How to Survive Living with a Roommate (or Two, or Three)!

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By Lexie Brada

So you’re going off to college. Your bags are packed. You’re so ready to get out of your house and have your own adult space; you know exactly what you’ll hang on the walls, where you want to put your mini-fridge, and you have meticulously packed everything from your childhood bedroom that you need.

If you’re lucky and an introvert, maybe you scored a single dorm room. But if you’re like so many college kids, you are probably living with a roommate or two - in the dorms or in a campus apartment. 

If you’re like me, you had the luxury of never having to share a room growing up, so maybe this is the first time you’re forced to live in close quarters with someone else. And, even if you shared a room with a sibling before college, siblings and roommates are two totally different beasts. 

My first year, I had a random roommate. I won’t name names or spill the tea on my poor freshman roommate, but it was bad. So when I moved in with my best friend the next year, I figured, heck, this has gotta be a piece of cake, right? 

Hahaha. Wrong. (No shade - love you, Sierra!) 

Because let’s face it; even if you really want to live with a person, like a best friend or a significant other, there’s going to be some adjusting. And if you’re living with some rando you don’t gel with, it’s going to be even more of a game of compromise.

Here’s the tips I’ve told all my younger siblings for attempting to survive living with other people in the same dorm or apartment as you! 

#1: Food Isn’t that Big of a Deal

This is a tip that my mother told me and her mother told her when she left for college. It’s been passed down. And I do think it’s a sage rule that has kept me out of a few big fights. 

The rule is very simple…don’t get upset about roommates eating your food. (In most cases; of course, situations vary depending on more extreme situations!) 

I’m not necessarily saying to lay down and just be a doormat all the time, but out of all the boundary crossing, this one seems to be the most popular. You could be petty and put something in their food to make them never want to take your stuff again (hot sauce, digestives, a yucky flavor), but then you’re just starting a civil war with someone you have to share your space with. 

Rather, before blowing up on your roommate, try talking to them about it. Calmly. Yes, I mean it. Calmly. Try to get to the root of the issue. Is it that they don’t have the means to get food themselves? Is it that they’re lazy? Did they just make a mistake? 

I can be VERY protective of my food. To put it into perspective, I had a Dairy Queen ice cream cake that my family brought down for my birthday. I was living with two roommates. We all shared it, and then I left the last piece to eat after class the next day. It was the part that literally had my name on it in icing. When I returned, I was devastated to find one of my roommates treating herself to it.

If I hadn’t remembered this, I probably would have screamed in her face and gone to cry. Ice cream cake is EXPENSIVE, and I had been so excited all day in a boring class to get home to that. Instead, I asked her why she ate it, and she explained that she thought it was ‘free game’ since I’d offered her a piece last night. It was a misunderstanding. One I think I wouldn’t have made, but my roommate wasn’t me. She interpreted the situation differently. She bought me a small ice cream cake as an apology and was very sincere about it. 

If a roommate is stealing, let’s say, your laptop…that’s a different story. But when it comes to what’s in the fridge, try to talk and be calm before you start a literal food fight with your roomie. 

#2: Establish What IS Fair Game

If you don’t want to worry about that sort of fight, you could just hide your snacks in your room or on your side of your dorm, which is pretty common. But there will likely be some things that you can’t do that with.

Can you go wild with a sharpie and put your autograph all over your coffee mate? Sure. But maybe it’s a small dorm fridge and you both like the same kind of creamer, so taking up that sort of real-estate seems a bit silly, huh? 

One of the first things I always do when I move in with someone else is lay down the ground rules of what food is free game for anyone to take and what we agree to communally buy. For me, these were things like milk, butter, eggs, flour, and other cooking supplies. But I also think it’s good to have a conversation about a ‘never touch’ list. Things that even my boyfriend knows, if he eats and does not replace for me, he will end up with a very grumpy girlfriend. It’s not a lot. For me, it’s Dr. Pepper and Goldfish crackers. Maybe it’s Oreos for you. Maybe it’s your takeout. You’re certainly allowed to have a ‘paws off’ item or shelf, and I would encourage your roommates to think the same way! 

#3: Protect The Stuff You Want Protected

In a perfect world, you’d always get great roommates that are stand-up people. But sadly, we know that’s not the case. And, even if your roommates are pretty logical and common-sense driven companions, maybe you’re like me and very particular about (and protective over) your stuff.

In a small two-person dorm room, it was easy to keep my things on my side. Once I moved into an apartment and suddenly had all this space to spread out, I learned this one quickly.

