Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why you should buy those lattes

Every so often, the NYT discovers that the sky is blue, the earth is round, and if you spend $3 on coffee every day, 3x365 amounts to a bigger number than the multiplication-challenged would have thought. Small purchases add up. Motoko Rich is the latest to bring this fact to our attention:

According to a new survey, half of all American workers buy coffee regularly during work hours, spending more than $20 a week on java, or about $1,000 a year. (Workers 18 to 34 years old spend about twice as much, on average, as workers over 45.) Two-thirds of workers buy lunch instead of bringing something from home, and spend an average of $37 a week. That translates into nearly $2,000 a year — the price of a new piece of furniture or a vacation.
This is no longer an issue in my own life, as I live where there are no stores at all, and the biking necessary to make it to a coffee shop means that I can buy as many $4 mochas as I want and that's still at most a mocha a month. But, readers who live where the coffee shop tempts, you have my permission, no, encouragement to go forth. Ask yourselves:

-Is coffee harmful? I know we-as-a-society are in the mindset of telling smokers how much they'd save if they quit, but this is meant to be a way to convince them to quit for health reasons, not because they've been rendered destitute, or because we think they'd actually prefer whatever it was they could buy with the money they've saved to the cigarettes they're now not buying. But this approach can't just be lifted up and applied to safe and possibly even beneficial forms of consumption. With coffee, the presumed alternative is making coffee at home, not giving it up altogether.

-Is coffee wasteful? It's wasteful to drink coffee in the same way that it's wasteful to own more than the necessary clothes and shoes, to live in a larger-than-necessary home, drive a larger-than-necessary (or, in some cases, any) car, to own 99% of our electronics. It is wasteful to wear any makeup or jewelry, as one can perfectly well stay warm and decent without. It is wasteful to put herbs on food, when the stuff's edible and nutritious without the added garnish/flavor. By all means, make coffee at home, or get the "to stay" cup, or use a thermos. But, worst-case-scenario, a paper cup every workday is, as sins go, not one to hold up as the pinnacle of Western decadence. And no, it is not a uniquely 21st-century-American thing to consume more than is absolutely necessary to survive. That sometimes-tasty sludge known as Turkish coffee? It wasn't invented at the Hummus Place on St. Marks.

-Are coffee shops evil establishments we wish to use our collective power as consumers to put out of business? Opinion's no doubt divided on Starbucks, and those of us who've worked as in barista-worked at the charming independents know how not-charming that can be. But are these really the kind of businesses we feel compelled to shut down? Don't they provide more good than bad? Conviviality? Atmosphere? Change of scenery for the beleaguered 15th-year grad student? Yes, restaurants can claim that food, unlike coffee, is a necessity. But if it's a choice between spending $4 on a home-cooked meal and $3 on coffee, or $30 at the restaurant and 40 cents on coffee at home...

-Would you really prefer the $2,000 purchase to the many $3 ones? It's hard to picture that a $2,000 piece of furniture would be a goal a nomadic 20-something latte consumer is going to hold out for. And vacations... are nice and everything, but less romantic if you have a job that requires travel (air travel especially, ugh), and often end up sucking up massive amounts of money so quickly that you end up learning more than you needed to about urban Italian supermarkets, after getting massively ripped off on dinner upon arriving late and famished the first night. Or so I've heard. With the coffee, you know what you're getting, and the small increase in happiness over that many days (small happinesses add up!) could well be greater than what a vacation or an expensive dining room table might provide. The better question is, do you or do you not have those $2,000 to spare, but even then, eliminating something else (walking down streets with Sephoras on them, for example) can mean keeping the cappuccino if it means that much to you. And why shouldn't it?

-Do you really want to be this smug? For the love of all that's compostable, congratulations to those who make a big batch of lentils every Sunday night and eat that all week, who save money and livestock in the process, and who are invariably incapable of making anything in the precious slow-cooker without leaving comments about it online in a patronizing tone. Some of us do not share your infinite tolerance for monotony and/or legumes.


PG said...

