The Finances and Interactions of Alternative Living Arrangements

Recently, there has been some talk in our house of inviting my wife’s sister to live with us on a permanent basis (in fact, my wife and I have already extended the invitation and she is thinking about it, though it is far far far from a done deal). We have the room to allow for this arrangement easily, so that’s not a concern, and our personalities mesh very well, so that’s not a concern either.

What does worry us a bit is the financial arrangement. Should we expect her to pay rent for what amounts to use of our basement as an apartment? What about other living expenses? Should this be treated like a rental arrangement? What about food expenses? What about expected behavior?

Even situations that seem on paper as though they would go quite well often fall apart due to expectations left unfulfilled and feelings left unchecked. I’ve experienced this in the past with college-era roommates (all but two of them, in fact, were problematic and the remaining two wound up being my wife and the best man at our wedding) and I’ve also seen it create some very uncomfortable feelings in other family situations.

Our approach to solving this is to have a few meetings where we simply lay all of this out on the table before we even get started. We’re planning on such a meeting around Christmastime where everything will be laid out on the table and all three of us (and even to a degree our son, who is just over two) will give our opinions and thoughts on any issue that could potentially concern any of us about the arrangement.

For example, I personally don’t feel that she needs to pay rent, but I would like help with the grocery bill. However, if I were to turn things around and be in her shoes, I would feel obligated to pay rent in some fashion, and if she feels that way, then it will be pretty easy to work out a fair number (basically, whatever she feels is fair).

Similarly, I’m very open about the behavior she can follow in our house (basically, as long as she follows some basic tact around the children, I’m okay with whatever choices she makes as an adult), while my wife is somewhat more nervous about it than I am. Along those same lines, my sister-in-law is probably harboring some concern that she would be viewed as a live-in babysitter, which I have zero interest in whatsoever.

These issues need to be discussed fairly and openly. If that doesn’t happen, someone is going to start feeling uncomfortable eventually, and that discomfort can easily grow into a serious issue.

On the other hand, if you’re considering a cohabitating situation and you’re not comfortable enough with the person to discuss such things this openly, you should strongly consider not doing it at all, because there are already factors at work reducing the comfort level to a point that you can’t talk about things and cohabitation will just make it worse.

What do I personally feel is appropriate? It depends entirely if you are willing to view this person as part of your immediate family or not – and I’m quite willing to with my sister-in-law. If it is more of a situation where the person is just “renting” a small portion of your home, then I feel that a rental payment should be required and negotiated and that food should largely be kept separately unless there is a shared food arrangement as well.

With family, though, much of that is out the door. I would expect that the new person would function just as siblings would as children – treating each other roughly as equals, sharing most possessions, and so on. I do not expect any rent payment, but I would expect an appropriate share of the food bill and perhaps some utility assistance since there will be a bit more energy and water usage than before. Anything beyond that is entirely dependent on the comfort level of everyone involved – some people will feel obligated to pay some amount of “rent” while others will see it as family.

As for interaction with our children, she’s still their aunt. I would expect that she would spend some time with them, but I don’t expect her to be a third parent or a permanent babysitter in any fashion. She’s chosen not to have children, so it would be foolish of me to expect her to be the parent of my children.

Whatever the expectations, though, I feel quite strongly that it should be talked through in detail before taking the plunge.

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