If you don’t want a roommate touching something, don’t put it in common areas. Even under the best of circumstances, textbooks I put on the coffee table would get absent-mindedly moved to set nachos out to watch a movie, be covered in their own notes, or disappear entirely. Neither of my roommates were people with malicious intent. Even if your roommate doesn't mean to spill a mixed drink on your laptop, things happen. And I know I moved their stuff around if I needed to. If you are a person that shudders at the idea of other people touching your things or having to do a treasure hunt before class for a notebook that is not where you left it, keep it in your private personal space and not in shared living areas. Be prepared for anything you do leave in a shared space to potentially be moved, broken, spilled on, or mistakenly taken. 

#4: Be the Bigger Person

I always made sure my roommates and I knew each other’s schedules. This meant that even if I wanted to stay up late watching Netflix on the big TV on a night off, and my roommate had an early class the next morning, I opted to watch with headphones or hold off. 

 Maybe I don’t have a morning class on Thursdays so it’s tempting to binge that show I've been meaning to watch on our TV, but my roommate maybe had a 8am class on Thursday. 

Am I under any obligation to keep the noise down even if I really want to watch that show? No, of course not! But did I? Yeah.

Because being the bigger person is just a good way to live. 

Maybe your roommates will pick up on it. Maybe they won’t. But at least you can say that you did not go out of your way to make someone else’s day worse. 

#5: To Clean or Not To Clean

If you end up with messy roommates (seems to be my luck!) and there's stuff in the sink, just clean it. For a long time, I felt like I was letting my messy roommates win, but honestly, a clean sink is just a better feeling. For me, it was a battle that just wasn't worth fighting. Maybe it is to you, but the passive-aggressive thing gets old real quick. It’s a good idea at the moment, but try dragging it out for an entire semester. Barf. 

My roommates and I didn't do a rotating cleaning chart, or at least not a big one. One roommate of mine really liked vacuuming, I loved doing laundry, and the last one was really precise about the fridge. Why would I vacuum when my friend would much rather do it? So I'd say figure out the chores based on likes, unless there's something you hate equally, like bathroom cleaning was ours that we had to rotate.

If you’re a naturally clean person, awesome! But if you’re not, like I begrudgingly admit I was, it might be nice to go out of your way to clean up some spaces sometimes. Do I admit that currently, whenever I empty the dishwasher, it’s because I know my boyfriend will appreciate the action? Yes. But hey…the dishes are still getting done, so the intent or reason you did it can be whatever it needs to be. 

#6: Recognize that Living with Other People is HARD

There will probably be many things that you don’t love about your roommate. Living with someone really just points out a lot of flaws, which is okay. I mean, you just gotta find ways to laugh about it, because otherwise it becomes overwhelming. Like my roommate that never could finish any can of soda or bottle of water and never picked them up. We made a 'lost drinks' station for her in the fridge and if she'd ask us to grab a soda for her, we'd bring her a half-drunk one as a sorta joke. Similarly, realize that there will probably be things your roommate is annoyed with you about, so be sure to just have a good attitude about it.

Even under the best of the best circumstances, such as moving in with a significant other, you will figure out the things about them that really, really annoy you. And recognize that some of these things you will probably have to live with. 

When it comes to roommates, you’re with them for maybe a year (or two, if you had an okay time living with them). What bothers you about living with them is probably a trait they’ve always had. I know I will always be a disorganized person. I know my best friend will never clean the dishes on what I think is a reasonable schedule. I know that my boyfriend will always listen to music without his headphones. If they came with this issue, it’s likely ingrained in their behavior . Why do you think you’ll magically change it? If they don’t want to change their ways, you’re only going to cause fights. You’re certainly allowed to say ‘hey, this thing that you’re doing really bothers me’, but unless they’re putting you in danger, it has to be up to them to decide to change it. 

#7: Communication 

I cannot say this enough, but for goodness sake…TALK TO YOUR ROOMMATES. 

In ANY relationship of any time, staring at your roommate/siblings/significant other and seething in anger, hoping they’ll magically figure out what’s wrong is just asking to be disappointed. I’m not a mind-reader. I don’t think you are. If you are, I will give you $50 bucks. 

I’m guessing that pretty much no one will take me up on that. 

It might be obvious to YOU what’s wrong, but chances are, it’s not to whoever you’re angry at. With the sink-roommate, I spent so long trying to figure out HOW she possibly couldn’t figure out that I was annoyed that her dishes were ALWAYS in the sink, until I talked to her and found out her family only did dishes once per week, so this was normal to her. And she admitted that she would try harder, but maybe I had to remind her. So sometimes I’d just have to go into her room and say ‘Dishes?’ and she’d get up and do them. 