The form I remember this discussion (specifically about buying Starbucks lattes) taking when I was blogging in law school was the "Should you be spending student loan money on this?" question. I don't like coffee myself and my parents paid my law school tuition (I paid for living expenses with pre-law school savings and what I made in two summers at law firms), so I didn't think it appropriate to weigh in on that question.

But in general, I think it's silly for most of this generation of young people to see spare income as something that can go to nice furniture or vacations. Spare income is something that goes to paying down student loans. The view of some regarding Starbucks coffee is analogous to the conservative view of the National Endowment of the Arts: a luxury that the debt-laden cannot afford.

Phoebe said...


"Spare income is something that goes to paying down student loans."

I'm not sure I follow where you're going with this. Do you, PG, think those with student loans shouldn't buy coffee, or that this is what some say, but something you disagree with? I'd think that law students at a top law school, if virtually guaranteed high-paid jobs upon graduation, would be in a different category. Obviously there are some who massively overspend, but if you're going to be making a ton very soon, and your laxity manifests itself as a latte habit, I'm not sure the concern. If, however, you're in debt for a degree that doesn't lead to much, that's another story.

dance said...

Sometimes I swear I read those columns just to get annoyed at the commenters, who are the most sanctimonious bunch. I wish for a Dislike flag and Recommend anyone who shows the least bit of rational sense.

In other news, I feel that you will appreciate this vignette, although I'm not sure why---in my new town, there is a self-described (on the marquee!) "European style open-air market."

I avoided it, because that's the last place I want to shop (sanctimonious!), until someone told me they had good salsa and hummus and chips. But, they also have take-and-bake pain au chocolat, carefully hand-folded in clear plastic bags with a locally printed label. (I haven't bought any yet, so can't fully report. For some reason, they also have approximately 5% of their fridge/freezer space given over to premade pierogi.)

I feel that something about take-and-bake pain au chocolat epitomizes the bankruptcy of the current hipster foodie movement.

Andrew Stevens said...

Frank Curmudgeon has the best post I've ever seen on this.

Phoebe said...


As soon as someone in a thread mentions whipping up a batch of legumes, it's downhill from there.


That's certainly the most... for lack of a better term, masculine post I've seen on the topic. I like the broader point, which is that if you're not making a lot to begin with, thriftiness isn't precisely going to make you rich. This is why things like, 'wow, you could have a spare $2,000' are a bit pointless - that sounds like a ton of money if you're young and working a part-time job for going-out funds, but it's not the difference between a high income and a low one, say, for a self-supporting adult. As a NYT commenter (a reasonable one) put it, macro matters more than micro. A higher-paying job will do vastly more than skipping Starbucks.

But the quibbles about whether it's $1,800 or $2,000, meh. And this, I wasn't quite on board with:

"Saving money by not absent-mindedly spending so much on expensive frivolities is a good thing. But it is not that good a thing. It is not particularly exciting and the payoff after many years is relatively mundane. $173,000 may be, probably is, preferable to a lifetime of lattes."

The problem is that a lifetime of lattes, for someone who enjoys each one, is preferable to whichever oh-so-shocking sum. A lifetime of feeling as though you're forever a child, powerless over your consumption, isn't so wonderful. By all means, save where you've been spending without getting much out of it, and if lattes are something you could give or take, skip them. But the mere fact that $latte x days lattes were purchased > one latte shouldn't in and of itself tell us that the lattes weren't worth it. No, one latte isn't worth $2,000 or $100,000, but that's not the issue. (FWIW, I don't even like lattes - too much milk. But those seem to be the beverage villain of choice.)

Phoebe said...

Oh, and dance, re: the croissants - there are now baguette vending machines in Paris. I think the proper foodie response is ambivalence.

PG said...

I don't think any school guarantees a high-paying job these days, but even in the halcyon pre-recession era, the discussion wasn't just among people at top tier schools but also among folks who had taken out just as much in loans to attend Southern Methodist Law (which is a decent school but never guaranteed high-paid jobs to the bottom half of the class). My second para was meant to be more generally applicable than just law students, though (tried to indicate the transition with "But in general"). 2/3 of the undergraduate class of 2010 graduated with debt in their own names, and they owed an average of $25,250. When you say that students and recent graduates aren't interested in $2000 dining sets, that's true, but the majority of them don't necessarily have $2000 in net wealth to spare anyway. If feeling oppressed by the burden of student debt -- a peculiarly American phenomenon that's not an issue in most of the developed world because there's much more government aid to higher ed -- isn't really a problem, then the Occupy movement has even less of a constituency than it seemed.

