I’m sure you’ve heard it before.
It’s practically a pillar of the personal finance advice industry: Stop buying $5 lattes.
“The average latte costs five dollars. If you buy one every work day, that’s $25 a week, $100 month. That’s $1,200 a year! You could be putting that towards credit card debt or a house down payment or a vacation!”
Now, this is true. These numbers add up. Five multiplied by five does, indeed, equal twenty-five. And if you really do buy a $5 latte every workday, 52 weeks a year, those purchases will add up.
But not all lattes are created equal.
I learned this from one of student in my Put Your Money Where Your Happy Is course.
Natalie had one of those daily latte habits that every personal finance expert rails against.
Every day on her way to work, Natalie would buy a latte at Starbucks. She’d sit in her car in the drive through, checking email on her phone while she waited her turn to shout her order into the speaker.
She’d pick her coffee up at the window and then drive to her job at an office park in the suburbs, usually finishing the last sip as she pulled into her parking space.
The purchase of her daily latte was a habit. It was almost-mindless and not even particularly happy-making. It was just something she did every day, like brushing her teeth or checking Instagram while she stood in line.
Once a month, Natalie would drive into the city, heading towards her favorite neighborhood: parks, boutiques, bookstores that invite lingering.
Natalie would, again, buy a latte. But this time she’d sip it on a bench in the park, people watching and warming her hands. She’d finish it as she windowshopped and stooped to smell the flowers in the planter outside the antique store.
These lattes all cost five dollars. The one that made her Saturday feel special cost $5 and the ones she drank mindlessly on her way to work cost $5.
But her weekday, much-less-enjoyable lattes affected her finances a lot more than her Saturday, seems-like-a-scene-in-a-rom-com latte.
Here’s the truth:
It’s not the Sunday morning latte we drink as we walk along the river with our best friend, catching up, and watching the ducks along the shore.
It’s the four lattes we buy during the workweek, because it’s 3:30, we’re sick of working, and we need to get out of the office.
It’s not the $200 boots that look good with everything, make us feel amazing, and get worn three times a week.
It’s 11 pairs of $17 shoes we never wear, bought on sale because we wandered into Target tired, hungry, and grumpy.
It’s not the $100 anniversary meal, eaten on a gorgeous patio, under bobbing lanterns.
It’s the three-times-a-week $12 takeout we don’t even really like but it’s easier than figuring out what to make for dinner.
Traditional personal finance advice – and most budgeting tools! – treat all purchases equally.
They don’t take into consideration how we felt in those jeans or what we were celebrating when we bought that bottle of wine.
They don’t point out that those $150+ Target trips seem to happen after bad conference calls or a night of sub-par sleep.
If we can figure out what makes us happy, we can point more money, time, and energy in that direction.
(And less money, time, and energy in the direction of lattes consumed in thework parking lot.)
I want to hear from you! Do you have your own version of this story? How do you track your spending?