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Don't buy into the latte lie

OPINION

  • The seasonal Apple Pie Latte offered at Coffee & Tea Exchange (3311 N Boradway) in Chicago, IL on October 15, 2013. Kaitlyn McQuaid for RedEye
The seasonal Apple Pie Latte offered at Coffee & Tea Exchange (3311…
January 12, 2014|By Megan Crepeau, @crepeau | RedEye

If you've ever read about personal finance for longer than approximately five seconds, you've probably heard a variation on this:

"For the price of a latte a day, you could retire comfortably in 40 years! You could pay off your student loans! You could pay for a castle in Scotland! With a personal trainer! And a pony! How DARE you spend your hard-earned cash on something as silly as espresso?"

Like a lot of personal finance advice, it makes sense on paper, but absolutely none in real life.

Mike Dang, a writer for thebillfold.com, put it this way in a post last year: "The majority of people I know aren't wildly irresponsible. They're not buying luxury cars and designer clothing and $5 lattes every day (ah, the latte factor!—every personal finance guru's favorite example). They're dealing with shrinking salaries, skyrocketing health care and education costs, a weak economy that has resulted in job loss. ... All the bike-riding and TV cable canceling wasn't going to help them. Quitting your yoga class isn't going to fix pay inequality or result in employer-supported maternity leave appearing in the office."

Dang nails it: The latte rule doesn't take into account the human factor. What if that latte is the only nice moment in your day? What if that new lipstick gives you the kind of boost that brightens your whole week? If your Netflix subscription makes your day-to-day life a little saner, who am I to tell you not to go for it?

Say that to certain financial gurus, and they'll look at you like you're Bernie Madoff. How DARE you get a $15 pedicure when you could be contributing to your emergency savings? What kind of monster are you?

The truth is, in most cases, giving up life's little pleasures will not fix all your problems—and living like a hermit might just make you crazy.

Here are three things to focus on instead. I promise they're better ways to spend your energy than fretting over a coffee or two.

Set up automatic savings transfers if you can. Some banks will let you automatically put a few cents from your checking account into your savings account every time you use your credit or debit cards. That means every time you swipe at Starbucks, you add a little bit to your nest egg. Who's virtuous now?!

OK, are you all caffeinated? Fantastic. Work on getting a promotion, a raise or a better job. Start making yourself invaluable to your bosses, or polishing your resume. When you get that richly deserved pay bump, you can treat yourself to a latte with even less worry.

Work the system. Lobby your lawmakers for better student loan rules, sensible finance reform or whatever else floats your financial boat. Spend your time getting educated, instead of stressing over that peppermint mocha.

Megan Crepeau is a RedEye copy editor. She buys too much overpriced nail polish, but very few lattes.

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