PG said...

I think lattes get picked on because they are seen as a more expensive beverage. They're not the free cup of joe that a construction worker can grab for free while on break. So there's a class element (as there may well be in the preference to have someone else make your coffee for you). Also, lattes are seen as foreign and not traditionally American. U.S. companies have had regular coffee on offer for decades, along with the norms of "Whoever finished the last of the previous pot needs to start the next one." The machines capable of producing more elaborate and individualized drinks are a new phenomenon that the older folks populating some media outlets may feel OK being snooty about. Despite the massive amounts of wealth he had, one of the older partners I worked with still ridiculed the younger folks' fondness for Starbucks runs because he stuck to the old-school view that coffee was coffee and it was free in the break room.

Phoebe said...


I'm still confused. Yes, people feel burdened by student loan debt. Yes, this applies to law school grads if not in a position to make a ton, not to the shrinking minority of law school grads who are about to make a ton. I'd assumed you were talking about your own law-school classmates, so not last week, not Southern Methodist, but if you meant a broader pool, fair enough.

But it's really unusual for anyone to spend literally nothing except to survive. Notice, in the NYT interview with a former horrible-electronics-factory employee in China, that the woman's hair has clearly been dyed. Consider that outsiders tend to find the Mormon abstention from alcohol and caffeine (tobacco, less so) somewhat extreme. Aside from the ridiculous bulk-lentils-and-oatmeal commenters, but probably even with them, spending happens. If a particular sort of student-loan debt is really going to lead to a pit from which it's impossible to emerge, by all means join up with OWS, or don't take out loans to go to a 4th-tier law school, or to get a PhD in Medieval Tapestry Studies. If $2,000 will make or break you, you have concerns unrelated to your latte consumption.

And re: lattes specifically, yes to all of what you say. The fact that they're made for you, with care, is probably part of the appeal. But to my mind, that can make them less frou-frou, paradoxically, because they can serve as a stand-in for, for example, a restaurant meal, a home cook, etc. It's a mini-experience of being rich, and thus appealing to those who are not, in fact, rich.

Andrew Stevens said...

As Frank's post says, lattes are the traditional villain simply because David Bach happened to choose it. And he chose it probably because that conversation with the young woman who drank a latte every day probably really did happen. PG's point still stands in that David Bach may not have had the same conversation at all if the young woman had simply been drinking a regular cup of coffee every day, because then David Bach may not have seen it as a frivolous luxury.

Phoebe, you cut off his quote. He then says, "But it is not a slam dunk" which I would take to be agreement with your point. For some people, a lifetime of lattes might be worth more than $173,000 (which I agree with, even if Frank doesn't). I'm not sure what you mean by "A lifetime of feeling as though you're forever a child, powerless over your consumption, isn't so wonderful." Not drinking lattes because you want to save the money instead makes you feel like a child, powerless over your consumption? I would have thought quite the reverse.

Phoebe said...


OK, we can bring that extra sentence in, but I'm not sure what that changes. (I did read the sentence, if not quote it.) I still agree with the broader point of the article. I just think Frank doesn't go far enough with it. It's not merely that $2,000 isn't make-or-break. It's that we have to also consider that the lattes might be worth $4,000.

The "child" remark was about how a big difference between childhood and adulthood is, you no longer, once an adult, need to ask someone's permission to buy something. (As a kid, you may have an allowance, but ultimately you don't support yourself financially and your parents have veto power.) It's one thing if you decide you can give or take lattes, and using your agency as an adult, choose not to buy them. It's another if you do as many NYT commenters suggest, size up your income, realize you aren't Buffett or Gates, and tell yourself that the likes of you is not permitted a latte, tsk tsk.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ah, I see where you're coming from. I am generally inclined to believe that maturity and power over one's consumption is all about deferral of gratification, so I really hadn't considered that it could be viewed as treating oneself like a child. I do see what you mean, but it's quite foreign to my own way of thinking, such that I'm still not sure I really grasp it.

