It started with a beverage.
Of course it did.
No, I’m not talking about an actual latte. Truth be told, I don’t drink coffee of any kind. Not even the kind that comes with a heaping of high fructose corn syrup and a caramel swirl.
This was a Diet Coke.
I had some time to kill before I needed to pick up my son, so I stopped to fill up my tank of gas. As I tapped in the numbers into my spending tracker, I realized that I was under budget for the month. Way under budget. In fact, I only filled up once all month.
89 cents for a drink. The sign stared at me, but it didn’t have to stare for long.
As much as I hate to admit it, I was out of the car without so much as a second thought. After all, I was earning more money. And so many people spend so much time talking about the fallacy of the latte factor. It was time to try something new.
I was going to savor having enough.
I was going to adopt an abundance mindset.
I was going to have a Diet Coke.
And that’s where it all went downhill.
A Month of Ignoring the Latte Factor
In the spirit of full disclosure, know this. I believe in the latte factor. One of my favorite teaching moments to blog about was when I had the chance to teach a student about the latte factor. But I don’t just teach it. I lived it. The 200-plus pairs of shoes that I’ve since sold off attest to the fact better than I can.
But after years of living in a world where the drum beat for the other camps–Camp Increase Your Income and Camp Big Three Expenses–virtually drowned out the one that says little purchases matter, too, I decided to yield. Surely, that many people couldn’t be wrong.
RELATED POST: The Real Problem With the Talk About Lattes
Now, here’s what you need to know. I’m not filing bankruptcy as a result of this month. I’m not jeopardizing my financial future or my family’s. I’m sure as heck not mailing back my Plutus Award for Best Frugality Blog. It wasn’t that bad. But it wasn’t good.
We went over our grocery budget for the month by $70.25
We were over our spending/fun money by $47.01.
In other categories where we came in at or under budget, I could easily pull out $5, $10, $20, or more that I wouldn’t normally spend. Fuel, home repair, and even our gas and electric bills as I YOLOed it up an extra degree or two on super chilly nights.
That’s easily an extra $200 in just one month. That is more than half of what we put into our son’s college fund. That’s nearly a quarter of our mortgage. That is our grocery budget. It’s not a lot, and then suddenly, it really is.
I also didn’t really benefit from allowing myself the freedom to splurge. In fact, I felt the opposite. I take a great deal of pride in being mindful with my money after being reckless for so long. So this wasn’t nearly as fun as I had imagined.
The Cost is Higher than Just Dollars
This month was tough on a our budget, but it was tougher on two things that are more important: our health and the environment.
Sometimes, my indulgences are healthy. Usually, they aren’t.
I’m not going to pay someone to dunk a tea bag in a cup of hot water. But I will pay someone to execute just a few more steps to make me a chai latte from concentrate. The difference might is a few dollars, and it is also a few hundred calories.
RELATED POST: Why I’m Skipping Starbucks
Don’t get me wrong. Not every splurge was calorie-laden. Some were entirely calorie free. Like the Diet Coke that I spent all month swilling down after fighting tooth and nail to quit the habit (again and again). When I look back on all the little extras I lined my life with this month, I can’t say any of them made me healthier. These splurges either had no impact or were a setback health wise.
Let’s go back to that pop. I actually didn’t think when I bought that Diet Coke. I didn’t even realize until the full impact of what I had done until it was already in my hands. What I was holding was so far beyond a to-go cup at Starbucks. I was holding bonafide Styrofoam. This cup was going to out live my kids’ kids’ kids’ kids. Even if we can’t measure convenience in dollars (I know, some of you are going down swinging that this isn’t actually a financial burden), we can measure it in environmental impact.
Generally, the more convenient something is, the more plastic it comes wrapped in. That block of cheese that I have to slice? It comes conveniently pre-sliced as string cheese with each tube encased in a plastic sleeve inside a plastic pouch. The financial cost might be measured in cents but the environmental one is measured in plastic.
Final Thoughts on the Latte Factor
Once again, we are locked in a debate where both sides refuse to budge. We are overlooking the easiest of answers. You do both. Of course you do. You might not be willing or able to both at all times, but you don’t slash the big expenses just to undo your progress with smaller ones. You don’t grow your income just so you can spend more of it.
In a system that is all about growing the gap, I can’t think of a stranger practice than taking all that time and effort to put yourself ahead with dollars, just to eat them back up a few cents at a time.
The latte factor is real.
Unchecked, it is an issue.
Is it the biggest money issue anyone faces? Of course not. The latte factor isn’t what is putting people into debt. The latte factor isn’t to blame for the student loan crisis, housing bubbles, or stagnant wages. But just because it isn’t the cause of those financial hardships doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Sometimes it’s the simplest problem to understand and the easiest to tackle.
So Tell Me…What would your month look like if you let your life fill back up with lattes, real or metaphorical?
Kalie @ Pretend to Be Poor
This illustrates perfectly my objection to the latte factor, which is that the latte rarely occurs in a vacuum. A lifestyle of little splurges isn’t usually confined to one single habit; it becomes a mindset of small indulgences, or not so small conveniences, that takes over your financial life. Thanks for illustrating this so well!
