The psychology of cutting back on lattes

June 08th, 2011 - 35 Comments

I’ve talked about Big Wins instead of savings on pointless small expenses like lattes.

Frugality zealots don’t understand this and accuse me of arguing that people can’t manage their expenses and that, gasp, is it REALLY that hard to cut back on this stuff?

They are right. In general, people can’t manage their expenses, and yes, it is extraordinarily hard to cut back on expenses over the long term. This is why I talk about the psychology of money, including how people are cognitive misers, and Big Wins like earning more money, negotiation, and automation.

A couple years ago, I wrote a post called Is frugality about saving money or making you feel less guilty?

“What is the point of saving money on obsessing about small expenses like lattes? Is it to truly save money, or is it to reduce guilt?

How much of “saving” money is about guilt? Do we feel guilty about splurging for dessert or buying those jeans…but then do it any way? How many friends do we know who say, “Yeah, I really should save more money…”

So it was with great fascination that I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal: A Dollar Here, a Dollar There. But So What?

The author writes about her struggle to cut back on lattes, but concludes that sometimes it’s worth it to spend on these small things.

I agree 100%.

However, let’s look deeper at the article.

“Sometimes a cup of coffee is just a cup of coffee. But when ordering it requires using words like “double tall” and paying more than $4, a cup of coffee can become a point of marital inflection.

Last week, we went to Los Angeles to visit my sister and her family. I flew in with our two little kids on Thursday, and my husband met us there a few days later. When he climbed into our rental car, Joe gave me a quick kiss and began surveying the mess (amazing what two kids can do to a backseat of a car in a mere 36 hours): “I see evidence of four cappuccinos, totaling probably $20,” he said.

When we first met, I thought it was cute how he could tally up the cost of things so quickly. That was a long time ago.”

Here’s a woman who absolutely loves her morning cappuccino, but admits that it has become a “point of marital inflection” between her and her husband. These trivially expensive beverages cause major rifts when finances are discussed:

The problem, though, is that cappuccino is not a line item in our family budget. We don’t make room for such things when deciding how to spread our dollars. Last year, Joe asked me if I wanted to add it, cautioning me that I’d need to cut out another cost.

“If you worked 50 weeks a year,” he explained, “and got a $4 coffee every workday, you’d need to subtract at least $1,000 from other discretionary spending on things like exercise or manicures.”

So I cut out the cappuccinos. For a couple of months, anyway. And then I began to indulge again.

The yo-yo of spending, cutting back, and starting to spend again is something I describe in this article:


After elaborating some more, the author admits what I suspect is true of most people when it comes to personal finance and spending:

“The truth is: When it comes to small indulgences — fancy espresso drinks, tubes of drugstore lipstick — I see the budget as an aspiration. Like a diet, it’s something to respect and work toward.”

Unfortunately, this is a common frame of a budget: It begins as an ironclad rule (“This time, we’re going to stick to this for sure!!”), but over time, as budget and actual spending diverge, it becomes aspirational. That is code for I’m not doing this anymore but I’m too guilty to acknowledge I can’t keep a budget. The author, like many Americans, believes money is all about willpower, sacrifice and drudgery.

Some points I’d like to emphasize:

  • Constantly over-analyzing tiny purchases is exhausting and ineffectual. This is one of the great joys of earning more money: I don’t have to worry about paying for cabs or picking up my friend’s drink. As a cognitive miser, this is a great relief. I can instead focus on the things I really care about.
  • The whole point of money IS to spend it on things you love. Pleasure purchases should not be a source of shame (IF your bills/investments/retirement are continuously funded).
  • Americans have been propagandized to believe that the only way they can improve their financial situation is to cut back indiscriminately. When they try — and invariably fail — they feel guilty…yet the spending behavior continues. This is why guilt is rarely a persuasive emotion.
  • Look at the words the author uses in the article: “Problem, cautioning, cut out, I supposed I feel I should be rewarded, rationalize, adhere.” Even though she concludes that she should spending guilt-free on minor purchases, it’s nearly impossible not to betray the feeling of guilt, which oozes out from nearly every paragraph.
  • The fastest way to stop caring about the cost of lattes, designer clothes, etc. is to nail your big wins: Automation, investing, picking the right accounts, negotiation, earning more, planning ahead.

I love the author’s conclusion. But this is a terrific example of how deep our invisible script is about cutting back on minor expenses — as if it will really make that big of a difference.

It won’t. Focus on the Big Wins and get on with your life.

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35 Comments

 

Comments

  1. ‘We don’t make room for such things when deciding how to spread our dollars.’

    Is it not a simple case of understanding yourself before figuring out where you can cut back?

    I KNOW I don’t enjoy going to the gym, I SHOULD workout, therefore I decide to join a gym because some work-out guru tells me it’s the best thing for me?