Phoebe said...


I'm not sure we disagree. It's evidence of maturity to delay gratification, but it's also not something a child gets to exercise that much. If dinner is kale and quinoa, a child did not choose to 'eat healthy.' Dessert is after you finish your vegetables because someone with power over you said so. It's a sign of having grown up to be able to know enough about nutrition to realize that if you opt for cake-as-dinner occasionally, all hell does not in fact break loose. To get to look at the broader picture and make small decisions accordingly.

With the lattes, this means knowing that you are not sending yourself to the poorhouse via $3 increments (or, if you are, seeking to address this, not just thinking that by skipping Starbucks, the problem is magically solved). There's a certain freedom in having a category of spending that you aren't losing massive amounts of sleep over, and depending your income, a latte 4 or 5 times a week could well fall into the category of not worth worrying about.

Britta said...

I think there's another point, which is not just about saving money, but that want counts as "luxury" is relative, and that over time the brain gets used to habitual actions. So, if you're drinking a latte every day because that's what you do, you're not really enjoying it more than you might enjoy a regular cup of coffee, but you're paying 3x as much. Similarly, there are tons of things that not doing wouldn't make you any less happy, but you do anyways because you've gotten into the habit. Like, eating a crappy, overpriced sandwich is not better than making your own, but you don't remember to make a sandwich the night before, so you're stuck eating some soggy sandwich under a hotplate (This I know from experience). The point is, a latte every day might not make you happier than paying down your student loans faster, but that people rarely question their ingrained habits.

Perhaps it's my upbringing, but I also see maturity as realizing you could do x but you won't. Self-control is a marker of adulthood, and merely because we 'could' blow all our money on something stupid, or eat cake for 3 meals a day doesn't mean we will. Also...not to get too Kantian, but there's a bit of a thrill in living up to the the 'ought,' i.e., knowing we have rational control over ourselves and can make enlightened decisions accordingly. I hate peas, but I'll eat peas occasionally, because they're healthy. Knowing I can gag down peas because I ought too makes me feel much better about myself than eating cookies for dinner because I made them and I'm lazy and they taste good. Even though, senses-wise, I enjoy eating cookies more than peas, I generally feel like a worse person, which makes me feel worse.

(And, just because I sound like a sanctimonious prick, I frequently fail at living up to my standards and feel kind of crappy. I also think enjoyment of life is important, but that frequent indulgence is overrated.)

Phoebe said...


I agree with your first point, that once something's become a part of your routine, you can forget whether or not you even care about it. So as a rule, it's a good thing to question one's routines. This, I'd add, is how I realized getting a professional haircut, when what I wanted done I could perfectly well do myself, wasn't necessary. My few experiences of professional manicures reminded me that this is, for me, someone who does like nail polish, money down the drain. It's one of my primary Cheapness Rules that we should only spend on luxuries we actually want, and not invent "needs" for things. It's said that one must replace running sneakers frequently, must own 20 different bras, whatever. These are rules to ignore. If you yourself won't care, you can save without feeling you're denying yourself something. But if you will care, if it strikes you as silly to get black coffee out when you can make that at home, and that's why, on the rare occasions you get coffee out, you get a mocha or cappuccino (now I'm describing myself), this is not spending that could be quite so effortlessly eliminated. It's not that we should never eliminate things we like - of course, sometimes that's what you have to do. But I believe that the first step should be to eliminate things we don't care about. So yes, I agree that those who don't care about lattes should consider skipping the lattes.

"Perhaps it's my upbringing, but I also see maturity as realizing you could do x but you won't."

Between this and Andrew's comment above, I feel as though I must speak up for my own upbringing, values, etc. But the issue here is not my (unremarkable in these terms) childhood, but, as I replied to Andrew, that restraint is only part of what it means to be an adult. It also means knowing you could do x in moderation without destroying everything you've worked for. It doesn't mean precisely mimicking what would have been demanded of you as a child. It means, to repeat my example from above, knowing that cake for dinner on rare occasions is not a big deal.

