Here’s the thing: I don’t drink coffee. I can count on one hand the number of sips I’ve tried. It’s so repulsive to me, I cannot swig it down in a Frappuccino that is 87% sugar, 11% heavy whipping cream, and 2% coffee. I won’t even eat tiramisu, failure of an Italian American that I am. But the latte factor is real. In fact, it’s my biggest money mistake.
It’s Not Actually About Coffee
I never bought coffee. Tea, yes. Chai, so much yes. But even impulsive, 14-year-old Penny realized how absurd it was to pay $2 for a tea bag and hot water when I could buy the identical box of tea bags at Target for about $4. So I didn’t burn through a whole lot of money at coffee shops. Nope. My hunting ground was the mall.
Sale after glorious sale, discount after discount, coupon after coupon. If it wasn’t on sale, even better. That meant it was a brand-name designer who was too important for paper coupons promising an extra 25% off combined with a store credit card. But those were splurges…or Christmas presents (hi, Mom!). Shopping became my latte because I’d only spend $5, $10, or maybe $20 a pop. If I was really on a roll, maybe I’d spend $50 or $100 a week or every other week at the mall. And I never batted an eye. My dad objected, but his logic was no match for the Abercrombie and Fitch hoodie (middle school) or the clearance rack at Target (always).
To everyone who says the latte factor isn’t real, let’s do some math, shall we? I started babysitting when I was 12, and I got my first part-time job at 14. Industrious little shopper, I know. Let’s say my impulse buying crescendoed at age 15. That’s at least a decade of piddling away $20 a week. That’s $10,400. And in the event that my mom ever does find this blog, you should know that the only way my spending would have actually come out to $80 a month would maybe be that one month during junior year when I had impacted wisdom teeth removed and was too busy drooling on myself to shop. Realistically, I probably spent a few thousand dollars more. And that isn’t even on planned purchases.
It’s Insidious and Invasive
The most unbelievable part of this story is the fact that I was completely clueless. Just like the movie. I had no idea how much stuff I was amassing because I kept finding places to put it. Growing up, my closet exploded* into the guest room and the hall linen closet. If it was organized, it wasn’t a problem.
It wasn’t until I bought a home of my own and had to wrangle all some of my possessions that I saw it. I was 26 years old. I purchased an 1800-square-foot home with three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, and a basement, and I sat in a pile of shoes in tears because I didn’t know where to put them. Tearfully, I told my husband that we were failed homebuyers because two people couldn’t live comfortably in this house. My house wasn’t actually too small for two people; it was too small for all of my stuff. But because consumer culture is everywhere and it celebrates excess, it never seemed like a problem. Until I was finally forced to come face to face with it.
It’s Hard to Break a Lifestyle
What makes this money mistake so awful is that it developed into a money lifestyle. I never had any illusions or delusions about driving around in a Porsche or purchasing a McMansion. I’ve known since seventh grade that I was going to be a teacher, for goodness sakes. Let’s be practical, Penny.
Meanwhile, I hung my money in my closet, nearly drowned in my clutter, and was none the wiser. Because that’s what society–or at least consumer culture–wants. Yes, we’re the land of the free but, let’s be real. Our focus is on the fact that this is the land of the free gift with purchase.
I had adopted a lifestyle that wasn’t making me broke. I never amassed any consumer debt, so it wasn’t hurting me in obvious ways. But it wasn’t helping me either. I was essentially treading water. And you can only tread for so long. That’s why people sink into credit card debt. There’s no so thing as a reasonable impulse buy. The truly devastating part is that this bad habit evolves into a way of living, a way of defining yourself. And how you and how you define yourself are hard things to change.
There’s this old cliche about small leaks sinking great ships. That’s certainly true. It’s not just that small leaks get bigger even if you can’t see it happening. It’s that small leaks get bigger especially when you don’t see them. So to everyone who says the latte factor isn’t real, that $10 to $20 every week isn’t going to make a big difference, tell that to my closet.
*Your closets are finally empty, Mom. Thank Poshmark.
So Tell Me…Would you believe me if I told you those photographs were only heels and flats? Care to share one of your money mistakes?