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?


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.


My advise is plainly simple; if you want to live with anybody you will have to take your stand in many situations. This one is clearly an example of how effective negotiation can shape a better community, not only between the roomies but with the people with access to the food bank. Talk things out, if you start keeping things for yourself nothing good will come out. On the other side, I have just recenly tell one of my roomies that I´m dating his former girlfriend, after a brief negotiation I'm moving out of the appartment, gladly with her.





Why is there an xbox controller in the Freezer?


...or a mermaid near the juice?


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.

Peace Monger

Since this bother's Lauren so much, she should get her own refrigerator so that she doesn't have to see her roommate's food. Lauren would have much greater peace of mind if she didn't feel responsibility for other people's actions.


"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.

Xiao Wei

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.


Find comfort in the fact that, when at her age, you were more sensitive to issues such as food wasting.
Accept that you are not the only person in the world stuck in this disharmonious situation and try harder to tolerate it for one more semester (while many other students will face another 3 years of it).
Seek to become an even better person and encourage the roommate to follow your example (and good luck there).


Three ideas:

First, next time you see her throwing out food, innocently as "Wow, how much did all of that cost?"

Second, invite her to come with you to work at a charity providing food to those starving people in Baltimore.

Third, if neither of the above work, when you see her going out for dinner innocently ask "Are you going to eat (something in the fridge)?" Then at least you can stop paying so much for food and live off her daddy's money.

Finally, while I do wonder about the Xbox controller in the freezer, I'm more worried about the mermaid doll in the fridge. Is she being punished for something?


Lauren: Pls just eat the food that you like and rescue the food which can be donated at foodbank when it its still edible.


...but you're OK with the mermaid in the fridge? :-)


As far as a subtle hint goes; I would just start eating her food when it is approaching expiration but not yet too far gone. Then if she complains say something like, "Well, your just going to have to through it out soon anyway, and I didn't want to see it go to waste." If she doesn't complain, hey free food!


Technically there is a bit of benefit to that segment of the economy which is receiving the roommate's money - food innovations, supporting demand, supporting possibly local and organic food providers, etc.

In the broad scale, though, it is a net loss. It's a perfect example of Bastiat's broken window fallacy.

While, yes, the food corner of the economy is benefiting, the economy as a whole is less well off.


Step up to the plate - self-deception is not pretty in this case.

Here's why:
The only facts that you have are that she buys the food - does not eat the food - and she throws the food out.

Your (one) interpretation is that she is wasteful.

Other interpretations?

1) It is also entirely possible that she knows it is tough for you to make ends meet and is buying this to 'share' with you. If that is the case, even partially so, then she may also be frustrated at the waste and - from her perspective - your non-caring attitude.

2) She doesn't know how to or want to cook. I am assuming here that part of your frustration is that you are thinking "if only I could use that food I could make this...or that...or that..." Maybe approach her and offer to cook for both of you upon occasion - it's no biggie to cook for two instead of one.

Eat some of it at least. Tell her "I was starved and it was late at night and the Xbox controller looked delicious so I had a slice of it and Oh, I hope it's okay? Maybe it will open up the conversation.



Her food, her (parents') money, her problem. It is honorable to be concerned about the hungry people in your area. But you are her roommate, NOT her mamma. As long as what she's doing isn't doing you any harm, it really isn't your business. But if you insist on forcing life lessons on someone who most likely is too self absorbed to be receptive (as most 23 year old college kids are) then invite her to volunteer at the soup kitchen with you. Either the experience will encourage her to make better choices, or it won't...

Iljitsch van Beijnum

Get over it. When people leave the house they need to start figuring out stuff like how much food to buy. This woman is not your daughter, it's not your business to tell her what to do, unless this affects you directly. And it's irrational to feel bad about the wasted food, how would it be better if she actually ate it?