Re: peas, this I find kind of baffling, but maybe I'm missing something? I can't imagine, as an adult, and not at, say, a dinner party, eating an ingredient I disliked. I suppose I like enough vegetables that I don't worry about my nutrition, but I can't picture actually putting into my shopping cart something I wouldn't enjoy eating.

Britta said...

Well, I generally don't buy peas or consume them on any regular basis, but in a situation where peas are the only vegetable available (say, a cafeteria setting, where there is free choice among constrained options), I will choose to eat peas rather than do without a vegetable. Maybe this is perverse, but I also think being able to do something you find unpleasant is a mark of maturity, so sometimes I do things I don't like that are good for you in order exercise my maturity. Like, cold showers are good for you, and you feel great after one, so sometimes I'll voluntarily take a cold shower, even though few things are less pleasant than stepping into a cold shower.

Phoebe said...


"Maybe this is perverse, but I also think being able to do something you find unpleasant is a mark of maturity, so sometimes I do things I don't like that are good for you in order exercise my maturity."

Not sure it's perverse, but it's... particular? It would seem that almost by definition, with all but the most lax parents, childhood is about doing things you find unpleasant, eating things you find vile, etc. Or maybe I'm particular (peculiar?) for having food preferences, such that I'd probably skip the peas, in your situation, if I disliked peas, and if this were a buffet-type situation and it wouldn't be rude to turn them down.

I won't go into this too much (I was planning a post that's actually more generally about this, and your comments are making me want to get on that!), but I think there's a difference between having the capacity to eat peas or take a cold shower when this is necessary (your host served you peas, the hot water's off), as in the great life skill that is not making a fuss, and, on the other hand, voluntarily signing up for these things.

PG said...

If $2,000 will make or break you, you have concerns unrelated to your latte consumption.

This reminds me of the objections to Elizabeth Warren's work on medical bankruptcies. Yes, almost none of the households she looked at had only medical debt; most had mortgages, credit cards, etc. (and probably student loans, but those are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy). But the medical debt still made a significant difference, and for low-income households making $20,000/year, even $5000 in medical debt was significant. Similarly, if you're making $20,000, $2000 a year spent on lattes may be the difference between being able to afford to pay the premiums and thus participate in your employer's health plan, or not. (WalMart recently raised employee contributions, so now covering a non-smoker family costs $1365 a year.)

Phoebe said...


All of this $20,000 stuff isn't all that theoretical to me - I am, remember, in grad school, which I know has a different meaning in terms of "privilege" and all that than working at Walmart, but the pay's about the same. I know more about this kind of thing than you might think.

I'm going to respond to you what I did to Britta - when you're thinking where to cut back, look first at what you wouldn't miss. If that's lattes, skip the lattes. If you kind of like them but not that much, don't get quite as many. If you stop and think and realize that maybe you don't need the new iPhone, professional highlights, and skipping those makes the difference, look there, and not at a small luxury semi-arbitrarily picked because it sounds snooty.

If you're truly choosing between lattes and health insurance, don't be an idiot about it. But unless "lattes" are merely a stand-in for all overspending, is this really such an issue? The scenario Rich presents, where it's between lattes and a vacation, lattes and a new couch, seems more likely. The way this latte argument is always presented, in these pieces and in your comment, it's as though there's this population not buying any unnecessary new clothes, jewelry, accessories, electronics, cutting their own hair, doing their own nails, whose one and only frivolous expenditure is frothy milk.

PG said...

I don't think it's so much that these people are abstaining from *all* unnecessary spending -- I mean, eventually the finger-wagging thrift-mongers get into the territory "if you're on food stamps, you shouldn't be able to use that to buy your kid a birthday cake." It's more that it seems easy to get something reasonably equivalent to a Starbucks coffee in the form of making coffee at home or at work. And as you note above, "It's a mini-experience of being rich, and thus appealing to those who are not, in fact, rich." The appeal of the mini-experience seems to me distinct from the appeal of a latte itself. It's like taking my car through a carwash because I don't want the neighbors to see me washing my car in the driveway. I guess I have my doubts about whether it makes sense to have rich/bourgeois pretensions when one doesn't have rich/bourgeois income.

