Question of the Day: What Does a Roommate’s Bad Habit Say About the Economics of Jealousy?

(Photo: Brad K)

I have long been interested in the effects — psychological, economic, and otherwise — of jealousy (and, relatedly, disgust and repugnance). Even using the word “jealousy” is probably loaded. (Maybe “resentment” is better? Doubtful.) In any case: somewhere between the 99% movement and the Mitt Romney-as-private-equity-bloodsucker meme lies a discussion that includes a lot of legitimate questions about fairness and a lot of less-legitimate emotional reaction that gets turned into political and intellectual fodder.

That’s what came to mind when this very interesting e-mail arrived the other day, from a reader named Lauren:

I’m a law student at the University of Maryland, and I have a question I’m hoping you can answer. Basically, the issue is this: I’m 37, back in school after years in the working world; and for the first time in ages, I’m living with a roommate. And she wastes food . . . and it’s driving me crazy. I’m not talking about just throwing out leftovers: she goes to the market once a week or so, buys a ton of expensive food, puts it in the fridge/cabinet, then eats out all the time and never touches it. Then, when it’s all gone bad, she dumps it all in the trash (often unopened) – and repeats the process.

I am finding this beyond maddening. And I can’t deny that much of my bitterness comes from the fact that she is 23 and clearly has money (her parents’) to burn; and . . .  well, I’m poor and jealous. But beyond that, it’s painful to see so much perfectly good food going to waste when Baltimore is full of people who are going hungry.

Still, I haven’t figured out a way to point this out without being antagonistic or grumpy about it. And I really just want to get through the next semester in relative harmony. I would rescue the food from the trash and donate it to a food bank, but she waits until it really is all inedible before throwing it out. And again, I don’t want to cause antipathy by taking it while it’s still salvageable.

So, all this is to ask: is it even remotely possible to make myself feel better by reasoning that at least she is supporting the economy; and that by increasing demand for food she is helping to finance innovations in food production that will ultimately help get food to people who really need it? Or, is that complete self-deception?

What advice do you have for Lauren?

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  1. Ari says:

    Seems to show a remarkable lack of self-awareness on your flat mate’s behalf.

    To buy too much found once is understandable, but to do it week after week suggests she’s pretty poor at learning from her previous mistakes and estimating her future plans.

    Seems like her problem’s more than just wasted food; she’s gotta get herself a better feedback loop.

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    • Brazzy says:

      You’re assuming she’s disposed to see it as a mistake in the first place, which is not a given. She may simply not consider waste of food a problem, or she may consider a full fridge an essential component of a well-kept home, no matter what actually happens with the food.

      And whatever the exact attitude, it’s most likely a habit acquired by seeing how it was done when whe was growing up and never consciously examined.

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  2. @ecoroberto says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. aubrey says:


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  4. Ryan says:

    Why is there an xbox controller in the Freezer?

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  5. Jerry says:

    My only suggestion would be to for her to have a tactful discussion with her roommate. Rather than framing the topic around the food she wastes, she could approach it as an opportunity to save money and contribute to a charitable cause. If the roommate were to grant her permission to automatically donate any item unused after 5-7 days (i.e. before the food has expired, but once it’s obvious she’s not interested in consuming it) she could continue her shopping habits while still helping those in need. I would imagine that if approached in the right way she could both help people and appeal to the roommates altruistic side. Obviously, she knows her roommate better than I as to how she’ll react to such a discussion, but I have to think there’s a method of approach that wouldn’t be construed as hostile.

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  6. Peace Monger says:

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  7. Debi says:

    “Hey, I’ve noticed you seem to toss a lot of unused food. Would you mind if I ate it, so that it doesn’t go to waste?”

    That would probably stop her from buying so much.

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    • TheInfamousGdub says:

      This is something I’ve done with roommates and it’s remarkable how easily it works. They just *give* food to me. It’s glorious.

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      • PoorStudent says:

        It has worked for me more times than I can remember. Yay for nice roommates. And freeloading.

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  8. Xiao Wei says:

    Possible solution:

    You could offer to cook for her (and yourself at the same time) using her food and essentially swap your labor for her food

    The roommate eats out due to the fact that she values her time more than the $$$ of the food. The roommate realizes that it is more healthy to eat at home but is unable to bring herself to spend the time (also the chance of cooking a sub par tasting meal) to cook.

    By cooking for her you get free food in exchange for your labor (you said you were poor so the your exchange of labor for food should be worth it). At the same time your roommate essentially gets something for nothing so there should be strictly positive net gain in this transaction.

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    • Steve S. says:

      This solution makes perfect sense – though judging by her actions this roommate probably will not get it:)

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    • TheInfamousGdub says:

      This would work best if you present the case in terms like, their loss+your contribution = no loss.

      Example: Hey, I noticed you don’t have a lot of time to prepare all the food you buy, and it just goes to waste. I was thinking, I could help you out with that by cooking it sometimes for you. What do you think about that?

      If it doesn’t work, the person is probably a horrible human being: get out!

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      • Owen says:

        You don’t need to present it like they are making a mistake by throwing out food. You just need to say, “hey do you mind if I use your (insert ingredient) to make (insert dish) for us?”

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