What’s in a latte?

Apparently, more than you think.

I stare down at my phone’s calculator and swallow a venti lump in my throat – have I been spending over a thousand dollars a year on caffeine?

I'm not about to lecture anyone on the relative worth of coffee, but still – this does speak to how small pleasures can add up over time.

In my life, I have managed to get by without a “hard and fast” rule of personal finance.

I have, for the most part, been able to abide by the mantra to spend less than you have. But this week, I had an unsettling realization during my post-college-graduation clean-up. As I cleaned out my wallet, amidst the chaos of old receipts and gift cards, I counted seven coffee cards.

The coffee-shop dilemma

For those of you with self-control and no need to discount your coffee purchases in bulk, coffee cards are little business cards that local coffee shops stamp to incentivize you to return – buy 12 drinks and get a heart attack for free!

I looked down at the cards, worn and wrinkled, littered with stamps. They stared back up at me, a cluster of minions demanding I recognize their existence.

A montage of visits ran through my memory, each five-dollar bill handed over, my memory slate wiped clean by the next visit. How much have I been spending on coffee? I pulled out a piece of notebook paper and did some quick calculations.

“That can’t be right.” Five dollars per large latte, four times a week, 52 weeks a year… “That definitely can’t be right.”

Over a thousand dollars a year on coffee, and I was lowballing that number.

How long have I been drinking coffee like this…?

Have I been spending $1,000-plus a year on coffee for several years?

Are you serious? If I hadn’t drunk a single cup of coffee in college, I’d be vacationing in Bali right now – and tasting the local brew at one-fiftieth the price.

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I did a few more calculations to arrive at the real numbers, and spent the rest of the day in a depressed stupor. The only thing that made me feel better was my afternoon latte. Back off, it was an emergency.

In an effort to plug my hemorrhaging wallet, I mapped out how much money I would allow myself to spend on soy hazelnut lattes each month. During college, I was a part-time waitress. So I decided that I would give myself an allotted amount of cash as my “coffee allowance.” I would not dive into my debit account if I ran out of cash. If I needed another caffeine hit above and beyond what my budget allowed, I'd brew my coffee at home.

Doing this exercise was a torturous experience. The scary aspect of the calculation was not the price itself, but that I became acutely aware of having spent money – a lot of money – on items that seemed trivial and inexpensive at the time, but that added up to a large sum collectively.

In what other areas of my life had I been dumping my funds so indiscriminately?

I knew that it wasn’t utility bills or groceries that were going to kill me, but the “incidentals” that would come in the way of bringing balance to life. How do I properly juggle all of the various “soy lattes” in my life while saving for the future? For now, I bought myself a French press. Baby steps.

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