To haul my own background into the discussion, when I look at how my parents and most of their friends lived for the first several years they were in the U.S., they pretty much didn't have any "mini-experience of being rich," unless we count having children as a luxury. (Actually, I'd have been wary of having kids on as little money as they had then, even on the assumption of future earnings as professionals, but I'm grateful that they were less cautious!) And they don't seem to have been unhappy then, despite their thrift; on the contrary, my mom gets nostalgic about the good old days when everyone was broke and a big night out was having another couple over to split a 6-pack of Bud.

It probably makes a difference that they were young and had plenty of material comforts to look forward to once the years of study and training were over. It's the difference between gratification deferred and, for much of the beleaguered middle and working classes, gratification denied. But at least for young people, this seems like a reasonable way of life. To recommend it is to sound like Polonius (to live within your means, don't borrow money! or lend it!), but that's not the same as telling people to revert to childhood.

Flavia said...

FWIW: my vision of adulthood is exactly like yours. It still thrills me to eat ice cream for breakfast or to see a pair of reasonably-priced shoes and just buy them, on the spur of the moment! I rarely do either one (especially the former), but being totally in control of one's life means pleasure as well as discipline.

And in re: the subject at hand: I realized in grad school that I was buying a cup of coffee nearly every day, which wasn't a big deal. . . but then I'd buy a croissant or a muffin, maybe every third day, which I didn't need or even care about. And though the coffee was very good and I enjoyed the ritual of stopping in--and feeling that I could spare $1.50-3.50, every day, for something comparatively frivolous was kind of a big deal--I eventually decided that I could buy the same damn beans myself.

So I did stop buying coffee out and put $60/month into an IRA. But I made the switch not by shaming myself into Being Responsible, but by relocating the source of my pleasure to the ritual of making coffee at home: grinder, good beans, french press, cute travel mug.

But the thing is, it was still about pleasure. Grad school involved enough unpleasure that I sure wouldn't have cut out a low-cost activity that allowed me to feel grown up and financially secure enough to be "wasteful" if there hadn't been a cheaper substitute that made me just as happy.

Andrew Stevens said...

To be fair to Richard Bach, the inventor of the Latte Factor argument, he was very clear that lattes were an illustrative example. He was trying to point out (with a lot of exaggeration) how much could be gained from merely $5 a day and lattes was an example of something that could be cut out to save $5 a day. I'm not saying, though, that everybody has used the argument exactly the way he did since then.

Just to be crystal clear, I wasn't disagreeing with you at all about how you were thinking about the subject. It's just a way of thinking about the subject which had never occurred to me and I don't think would ever have occurred to me purely internally. I am sure this says far more about my childhood than it does about yours and I hope I didn't come across as judgmental, as that was not my intent.

Phoebe said...


"I guess I have my doubts about whether it makes sense to have rich/bourgeois pretensions when one doesn't have rich/bourgeois income."

This is at once kind of true, too snooty-sounding to say with one’s real name and not on a blog, and... the sort of thing that sounds much simpler than it is. On the one hand, neither the Walmart worker nor the grad student nor the new immigrant starting over ought to buy a yacht. Along the same lines, unless, like that one woman, you're going to be writing a book about it, you probably shouldn't respond to being newly broke by devoting every last scrap of energy to feeding your family in the yuppie manner.

But we don’t really get to pick our pretensions, or, to use a less judgmental-sounding word, our preferences. Tastes aren't so easily adaptable, and nor are they all (as in your carwash example) for show. If, for whatever reasons – upbringing, things you were introduced to in college – you’ve come to think, say, that an inexpensive place to buy clothes is the Gap, it’s possibly not even occurring to you that there are cheaper stores, as well as thrift. It’s not necessarily about a thought-out preference for fancy over less-so.

And, more to the point, often, the rich/bourgeois option won’t end up costing more, and might cost less. Going to a blockbuster movie, with popcorn, the works, costs more than a free chamber concert. If someone’s thing is to prefer that-which-seems-classy, this option doesn’t necessarily mean going into debt.