    Guess ‘simple’ is different for different people.

    Razwana

  2. You’ve said all this before, but I think this might be one of the clearest .. or maybe I’ve just read it enough from you that I expect to get the message. You got it right about the point of money being to spend it. I’m also starting to be more of a believer about how budgets don’t work. I personally don’t have a problem saving, but I see that I have other difficult to break subconscious problems and I see that others have the budgeting problems. Spending is an addiction and kicking addictions is hard. Easier to earn money so that the addiction, which brings pleasure, can be maintained. Now all we need is to avoid lifestyle inflation to go along with the increased revenues.

  3. I’ve got to say, the whole “conflict” in the article is silly. As the husband said, if it’s something you do every day it’s not a spontaneous indulgence.

    Add it to your budget and stop bellyaching!

    After reading the post long, long ago about Ramit’s friends budgeting their “splurges”—clothes, going out, etc.—I just created a line in my budget for eating out instead of guilt tripping myself for spending so much on something I do every day. It’s dumb.

  4. I tried to cut back on the little things like lattes. I thought that saving all the money in the long run would satisfy me. But it left me wanting and made me feel guilty. Instead, I’m focusing on the bigger picture of the big wins. Changing my mindset, wish me luck.

  5. I don’t have a budget, but if I did, I would put “eat out once a week” in the budget. Or “buy coffee every day” or whatever else it was I was actually spending my money on. The original article is dumb. I would be p’d off if my wife agreed to a budget and then ignored it because she thought it was “aspirational.” At least have the stones to be honest about what you want in life.

    • Couldn’t you say the same about people who resolve to lose weight…or improve their finances…or stop smoking…or spend more time with their family…or drink less?

      That’s a lot of people to be mad at for being “dumb.”

      Perhaps there’s something else going on here.

  6. I’m quickly tiring of the New Frugality. I think it is all code for “Americans, adjust your expectations and learn to be happy with less”. I want my America back – the Land of Great Expectations and Lots of Chutzpah to Make it Happen. Thanks for contributing to this cause. You give me hope and inspiration.

  7. Interesting to think about, esp with the continuing debate over will power/emotions and financial decision making (e.g., http://www.tnr.com/article/environment-energy/89377/poverty-escape-psychology-self-control and http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2011/06/does-retail-therapy-work.html).

    What really stood out to me was that she links her coffee to her unpleasant commute: “Somehow, a daily $4 beverage helps wash away all that grit and incivility.”

    I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot after starting a different job and failing to consider just how rough the commute would be. Tracking the effect this is having on everything else I do is pretty surprising.

  8. Why judge someone as ‘dumb’ if they don’t have the same perspective as you?

    From my perspective, it’s about two things – social conditioning and understanding emotion over habit:

    1. When my friends/family decide to save money, they immediately cut back on what they think they are spending more on on a daily basis – i.e coffee purchase. I do the same, *until* I read something like IWT, which changes my perspective and I then analyse what I emotionally need, over what I can live without purchasing, and saving *feels* easier.

    2. Is coffee an emotional purchase for the writer of the article, or has it become habit? I went through the same thing and realised my morning coffee purchase was as a result of habit. I changed my route into the office and realised no urges for coffee existed.

  9. Well said, it is just like a diet, as soon as people tell you to cut back on something, you want it. I used to be of the school that you needed to deprive yourself in order to save, but why? Why can’t I pay myself first automatically and work with the remainder of my funds? So no more depriving myself, but I am not just splurging all over the place either.

  10. As an economist, I agree that it is silly to try to spend your time saving a penny here are dollar there while ignoring the big saves and other income opportunties. Yes, you may save $100 a week by spending 10 hours a week trying to cut back on everything and clipping coupons, but the opportunity cost is far greater if you make let’s say $15 an hour.

    For example, let’s say you saved $4 for each cup of coffee a day. But if not drinking coffee leads you to guilt and dissatisfaction and affects your productivity at work, the opportunity cost is far greater and you will lose a lot more than $4 in productivity on that day.

  11. This article just reaffirms everything in IWTYTBR. Read the book, identify your psycho-demons and get on with it. I used to think I couldn’t live without TV.. then they invented Hulu. I thought I had to get my nails done everyday, and then stopped one day and never went back. It wasn’t about willpower or a super-frugal relative yapping in my ear or some financial yahoo on Yahoo! telling me I should cut back. The idea that we are so lazy that we’d rather keep doing what we’ve been doing than change our habits has actual merit. I’m just too mentally lazy to actually buy a TV or sign up for cable, even though I had it forever growing up. I’m too lazy to change the automatic transfer to my savings, so it just piles up. And the crazy part is, the less I fret about it, the more I get it. When you stress about buying a latte, the more likely you’re gonna need the latte. Do yourself a favor: just buy the cup of coffee :)

  12. It is not lack of motivation it is lack of interest.

    At the end of the day people are earning money to live a better life, so they want to enjoy it. Sure coffee is expensive and the rest of the good staff.