And I came to realize…she wasn’t trying to personally annoy me by doing this. She just came from a different experience with cleaning than I did, and neither of us were doing anything wrong. So if there’s an issue, just talk about it.

It can be scary. I know, I know.

But please do it. You’ll be better at learning to be an adult by doing so. 

#8: Know Your Limits 

There always comes a time when you think about a recurring issue and go ‘okay, I can’t live like this anymore’, and that’s okay. If you do this all the time (ex. giving ultimatums every weekend), you’re going to be choosing all the battles. That’s a personal decision but one that would wear me down pretty darn quick.

However, regardless of the battles you do or don’t choose to fight, there will be a point  when you’ve reached your limit.

Voice it as soon as it happens. Don’t just sit there quietly thinking you have to let it go or think you’re being unreasonable. You know what’s not a livable situation for you. 

Mine was that two different roommates of mine ended up having their boyfriends basically move in, which would be fine if they were in their rooms, but in both cases the boyfriends were the living room. Which meant I couldn't use the couch, watch tv, hang out  there, and I started feeling weird about walking around in my PJs at night to grab water. I felt like I had to be super quiet at night because, if they were just wasn't good. I felt like I couldn’t live in my own house. With one boyfriend, it was because his girlfriend shared a room and my other roomie felt uncomfortable with the boyfriend in there, which was understandable. With the other one, it was just because my roommate was very particular and didn't like people sharing a bed with her but wanted her boyfriend close. Both times I had to be like 'hey, either he needs to move into your room to sleep, or he needs to start coughing up some rent'.

On that note, you probably know what boundaries are important to you from the start. Make sure you talk about those early. Do you need absolute silence to sleep? Is it okay if a significant other hangs around, eats your food? Do you even want other people coming into your room/dorm? 

My big one when living in a dorm was I didn’t want strangers sitting on my bed. I didn’t care if they were in the room, but I didn’t want someone on my sheets if I didn’t know where they’d been. I said this very clearly to my roommate on day one and was firm on the one time she forgot the rule, making sure to enforce what I needed my healthy boundaries to be. You deserve healthy boundaries. If a roommate isn’t abiding and you have an RA, don’t be afraid to go and talk to them to assure that you’re getting what you need to survive an already stressful time! It would be a great opportunity to revisit a lease or roommate agreement with a mediator between you two. 

#9: Decorate 

I know that some people are dying to get a chance to decorate their own space entirely how they want. But I also know that sometimes it can seem like a lot of work when you are just going to be taking it done in nine months or moving in a year. 

I remember being so excited to put up fairy lights and nerdy posters when I moved into my first dorm. But then when I moved into my college apartment, unsure if I would be there the next year or have found a better place, I found myself unsure if I wanted to go through the effort of putting things up just to have to re-do it all next year.

Do it.

The truth is, you need your oasis, whatever it is: mood lighting, pictures of friends, even a coat of paint (if you’re allowed), organizing collections, setting up a really nice gaming station, or making a creative studio space. 

Whatever your oasis inside your apartment is, it’s never going to be a waste of time to curate it. Make your house feel like a home, even if it’s just a small sliver. This can help you to feel more comfortable in a space with others, and not like you’re just passing through and stuck with someone for nine months. 

#10: Find Places Outside of Your Apartment 

Lastly, as much as I’ve given you tips on how to live with a roommate within your apartment, there will come a time when you just need to get out of there…for your own sake, and theirs too.

I’m an introvert by nature, so my ‘alone time’ is sacred, but even my roommates that were more gregarious sometimes needed a place that was entirely their own. Depending on where you live, this could be a park, coffee shop, bookstore, campus library…any comforting space where you can just be alone. 

If you treasure your alone time, you probably already have this one down pat. If leaving your home for some space isn’t something you would normally do, please, please get into the habit. Not just for your own sake - having time to self-reflect and explore your city is going to make you grow as a person - but taking the onus off your roommate to ask for some time alone will make things go smoother. My freshman roommate was nicknamed ‘The Houseplant’ because she never left our dorm. It was a small dorm. She would go to class and come back. It eventually became really, really overwhelming to never get a second alone. I wasn’t as wise then and should have voiced my issues sooner. If I were giving my young self some advice, it would be to tell my roommate that I really would appreciate it if sometimes she would find somewhere else to be, and I could do the same for her on days when she was overwhelmed. Once again, sometimes, it’s just better to take the initiative, even if your roommates wouldn’t do the same. 

Wondering what you'll do after college and how to snag a high-paying job where you DON'T have to live with roommates? Download the Pathmatch app to discover companies that match your interests, strengths, and goals! Pathmatch can help find the perfect career fit for you! 

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