Finally, I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the function of pretention (which I’d say is different from status-income disequilibrium, which is what the above versions are about) in the lives of those who experience it. If you are rich, know you are, know you’re well-educated and upper-class, you’ll be thought of as high-class, even if all you’re clothes are from Kmart. If anything, your frugality will be read as a charming quirk. But if you feel yourself to be meant for greater things than the reality of your birth and subsequent life had in store, certain choices can be a stand-in for the life you imagine. Thus, for example, the Louis Vuitton logo purse - this, I was reading somewhere and I'm now not finding it, is apparently the ultimate symbol of what people wear to seem rich, but that a "real" rich person wouldn't wear. Or see <a href=">this quip</a>: "I think it is awful to have your hair too well done. When you are young, it looks cheap to have your have your hair perfect, and when you are old, it looks tacky. It looks like you want to look wealthy, which is very vulgar." It’s easy, if you don’t need such a purse to feel classy, to mock those who feel the need. It’s also perfectly legitimate to say it’s dumb to go into debt for a logo’d purse, or for the experience of daily Starbucks. But it’s completely possible to simultaneously tsk-tsk and get where the people who behave this way are coming from.

(Also, the birthday-cake example is far more extreme than the ones I gave. Should only the wealthy spend money on, for example, makeup, or hair-care beyond what’s necessary for sanitary maintenance? There are always places to cut corners, and the latte maybe should be that place, but also maybe not, and I’m not sure there are too many out there whose sole luxury is that latte.)

Phoebe said...


Sounds like we do have the same approach. And I think you’re right that it isn’t so much that one will have ice cream for breakfast, as the thrill of knowing one could.

I also make my own coffee, and had already come around to that in NY, and even in Paris, in the dorm, where I was using the saucepan-plastic-Melitta-cone method. I like some coffee-place drinks (and would never turn down a triple-shot iced skim cappuccino), and the atmosphere of a coffee shop, but don’t especially like having people make stuff for me, the whole ceremony of that. Especially, with the now-ubiquitous tip jar, the presumption that customers aren’t grad students treating themselves (which they most certainly are!), but individuals so immensely wealthy that to them, a barista looks scruffy and impoverished. Also, another of my Cheapness Principles is that dining out should be about that which you couldn’t readily make at home. I prefer my own pizza, muffins, and drip coffee, but without an espresso machine, this is an acceptable thing to have when out. Man, I’ve given this too much thought.

But there were definitely a couple semesters when getting breakfast out, going over a lesson plan over coffee and a scone or whatever at a place near where I taught (my office having been far from the classroom building), made the day go more smoothly. I can’t say that I wish I had that money now, and had arrived in class straight from the subway. And this, I think, is part of what rubs me wrong about comments (as appear on the NYT piece) like ‘I see people getting Starbucks I know can’t afford it.’ It’s rather difficult to know how others are budgeting, to know that a purchase you see someone with some of the time is one they will be making literally every workday for the rest of their working lives. With many grad students, at least, the amount of discreetly not-spent is significant.


Given that until your comment, I’d never heard of this particular Bach, I wasn’t responding to how he used lattes, but to how others do. But it sounds, from what I read and from what you describe – like what he says and what others have said is about the same. The latte is both a stand-in for that-which-could-be-cut and a specific item financial advice-givers suggest we eliminate from our spending. I agree with the general principles of a) not going into consumer debt, and b) eliminating spending that doesn’t give you much pleasure. But the latte is precisely the sort of thing that does reliably provide pleasure, that isn’t harmful except insofar as it costs money. If you’re someone whose life is noticeably improved by lattes, maybe consider other corners to cut, and look in places where “needs” have been invented, as with the examples I gave Britta – the “need” for runners to constantly replace sneakers, the “need” to get a professional haircut, etc.

mark jabbour said...