    But where is the delicate balance between saving all the money and living well? When you look at most of the rich people, they do spend the money :-) Even Rockefeller did when he earned them :-)

  13. I read “I will Teach You To Be Rich” and when I saw the idea of just saving on things that don’t matter and allowing yourself to be extravagant in one or two areas, saving became so much easier. Yet I still find a lot of resistance from my friends who want to save money that I try to sell on this idea. The psychology you describe for people who do the traditional super-frugality is dead on, as I see it in my friends quite often.

  14. I think about it this way–if my life suddenly ended, or was altered so drastically, for instance if I was paralyzed from the neck down, how would I feel about those lattes? Some people might be pissed that they denied themselves (me). Other’s might say, I’m so glad I was so discplined about the lattes. Personality and perspective on the world play a huge role in this.

    Another example–I’ve spent A LOT of money on vet care for my dog. A LOT. And I always felt kind of ashamed about it for some reason. But, I wouldn’t spend a ton of money on a golf club membership, or a Lexus, or travel. Those things are important to me. My dog is. Priorities are different for everyone.

    Personality, perspective, and priorities are major factors I think.

  15. I love your general philosophy, Ramit. Big Wins. For most people this is great advice. And for others (a surprisingly large minority) spending is an addiction, as strong as cigarettes, or food. The very fact that those people CAN’T manage their expenses is precisely why they MUST. Because no matter how many big wins, they get, spending will usually outpace them. I’m looking forward to reading some of your articles that you’ve linked to.

  16. Ramit I agree with Alex. You’ve made these points before, but this article is very clean and understandable. Even if people don’t agree with your philosphy, at least they see where you’re coming from.

    Excellent.

  17. One thing no one seems to mention:our economy’s life breath is consumer spending, remember? Everywhere we go in our human-created environment we meet pressure to spend money, not just for necessities, please! Whether it’s lattes or luxury vacations or anything, this is the paradigm. So talking about not spending money on lattes or any other small indulgence is not just a personal matter, though people blame themselves for their weak will power. I believe that it takes a major change in perspective, to see oneself as a fish in an ocean of stuff for sale. No wonder spending money is now a major form of entertainment, recreation, solace, therapy, distraction, self-definition, socializing, self-esteem etc. etc. We move almost constantly through a world of things for sale. Seasons of shopping frenzy promoted everywhere you go make not being able to buy intensely stressful for all but those who are frugal by nature or who have shifted their values-perspective. For me, it’s a kind of subversive act to decide not to go into any malls or big box stores during the holiday season, and agreeing to limit gift-giving in my family, as we do. I don’t mean to be subversive but maybe I’m like the first fish who crawled onto the shore and found out I could still breathe, maybe better, out of the water.
    Anyway, it seems to me that most of the time it takes thinking and self-discipline to make money but none to spend it, and that’s how the game is set up.

  18. I love the big-thinking aspect of this blog and Mr. Sethi’s book. But I still have to put in a word for small-item frugality. Because it is so easy to blow through an incredible fortune, $4 at a time. And it is actually be FUN to become ridiculously frugal, to the point where you wouldn’t buy a $4 coffee even once in a lifetime.

    And it really works – I personally went from zero to cushy retirement before age 30, just by getting Badass about Latte-style frugality. It is true that I did some of the big things right too, like getting a good professional job. But the reason I give the credit to skipping lattes is that I’m now 36, my friends all still have their $100k professional jobs, and they are BROKE. Analyzing their spending, it is mostly because of their “oh, it’s only four dollars” attitudes. You will definitely get rich if you start loving every dollar as an employee instead of a splurge.

  19. It’s not 1 coffee we’re talking about.

    $4 coffee x 5 days x 4 weeks = $80 which you could put in savings instead.

    Just sayin’.

    And “marital inflection” makes no sense.

    • Ditto to the “marital inflection” comment. I looked up “inflection” and Googled the phrase to figure out if I had missed some weird psych buzzword, and it’s just b.s. It doesn’t even make sense as a metaphor.

  20. I tend to be a minimalist by nature, but there’s so many better options then saving $1000/ yr on lattes. This same husband could save that much by renegotiating or getting quotes on fixed expenses like car insurance, heating fuel, electric, home owners insurance, and getting rid of additional expenses on phone and cell phone bills.

    Each one of these has the potential to save more than the lattes do for a whole year. Best yet, it would have no effect on your family or your marriage and your wife can have the lattes.

    By far, the best thing to do is to earn more. It’s extremely easy earn $100 even $1000 more per month if you get out of the earn by the hour mindset. Instead of budgeting, determining how much do you need to earn a year to live comfortable and shoot to increase your earns to that level and resist the temptation to increase your lifestyle, i.e., buy a house. This number most likely is much less than you think like $35 more per day.

