Choice in Australia tweeted an infographic yesterday concerning the quantity of coffee one consumes, and how a fraction of that money could be put towards a machine to make them at home or the office. I retweeted it with a comment, and it started a couple of interesting discussions.

The comparison makes sense

Clara and I use a virtual envelope budget system and track expenses down to the cent, so I was completely onboard with the line of reasoning Choice advocates. I identified as early as 2015 that I was spending hundreds of dollars each month on coffee, and cutting down to one a day immediately saved me real money that could be put to better or more productive use.

(Not to mention the environmental cost of all of those takeaway containers that I also learned far too late are mostly unrecyclable. Take reusable cups, people!)

Andrew Fengler who I met at AsiaBSDCon last year summarised the value well:

I think it’s a fair point to bring up though. If cafes are your thing and you don’t mind paying for it, good for you. But for people who haven’t thought about it, the nickel-and-diming of convenience food/drinks can sneak up fast, and coffee is a good way to demonstrate it.

John Roderick would class this as an eel: his term for an inexpensive but recurring expense that creeps up on you and sucks out your finances unless you’re paying attention. I wasn’t for several years, and paid the price.

Compaing it to the bigger picture

But armed with the knowledge of how much it costs, there are a couple of other angles to this.

Cafés make me happy. I love working in them, I enjoy conversing with the baristas who greet me with a smile in the morning, and in the afternoons they force me to leave my desk and go outside for fresh air and a bit of exercise. The calculus of comparing making coffee to cafes is akin to saving money by looking at a tree photo, instead of walking in a forest.

As Andrew did above, Georgina summarised my thoughts better than I could:

Also why is this always about money. I don’t always purchase cafe coffee, but I appreciate that someone created it for me. I am paying for the service as well. If I thought about the monetary value of things all the time then I might go a little mad.

There’s also some context around this in Australia. We’re now living with some of the least affordable housing in the world, both in absolute terms, and relative to wages. The global trend of identifying millennials with smashed avocado toast literally started with journalists in Australia theorising that if people stopped buying frivolous things like food, they could afford a house deposit.

(Choice are a valuable outlet for information, and I’m by no means equating them with this poorly conceived and logically flawed argument thinly disguised as an attempt at humour. But it does go part way to explaining why yonger Australians bristle when they’re faulted for being locked out of home ownership. Never mind the gross tax structure that incentivises parking money in an unproductive asset over performing work, and record low interest rates spawned by a government seemingly allergic to the mere thought of economically rational fiscal policy that even the Reserve Bank is screaming for. That became a rant faster than I intended).

I can’t remember who first proposed the idea, but I mentioned in my original tweet that there are also larger fish to fry when it comes to saving money, such as organising your superannuation, CPF, 401(k), or other retirement fund into one that charges lower fees and behaves ethically. David Willanski from Adelaide mentioned:

True, my current super fund’s fee is fifth the old fee, and my fund is now on track to hit my target before I can access it. Under the old fund I’d have to keep working for 5-10 years after I hit retirement age.

So in conclusion, is a phrase with three words

It’s extrondilarily valuable to keep abreast of where your money is going, and if you’re not tracking your expenses you may be surprised and perhaps a little horrified how much is going to things you may not expect. That said, if you’ve budgeted for it, you also shouldn’t feel guilty about spending money on something if it makes you happy. Which is basically what Andrew said at the start, in far fewer words.