Wow - see, it was a 'good' thing to write in NYT. A way to approach a dicy subject - 'Who am I.' It caught my attention. I, who once lived as you are now - very rural - was reminded of when I quit smoking and tried to tie it to personal economics, but the act led into all sorts of existential 'things.' @ the time cigs cost $1 a pack and I agreed to quit at the request of my wife - if she would put the dollar a day into a savings account for our 2 yr.old son (now 28.) He was the reason she gave for asking me to quit. She taught him to say, "No smoke Daddy." Wife started the savings account & put the money in for 1 month & then quit. I still don't smoke. wife and I divorced 20 years ago. Son is thriving & single. None of us have any 'extra' money & drink coffee mostly @ home(s).
peace & cheers, mark

PG said...

The birthday cake was meant to be simultaneously an extreme of tsk-tsking that I'm not advocating, and something I *have* heard people say with regard to food stamp/ welfare recipients. Any time you mention food stamps, either online or in a group of people who feel comfortable expressing rightwing sentiments, folks will comment disapprovingly on all the times they've seen a poor person using food stamps for anything other than the barest necessities of life.

The pretension/preference aspect of lattes that I find most questionable is the one you mentioned earlier, the feeling-like-a-rich-person enjoyment of having someone do things for you. I'd even distinguish that from a dislike of having to perform a necessary task oneself. I've occasionally used cleaning services while living with someone who also disliked scrubbing bathrooms, but I don't actually like having strangers in my home cleaning for me, and in an ideal world would prefer that bathrooms have a self-cleaning setting.

I find it a little implausible that, outside the Paris Hilton level of combined wealth and ignorance, people could be unaware that clothing is sold at places cheaper than the GAP. They might avoid shopping at thrift stores for various reasons; eg, there's a strong bias against secondhand shoes in India, to the point that I once had a long argument with my dad when I bought some. (I'm not sure why it's particularly about shoes, but it does make it more likely, in a "leave your shoes outside" culture, that your shoes will still be there when you get back.) I'm currently living in a relatively expensive new apartment building, but it's across the street from a Salvation Army. Except for the really rich-rich and ghettoized or rural poor, most Americans encounter a range of options. It seems reasonable to me that we should choose options suitable for our income.

But it’s completely possible to simultaneously tsk-tsk and get where the people who behave this way are coming from.

Yes, though one might have different ideas about where they are coming from. The standard left critique of this is not that these people are fulfilling a natural human need, and it's just too bad that they don't have more money with which to do it. Instead, it's that such desires have been manufactured by our capitalist society in order to induce consumers to buy stuff they not only don't need, but can't afford, thus putting them in a spiral of debt that massively enriches the finance industry. Throw in that these status symbols mostly aren't even being made by unionized American workers, and you have a behavior that looks comparable to a tobacco addiction -- i.e. a net harm to both self and society that is in the interests of only a few.

PG said...

Not just the leftist critique.

Phoebe said...


I'll deal with the most straightforward here first. Before Old Navy and Kmart opened in Manhattan, and before the city became quite as bankers'-playground-ish as it is today, a kid could perfectly well grow up middle-class and not know about, for example, Target or Walmart. If Gap was what was around, that or super-precious frilly stores, that's what you knew. But urban or otherwise, kids grow up knowing what they know. In some areas, groceries are much cheaper, clothes more expensive, etc. And not all aversions are so out in the open - some people just grow up not considering thrift stores for clothes, not considering canned food, etc., because this was how their parents did things. It's not necessarily that thrift stores are unknown, although if where you live there isn't a well-marked one, that could happen. Whether from growing up relatively/extremely well-off, or from particularities of a neighborhood, some people aren't going to grow up knowing the full range of cheaper options, be it for clothing or anything else. The point I'm getting at is that you can't conflate behaviors that are someone's default and intentional snobbery. Thus why we have some - if not infinite - sympathy with that woman in Brooklyn who lost everything but insisted on feeding her family the local/sustainable way. If something's your normal, it takes extra effort to part from it.

Re: the rest, I'm aware of the birthday-cake-type arguments, as well as arguments for the left about all consumption being evil, and I see where they fit in here. But what interests me with the latte issue is that, if we take for granted that people spend on luxuries across the income spectrum, why pick, as the cliché of what to give up, something that is a meaningful boost in people's days? Why, if one thing is to be cut first, begin with a pick-me-up?