#1370: “I feel suffocated and want to move away from my stingy roommate.”

Dear Captain,

I’ve have a friend (female late 20s) with whom I’ve known since college. We have lived together twice in our 20s once in college and now again in our late 20s. I’ve always known this friend to be somewhat worried about spending money and partly that’s why we became friends in the first place, since we both come from modest backgrounds and entered a prestigious college where everyone else seemed to be awash with money. At the time this wasn’t apparent to me why we were friends but now it makes sense, it felt comfortable and familiar and there was a shared understanding of our difference from everyone else.

Fast forward and now both of us are in our late 20s and I end up living with this friend during the pandemic. We both have good jobs now and earn decent money. The thing is friend hasn’t seemed to move past the fact that we can spend money now and enjoy life. Her life is controlled by saving and scrimping on the smallest of things despite that fact that she could very well afford not to. Every thing is brought back to money to the point where I feel it’s really impacting the atmosphere living here and I resent her for it.

While stinginess is probably only a symptom of a wider issue in general about our friendship and changing values, Im planning on moving out because of it. I’m not sure if I’m overreacting by moving out and possibly ditching a friend I’ve known for years because they’re tight with money? I feel she has no other friends. She also sees me as a close friend, while I have many other friends who I am much closer to.

Suffocated with Stinginess


Dear M,

Hello and thank you for your question!

For me, this question seems to be about the difference between identifying your own reasons for making a decision and informing the other person about (all of) those reasons. You worry that you might be “overreacting” by moving out, and you frame moving out as potentially “ditching a friend,” almost like you think that you’re not allowed to move out unless you can make an airtight case about why, and to do that there has to be a villain somewhere. You’re even willing to cast yourself in that role if that’s what needs to happen to make the break.

It  doesn’t have to be like that. Relationships can change shape and even end without anybody having to be the villain.

I think people sometimes do a lot of unintentional damage when they don’t think they are allowed to leave a situation or set boundaries just because they want to (“Am I overreacting?”) and as a result they try to pathologize or villainize the other person until they find – or manufacture – sufficient justification to actually react. The more afraid they are of conflict, the longer they tend to procrastinate until some outside event forces the issue, and the more likely it is that what comes out is a hurtful explosion of All The Reasons You Suck, All Of The Time, Forever, instead of stuff like “Hey, you probably didn’t know, but that’s actually my umbrella.” While the self-doubt-avoid-avoid-avoid-avoid-avoid-avoid-avoid-avoid-over-justify-EXPLODE cycle keeps advice columnists in business, it is otherwise no fun.

So, let me start with an important reminder: Letter Writer, you are allowed to leave a living situation that is no longer making you happy for one that you think might make you happier, just because you want to. This is true at any age, but your late 20s is an especially good time to recalculate and reimagine what happiness looks like for you and make changes accordingly. I absolutely believe you about how annoying and suffocating you find your roommate’s behaviors about money, and the fact that it probably feels 1,000 times worse inside her head to be like this doesn’t mean that it’s not affecting you. (Ever had a roommate decide to actively make their issues into your issues, by, say, scrutinizing every bite of food that goes into your mouth and delivering a real-time calculation of how many calories is in that, to the point that you start eating secretly, standing up, in your closet, only when she’s asleep? No? Lucky you! ) Letter Writer, even if your friend were the best roommate ever, “I would like to live alone/with different people next time around”  and “I would like to spend less time with someone who stresses me out”  – truly!!!!! –  are good enough reasons to seek other arrangements.  If you can accept that, then hopefully it will empower you to be gentle with everyone, including yourself, and realize that maybe you don’t have to kick so hard when you swim your way free.

As the person initiating the household split, you currently have a head start that temporarily grants you a little bit more knowledge and power than your roommate. I suggest using this advantage to clarify what you truly want out of the looming conversation about dissolving your little household, so that you can be strategic about what you say.

Here are some questions for you to think about before you speak up:

A) Is your main goal to end or dramatically scale back the friendship? Does that need to be an explicit break-up conversation, or will moving out and reducing your day-to-day proximity accomplish that on its own over time? Forced proximity is part of what’s killing this friendship now, but is proximity necessary for its survival in the first place?

B) Is your goal to unload your frustrations about your friend’s relationship with money and how that affects you?  Do you want to express a bunch of anger you’ve been holding onto for the sake of keeping the peace? Do you want your friend to understand what she’s doing to annoy you, “learn a lesson” about that, and/or change her attitudes and behaviors as a result? If so, are the tensions and conflicts about money part of an ongoing conversation you’ve been having all along? If you actually shared your reasons, would they be a surprise to her? If she promised to change how she interacts with you about money, would it change your mind about wanting to leave? (I’m guessing no, but it’s good to spell that out).

C) Or, is your main goal to let your roommate know that you intend to move out of the apartment and have that all go as smoothly as possible, with minimal immediate disruption to the friendship? Is the “right now” conversation about your plans to move, with figuring out how to stay friends more of a “later” project when you have your own space and hopefully her attitudes toward money and other daily little tensions will be less of an issue between you?

D) While we’re asking questions, are there any safety concerns you have about moving or telling this friend you are moving? It doesn’t sound like it here, but I have personal experience moving out in secret while a roommate was out of town out of realistic fear that she would harm my stuff, my pet, and myself if I told her while she still had access to all of those. I sincerely hope this doesn’t apply for you, but I suggest doing at least a quick audit of how much this person could mess with your important papers, prized possessions, pets, mail, credit history, and digital security if she got Big Mad and taking steps to protect yourself. If everything turns out fine and you never needed these precautions, it’s okay, she’ll never know you made them. But if there’s even the slightest hint you might want them, a very good time to put them in place is right now, *before* you tell her.