I’m happy to be a what-not-to-do anytime. Wait…
Oh I feel your latte factor this last half of the month. I’m not looking at my cc statement for a reason…. I know I will have to throw more money than I want to on it. Thank you tickets to Elton John… Ballet… Symphony… who knows what else! I will absolutely enjoy all of these events but I probably should have behaved myself more. And I 100% went out more than I had anticipated this month. I was doing really really well the first 1/2 of the month and then just fell off the waggon. good thing I have maxed out my required gov’t savings (CPP, EI) for the year so I get some extra on my pay cheques to make up for my spending.
Good luck going forward and the little stuff might not break the budget but it could easily put you over on your spending!
You hit the nail on the head with your last sentence. If we keep going at this pace, I won’t actually get to enjoy my raise at all. I will be spending all of it instead of saving any. Grrr!
(But also omg Elton John tickets. I’ve seen him three times in Vegas, and it was worth every penny every single time!)
I hopped on to comment, but I can’t beat the comment by Kalie, above.
Agreed! And thanks for stopping by!
Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life
It’s already sort of looking like that as I committed the biggest of latte factors for our lives: adopting a second dog. My subconscious is really mad about it because it gave me a whopper of a nightmare the other night – we adopted two MORE dogs. I woke up in a sweat swearing up and down that I’ve learned my lesson and won’t try to adopt more than our two dogs. I can’t imagine anything worse than getting in over my head adopting dogs that we can’t take care of adequately, it seems
Is it terrible if people’s dog stories always remind me of my baby? 😉
Mrs. Picky Pincher
For me, it’s been a challenge to identify the difference between “self care” and straight up going overboard with the treat yo’self mentality. As a recovering impulse shopper, the lines REAL blurred for me already. Ugh.
I think the key is to try to find treats that don’t require consumption. For me that’s guilt-free time for naps/video games, going on a walk, or reading.
That’s exactly it. And it’s worse with a baby. I use him to justify all sorts of convenience. But honestly, he doesn’t need string cheese. I end up having to cut it into pieces anyway. Buy the dang block of cheese, Penny.
Angela @ Tread Lightly Retire Early
Time and time again, it’s the environmental factor that stops me from those little purchases. Like you said, you can’t avoid that part with the convenience stuff, and that shit then lasts forever, no matter how much money you make to out earn it.
I felt so bad about my Styrofoam cup, I’ve refilled it with water all month. It was such a boneheaded move.
I got to go on a conference last week and treat myself to meals and coffee out knowing I’d get reimbursed. It was nice, but I also noticed it’s a slippery slope. We’re coming up on a busy month and I want to make sure I don’t fall on bad habits- it’s easier to slide when you’re stretched for time.
And for me, the consequences ended up being more than financial. Why in the world am I drinking Diet Coke again? Or now I make my own latte in the morning. I used to be perfectly content with plain tea, and now I start my day with 150 extra calories and all that extra sugar. ARGH.
I agree with FrogDancer Jones that Kalie’s comment summed it up. It’s not the Latte, it’s the mindset. I never JUST buy the latte. ?
I could honestly put that on a t-shirt. Or a coffee mug. But it might be a little TOO on the nose 😉
Doris @ Your Financial Launchpad
I really like that you brought in environmental considerations on top of what I call the “financial leakage factor”, which is what happens when we preface any purchase with “It’s only….” Leaks are like rabbits – they seem to double in the blink of an eye. What few of us ever think about, however, is the environmental cost of our latte indulgences. Great point.
Thank you! It’s so easy to only talk (and think!) about money. But I’ve been realizing more and more lately how much overlap there is between money and health and the environment.
I’d probably go to the brewery 2-3 nights a week. That’s my latte factor. And while I’d love to pat myself on the back for walking to the brewery and drinking out of a glass… I’m sure the process of brewing beer is not as friendly to the environment as I’d like to imagine.
I try to tell myself “I don’t need that” in similar situations. But Im really only commenting to tell you how much I loved that you used the word “pop”!
I’ve been guilty of frequenting our on-campus coffee shop all too often this past year. The devils brought the mainstream Starbucks competitor right into our headquarters. Bastards.
Once, maybe twice a week I find myself getting that small americano as part of a social experience with a colleague. Can I afford it? Yes. Am I going to lose on a few grand when I’m 80 because of this nasty habit? Yep.
Where it becomes a problem is when it’s a bellwether for bigger nonsense spending, like the “happy hour factor” or the “brunch factor” or even the “i’m going to FinCon dammit and you can’t stop me! factor”. 🙂
HA! Those jerks!
I do think regular splurges are fine, especially when they are planned and thoughtful. I always build in a bit of spending money for each of us (even my baby!). But man, oh man. If I give myself an inch, I’ll take a mile!
Love this. It’s not a lot until it is. It’s the “little foxes” that destroy the vine. Thank for sharing and taking the conversation beyond $$ and cents.
I hadn’t heard that little foxes phrases but it’s totally true!
I’m all for having a latte – when you want it and when it really enriches your life. It’s just so bad when neither of those criteria are met. Then it’s just mindless consumption.
Ha. I am too good at justifying the first part!