nickel and diming

when getting into the details hurts the overall goal

I once heard a cautionary tale of a story of a house that paid for their food together and enjoyed communal meals. The trouble started when someone asked to pay less into the food fund because they ate at work most of the time. Sure, the group thought, that seems fair. But then someone else asked to pay less into the food fund because they weren’t home for dinner very often. Sure, the group thought, if you’re away from home often and eat less food then you probably cost the house less in food expenses. But when someone started tracking when they ate at home in a spreadsheet, to determine how much they should pay, the house realized they had a problem.

What dynamics are at play when a group tries to charge for food “fairly” based on exactly how often people eat at home? I can think of at least two undesirable things that can happen:

(1) People are disincentivized from showing up to eat with the house, since each meal costs them extra. If they can get away with eating at work for free, or snacking on something in their room, then they’ll save money. I don’t like this because I think hanging out with housemates at dinner time is a great time for community bonding.

(2) Cognitive overload from the logistical work of tracking details like this. It’s tiring to figure out how often people show up to meals, to manage the finances around it, and to keep track of models that are more complicated than “everyone pays $X per month for food”. Every added detail, like tracking snacks, breakfast, and leftovers takes up even more brain space that could be spent on other things like getting to know each other.

We encountered a similar situation at The Village recently. We charge monthly dues per person per month, which pays for food, utilities, miscellaneous house purchases, and house savings. When people travel, they don’t use food or utilities, so we decided people can pay 50% dues while they’re gone if they travel for longer than two weeks at a time.

But recently someone was house-sitting nearby, visiting the house sometimes to hang out or eat, and wondered if they should pay reduced dues during this time. We also had a situation where someone was traveling for about two weeks but was home for a day in the middle. How should we treat these edge cases? We considered reducing dues in both situations, but then someone told us the cautionary tale I just shared.

In the end, we decided that people pay reduced dues only if they are out of town and for more than two weeks. It felt important that the guideline be simple, so that it would be easy to keep track of and easy to understand the incentives involved. We added the extra detail of being far enough from the house so that travelers definitely wouldn’t have the option of dropping in for food or hanging out (which we want to encourage when possible). Being out of town is also generally more expensive (travel, a place to stay) than whatever is saved on dues, so it seems unlikely that people would end up staying away from the house to save money.

This all goes back to an idea I’ve written about before: I don’t think there’s a simple or easy answer to what’s "fair" or “correct”, especially when it comes to money. I’d rather focus on what incentivizes the community to feel comfy and connected to each other, which can look different for different groups of people. I also prefer simple solutions when possible, so that they are easy to implement.

This expands to ideas beyond money and food. Most house rules and processes become costly when overly complicated. What counts as overly complicated is not always clear, though -- sometimes extra details can be helpful, like reducing dues when people take month-long vacations. It’s up to a group to figure out what details are helpful to them, and when they might be going a bit too far.