All of these questions are part of your overall decision and the fabric of your relationship with this person, but not all of them are necessarily “right now” questions. In other words, all of your accumulated reservations and annoyances about your roommate’s tightfistedness can be true, but not all of them are equally useful, depending on what you want out of this negotiation.

As with other break-ups, assuming that this isn’t a violent, “get out NOW” situation, I’d like to make the case for Option C) above. Once you’ve decided for sure that you’re leaving,  communicating your decision and your plan for the future is both more useful and kinder than placing blame, excavating the conflicts of the past in an attempt to sell the other person on why it’s their fault that you gotta go, or pretending that there’s something they could do to convince you to stay. Once a relationship ends, however painful that process may be, everybody gets to be free from working on the relationship anymore, including talking through and attempting to resolve every problem, including making sure the other person “learns their lesson.” (Whether you quit a job or got fired, you don’t have to provide free employee retention consulting your way out. Other people’s epiphanies get to be their own business from now on!)

Meaning, practically, that once you’ve decided to move out, all you really have to say is: “Friend, when our lease is up, I am planning to get my own apartment. I wanted to give you plenty of notice so that you can make good plans for finding a new roommate or moving somewhere else when the time comes.” 

If you are in fact moving to a place by yourself, that can be your reason all by itself. “I’ve never lived alone as an adult and I want to give that a try.”  If you’re planning to move in with different roommates, that’s a slightly harder sell (roommate-feelings-wise), but not impossible. “Friend A & Friend B invited me to take the extra room in their place and I’ve decided to take them up on it. I wanted to tell you right away so that you can find a new roommate or situation that works for you.”  

Once you deliver the news, your roommate will likely have some Big Feelings, and her initial reaction might not be awesome. Or then again, it might be something like “Phew, I’ve been thinking of moving too, and I didn’t know how to bring it up!” You don’t know! So probably don’t add a lot of “You probably won’t want to hear this…” or “I know I’m officially your Only Friend…” baggage or assumptions when you deliver your news. You can’t control her reactions, and doing too much to try to manage what you assume her feelings will be in advance is going to backfire, badly, and make you come across as incredibly condescending. (Even if you’re right, nobody ever thanks you for making correct assumptions about their bad behavior in vulnerable moments, like, “It’s amazing how right you are about this thing that just hurt my feelings and destroyed my life, great job!”)

That said, since time is on your side, you can certainly anticipate likely reactions based on what you know about her and make plans for how to respond if that will make it easier for you to maintain your boundaries. If your roommate perceives you moving out as a rejection of her (not…untrue?), if it brings up a torrent of financial anxieties about how she’ll afford a new place (neither surprising nor irrelevant), if she didn’t see this coming at all and feels blindsided (reasonable!), what first comes out of her mouth might be pretty volatile and tailor-made to provoke you in return. This is where your strategic planning about what you’re actually trying to accomplish will come in the most handy. You don’t have to respond to everything she say or solve all of her problems before you’re allowed to move to a different apartment!

If she asks why you’re leaving, try to keep the answers focused on yourself. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I think I want to live alone for a while.”  “I’m ready for a change, and since we have to inform the landlord if we’re renewing or not, this seems like the right time.”  Reasons that are about her = more reasons for her to justify or argue about. If your mind is made up, this is a waste of everyone’s energy and way more likely to hurt than help.

By staying focused on what you want (moving out), communicating what you’ve decided to do about it (move out, effective [date]), and staying secure in the fact that you are ultimately going to get what you want and need no matter how she responds right now (to have moved out), and keeping that separate from making any value judgements about her, then you don’t have to use your history of annoyance with her attitudes about money to make your case. You don’t have to make that case, or ANY case. That’s good, because there’s really no way to say “I find your obsession with thrift suffocating and want to be done now” that won’t be received as an existential attack on What Kind Of Person She Is, consuming your entire friendship in an ever-burning fire of remembered insecurity, trauma, and resentment.

You’ve had a while to think about all of this, but she’s just learning of it now, meaning you can probably better afford to be a little bit generous. Her first, surprised reactions are not necessarily the most important ones, so if you can grant both of you a little time, a little grace, and a little of what friend-of-blog S. Bear Bergman calls “selective amnesia,” then you can let her have whatever feelings she has without escalating or trying to talk her out of them in that moment. You can tell her that you understand that she’s not happy about the news and suggest taking a break from the discussion to think and cool down before discussing timing and logistics.

Once you’re not living together anymore, you might find that you actually get along with this friend much better. When you’ve had a little time and space for your spending habits and financial priorities to be 100% your business, without commentary from her, and without feeling like you have to manage her feelings about any of it, you may remember all the things that you actually like about her. Then, if you want, you can invite her to inexpensive hangouts when that works for you and save fancier plans for friends who are more compatible with you around money. If money is still an ongoing issue between you, then you can talk about it without it being part of your inescapable, daily grind. If it doesn’t work? Then it doesn’t work.

The friendship may end when the living situation does, or the potential for greater peace and harmony in this longtime friendship *may* come with time and space, there’s no way to decide or really promise that right now until sufficient time and space have been applied and had a chance to work their healing magic. I think your best chance to buy everybody as much of that time and space as possible is to be very direct and stay very focused on moving out as the logical, happy, exciting  – and non-negotiable – next step for you.  None of this is about punishing her, fixing her, or fixing the friendship, it’s about where you want to go from here. You’d like to move out, and you want her to know so that she is free to make plans for what she wants to do next. The sooner she knows, the more time she has to save up. The sooner you decide, and decide to tell her, the sooner you’ll be free to see what else is possible.

I hope it goes as well as can be and that both of you find happier and more compatible living situations very soon.