Unfrugal Confessions: I Only Buy Coffee Out

Coffee is a contentious subject in the personal finance sphere. I already posted about my skepticism for the Latte Factor, David Bachman's anti-simple-pleasure meme. A frugal tip that often piggybacks on the Latte Factor is this: "Make coffee at home!" The idea is that you don't have forgo your simple coffee pleasure, exactly; you can just have it more cheaply by putting in a little effort and elbow grease.

The idea is sound in theory. Why pay for something that you could make yourself? Coffee shops have overhead like rent (often in desirable locations), salaries, utilities, heavy-duty equipment, etc., which, it stands to reason, you are partially paying for with every cup. A small-scale operation at home should end up being more economical. There are many places in my life where I make this calculation and generally decide on the side of DIY at home: exercise (I don't belong to a gym), movies (I rarely go to the cinema), food (okay, I do eat out a lot, but I recognize that cooking at home is demonstrably a lot cheaper than eating out for every meal).

With coffee, though, I've tried it both ways, and I'm making the informed (arguably) unfrugal choice to only drink coffee out.

It's an excuse to go out

Sometimes I just want to get out, especially when I'm at work and I need a few minutes to stretch my legs and clear my head. I don't want to do an activity that takes a long time, because I'm usually in the middle of something. Getting coffee is a great excuse to take a break and go somewhere and fetch a little pick-me-up, and it can be social, too. I'd much rather take a friend to a coffee shop that make them a subpar cup in my kitchen.

It's a lot better

On the whole, cafe coffee is a lot better than I could make on my own. I have certainly been to restaurants and cafes where the coffee was not that good, but generally if I have no choice but, say, McDonald's coffee or nothing, I just go with nothing. The coffee I made at home was about equivalent to McDonald's coffee. I'd essentially replaced something good that I like and value enough to buy with something not good that I don't particularly like and that, if I had to pay for, I would just not bother.

When I resolved to make coffee at home, I simply drank less coffee, because I no longer felt that I could justify going out when I had the stuff at home. Drinking less coffee isn't the end of the world, of course, but that was not my original goal. Instead of replacing one activity with a cheaper alternative, I killed the activity, and I missed it.

It's not that much cheaper

I could make better coffee if I invested in better beans and equipment, but at that point, it's no longer frugal. It would take just a ton of cups to end up being cheaper per cup than a cafe. Right now, I drink about four cups of coffee a week. When I made my own coffee, the beans would go stale before I got through a bag.

While what I said earlier about paying for coffee shop overhead is true, but it's also balanced out by a coffee shop's economies of scale. Coffee shops can buy supplies in bulk and it makes more sense for them invest in high-quality equipment. The overhead that goes into making a high-quality cup spread out over the many, many cups they sell each day.

So what are you saying? I should get coffee out?

Not at all. If you like the coffee you make at home, by all means keep making it. This is a personal calculation I've made. You might find that the opposite decision works better for you. Homemade coffee is a good idea for you if your coffee habit is primarily about the caffeine hit, but you don't care about going out. Or if you enjoy the process of crafting your own perfect cup. But for me, because what I want is an excuse to change my surroundings, making coffee at home or in the office does the opposite!

If I want to wean myself off my coffee habit, I'd have to replace it with another going-out-and-getting-a-treat habit, which would be a lateral move at best (of all treats, a cup of coffee is really pretty good compared to the competitors: it's not particularly unhealthy or expensive, at least!) The only more frugal replacement I can think of is some sort of free treat, such as simply going for an aimless walk. Which I sometimes do.

Just as it's important to think critically about your usual habits and the accepted "way everyone does things," it's also necessary to think critically about frugal tactics and determine if they will meet your specific, personal needs. Frugal communities have their own type of groupthink and show-offyness.

If you do want to change your habits, it's important that the replacement get at the actual parts of the original habit that are meaningful and valuable to you personally. Many habits can have multiple rewards, so it's important to make sure you don't replace the wrong reward.

For now, I've given away my French press and grinder (frugal-minded purchases that, in retrospect, were not frugal). Now my only coffee equipment is my reusable mug. You'll find me down at the coffee shop, asking for a refill on cream.


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