    • @Tim Rosanelli. Sure a husband could get quotes on car insurance etc., but chances are they negotiated good rates to begin with. I try to renegotiate these items every few years or so, only to find that my current insurer, which was the least expensive when I initially purchased, is still the low cost leader in their group. I suspect this is unlikely to change in the next ten years.

      You go on to say that it is easy to earn $100-$1000 more per month. Again, a smart person would have earned a degree or pursued a trade where they are earning a comfortable lifestyle. For myself, at 41, I’m at the top of the scale. It was easy to go to my boss and say, “Look at my productivity and look where other employees are. I need a raise.” However, you will eventually reach a level that is going to be difficult to go beyond.

      Finally you say to resist the temptation to increase your lifestyle, ie ‘Buy a House’, when a home purchase is an investment that can virtually eliminate your living expenses later in life when your earnings eventually fall.

      I don’t want to focus too much on the Lattes, but I’d be willing to bet that someone how spends $1000 per year on Lattes is spending too much on other things as well.

  21. I read Find Your First Profitable Idea in 2 days. Within 3 days following, I got my first 2 paying clients. A month later, I’d doubled my rates. Now, at 4 months in, I charge 400% more than I did in my first month for about the exact same work.

    Now, I’m looking into how I can outsource as much of my workload as possible to either generate the same or more income with 20% of the amount of time I currently put in.

    F#$# YEAH

  22. I think it’s less about the specific item (large or small) and more about your mindset. If you go into something like this thinking “damn, this is going to suck and I’m going to miss my daily lattes but I’ll do it because I want to save money”, you’re going to fail. It may happen tomorrow or it may happen next week, but you’ll fail. No one ever succeeds on a strategy that feels like self deprivation. Human psychology won’t let us deprive ourselves of the things we like and make ourselves feel miserable when it’s so easy to avoid it (buy that latte, eat that candy).

    However, if you go into something like this thinking “wow, I’m going to kick some god damned ass! I’m going to feel better, lose weight, have a ton more energy and no longer waste all that time standing in line at Starbucks” you have a much better chance to succeed. The reason is because it’s no longer about saving money, now it’s about feeling better and improving your life. That’s what most frugality and diet experts miss. They think that guilt will make people stick to something but it almost never does.

    No one ever changes their life because of guilt, something I wish my mother would get :), they change because they see a light at the end of tunnel, a chance to improve themselves, a chance to have a better life.

    And by the way, that’s why people should focus on earning more rather than saving the latte. Because it’s far easier to imagine a better life with more money than it is with less lattes. Therefore, you’ll be a lot more motivated and a lot more likely to succeed.

    However, if you still want to cut out those lattes, think positive, not negative. worked for me with Diet Coke.

    • Gal, there are other choices besides $4 lattes and no lattes. Why you could make that latte yourself and have a $.40 latte. Then you are not depriving yourself and you’ve saved $3.60 for each latte you make yourself.

      Instead of paying $80 a month for TV, use an antenna or Hulu. You are still watching TV, only you aren’t paying $80 each month.

      You don’t have to give up your cell phone due to the $100 per month charge, you can get a cheaper service for a 1/3 the price.

  23. I appreciate your casual style, but sometimes it goes too far and sounds clueless. The phrase “…between she and her husband…” is not correct anywhere. It’s “between her and her husband.” (The irony is that I think this sort of error became common when people were trying too hard to sound correct, i.e., when they were also saying things like “between you and I.”) I suggest you get a copy editor who can preserve your tone and protect your credibility. Sure, grammar and punctuation can be superficial, but they’re still part of the impression you’re making on readers.

  24. Unless a person replaces a behavior with one that they are actually more inspired by, their unconscious mind will find a way to rebel against the perceived “lack” that’s being imposed.

    The mind doesn’t like to be limited. All actions should be geared to increase choice, not limit it.

    Enjoying this site. I’ll have to buy you a latte to thank you.

  25. [...] thought of my new dress when I read Ramit Sethi’s recent post about the psychology of cutting back on small expenses like lattes. Essentially, he counsels against worrying overmuch about them. He writes: Constantly [...]

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  28. Agree wholeheartedly. I reworked my budget a couple of months ago and despite having very limited funds I added a weekly allowance for drinks, a take-away or the odd cafe coffee. My spending actually went down, because knowing that I had that allowance I stopped all those extra guilty out-of-budget treats which were actually, as it turned out, adding up to more :)

  29. [...] thought of my new dress when I read Ramit Sethi’s recent post about the psychology of cutting back on small expenses like lattes. Essentially, he counsels against worrying overmuch about them. He writes: Constantly [...]