know we need. Sometimes it’s just feeling like some chips and opening them in the lounge where others can eat them too. Normal, right?

I was always taught that if you’re in a group, you don’t just take care of yourself but the whole group, and then others do the same in return. But none of my flatmates do the same. They will buy only exactly what they want or need and nothing more. They always split the bill at restaurants which is kind of embarrassing? And if they buy something for everyone, they’ll send a message asking for everyone to pay them back. Sometimes it’s only like $3 each!

I don’t know what to do because it would feel extremely rude and culturally off if I just took care of myself and never thought about others or asked people to pay me back for something so small. But at the same time, I earn the least of everyone and spend the most on group things. I don’t think anyone else even notices.

I’ve never had this problem before because the only other group living situations I’ve been in have been with family or people from similar cultural backgrounds so we all have the same ideas and know that sometimes you pay for things and other times people pay for you. Now it’s just me paying for things and no return and I don’t think I can afford it but also don’t know how to change without compromising my sense of community. It also feels rude if I ask others to just pay for things because that’s also not the point!

Help me I’m poor.

A line of dark blue card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Recently, in between watching reruns of Top Chef and reading about major aviation disasters, I found myself on a forum of ex-pats living in The Netherlands discussing “Tikkie” culture. 

Tikkei is a micropayment app for people with Dutch bank accounts. The idea is, after a carefree picnic with friends, you divide up the cost of the bunch of grapes you purchased and send everyone a payment request for the 45c they now owe you. To those who didn’t grow up constantly ducking windmill blades, this may appear stingy. But it all makes more sense if you know the Dutch hate feeling beholden, therefore having a transparent and pedantic system of financial scorekeeping is an ingenious method of making everyone feel socially at ease. 

In my family, attempting to pay the bill is an Olympic sport. My aunt and mother used every strategy to outwit each other at the supermarket checkout counter, including feigning resignation while secretly slipping cash into the other person’s handbag. To me, this is a charming and somewhat deranged way of demonstrating affection, but I’m sure the Dutch would consider it hateful and against god. 

Who pays for what and when is a deeply entrenched cultural habit which can be hard to shake. But I think we can all agree that buying the occasional shared bag of potato chips for your flat is a prosocial utilitarian good. Like you, I’d prefer to live in a flat where there’s a culture of sharing, rather than one where everyone has a private tube of toothpaste. But how do you win everyone over to your way of thinking, and elicit a spirit of mutual generosity in people who don’t seem naturally inclined to share? 

Beyond threatening your flatmates with the ghost of Christmas yet to come, you don’t have a lot of options. It’s possible your friends aren’t as well off as you think, and they need that $3 to fund their psychic hotline addiction. But it’s more likely they’re oblivious to this dynamic, and simply take your generosity for granted. You could bring it up and hope they take the hint. You could also establish a flat account for incidentals, or stop buying things for others. But all these solutions run contrary to the spirit of your question, which is how to remain generous in a miserly culture. 

I feel like this is a politically relevant question. At the moment, the National government is working as hard and fast as possible to strip all of our national resources, decimating holiday pay, conservation land, fair pay agreements, free school lunches and disability support, all to line the pockets of property investors and tobacco lobbyists. It’s hard not to feel scandalised at the selfishness of those in charge, or the people that voted them in. But it’s also more important than ever to keep the spirit of generosity alive, and to look out for our friends and neighbours, especially in this new world of Koru-lounge nobodys and disingenuous business hicks. 

You can’t allow your generosity to be diminished by the selfishness of those around you, without betraying your own values. But there’s no use stewing in resentment either. It’s hard to change an invisible dynamic of a group that doesn’t believe they have a problem. Ultimately you might be happier finding a different flat, with people who want a more communal living style. Sometimes it’s better to keep your friendships and power bills separate.

If you don’t want to move out, you have two choices. You can either call an urgent flat meeting, lock the door and show them a Ted Talk on “The Innate Wisdom of Generosity” until the message sinks in. Or you might need to lower your expectations a little. Once that generosity starts causing you hardship and resentment, it’s time to reconsider your strategy. 

Buying the occasional bag of chips or second-hand dartboard is kind and neighbourly. But don’t let your generosity become financially burdensome, because it won’t be reciprocated. That doesn’t mean you have to stop looking out for others. There are plenty of ways to be generous, like sponging cat sick out of the carpet, or looking after someone’s plants while they’re out of town, or making Sunday pancakes. But if you’re frustrated by the financial obliviousness of your friends, you might do better redirecting that community spirit elsewhere, like the food bank at the supermarket, rather than the flat pantry.

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