Friday, June 5, 2009

The 'beware the latte' brigade

Responding to Miss Self-Important's inaugural post, PG writes:

I'd say it's also almost always ok to spend on things that will contribute significantly to your emotional well-being on a daily basis. For me, that's getting a cleaning service every few weeks -- it's worth the money not ever to have to deal with arguing over who has let gunk accumulate in the microwave, or whose turn it is to scrub the toilet. For other people, that can be anything from pet-ownership to yoga classes. The main thing is that it relieve the stress of daily life, not just create an occasional high.

Indeed! This was what so frustrated me about that article that came out a while back advising The Youth to give up their regular trips to Starbucks and the like, because over time, you'll save big. (Of course, this, like all 'who knew?' savings tips, presumes a switch from near-daily latte consumption to total elimination - results would be far less dramatic for those who fail to start at one extreme or end up at the other.) But suppose that latte is the difference between you enjoying the period from 4pm to the end of the workday and you napping at your desk? Or at the library, as I'd have done yesterday, had I not sprung for a cappuccino that was, somewhat embarrassingly, more expensive than my lunch. (Yes, I'm lucky to go to school near a Two Boots, where a top-notch slice is $2.50.) Is the joy of saving money in increments of $2 or $3 so great that it's worth cutting back in one especially noticeable area? Or is the point to condemn immediate gratification for the sake of condemning immediate gratification, without consideration for the actual cost/benefit of the latte in question?

The larger point here is... what PG said, but also that, while thrift generally can be encouraged, urging the elimination across-the-board of one particular expenditure - unless it's, say, bathing in caviar - is rarely helpful, and is likely to just be unnecessarily judgmental. Doing so fails to account for the different roles The Latte plays in different people's lives - for some it's just one more thing that could easily be eliminated, and for others (ahem, humanities grad students), it's one indulgence in an otherwise ascetic lifestyle. Sometimes people need an excuse to step outside of their offices or the library for a couple minutes. Starbucks exists to give non-smokers that excuse.


Matt said...

I did cut out going to Starbucks, in part to save money (though I usually just drink coffee, not a latte or something more expensive) and in part because I don't like their coffee that much. I don't find it as bad as some people, but I'd rather drink something else. But I still needed coffee, so I started bringing my own ground coffee (from beans I like more than starbucks') and a french press and an electric tea kettle I already had but didn't use at home. I don't "go out" for it but making it still gives me something to do. Since I make it twice a day it's a fair savings, even after buying the beans. I agree w/ the general point, and obviously you can't pack all of this stuff with you or even use it in every office, but sometimes there are ways to cut back expenses even w/o lessening enjoyment (or even improving it for me, since I didn't like the coffee I got before as much as that I get now.)

Miss Self-Important said...

When I found that previously mentioned espresso maker in Seb's old house, I took it home and cleaned it up with the aim of bringing it to work to make my own lattes and save coffee money. In the end, the problem of milk preservation undermined my brilliant plan (we have an office fridge, but no respect for private property). This French press idea intrigues me... Too bad I am leaving my job in a month, or I might copy it.

Miss Self-Important said...

On the whole though, I'm not totally opposed to advice like, "cut down on lattes and save $427.80 a year" even though I have decided not to take it. Small expenditures can be easily overlooked, but shouldn't be. I thought about it, and decided that spending $1.59 on coffee four times a week is worth not falling asleep at my desk at 3 pm. But it's a trade-off I'm aware of, and one that I settled on after deciding that the additional pleasure to be had from a $3.29 latte instead of plain coffee was not worth the cost.

I do prefer to err on the side of being too judgmental though, as you may have noticed. Anyone can say they do some absurdly unnecessary or expensive thing for personal peace of mind or to "pamper themselves" or whatever, but I am not going to be persuaded by that. Further justification, plz.

Matt said...

Yes- milk is a problem w/ coffee made at work. We have a fridge but it became too much of a problem for me, so I drink it black even though I prefer to have cream (heavy cream, at home) in it. I guess I could buy some mini-moos. The french press works well for me but what might be even better is one of those pour-through cones- easier to clean up, and harder to break. But part of what I like is getting away from my desk a bit so I don't mind taking the time to clean out the french press.

Phoebe said...


I'm not such a fan of Starbucks, either, although their black coffee's OK. I certainly don't object to individuals cutting out Starbucks or lattes or whatever if you realize you'd rather save the $3 than have the drink. What does bother me is the idea that we must take 'every penny counts' to such an extreme, that even if we get through the day better with a break and a treat of some kind, we have to feel, with each purchase, that we obviously just don't care about our futures.


To say, as general advice, 'small purchases add up' seems fair. But to demonize a relatively low-cost pleasure, one with no second-hand or driving-while-intoxicated consequences, seems unnecessary. I think people do realize that coffee on the outside costs money, and act accordingly. I do this by making my own coffee some of the time, and by avoiding espresso drinks for the most part except on days when a punch-card allows it. Then again, my presence on this blog suggests I may not be representative of the general population when it comes to such matters.

"Anyone can say they do some absurdly unnecessary or expensive thing for personal peace of mind or to "pamper themselves" or whatever, but I am not going to be persuaded by that."

True enough. It's for the individual to figure out what, given their income, is a reasonable price to pay for "peace of mind." For whatever reason, I've decided the price of a haircut isn't, but that of coffee is. And it would take a lot of coffee to add up to the price of a decent haircut in this town.

PG said...


It's for the individual to figure out what, given their income, is a reasonable price to pay for "peace of mind."

I don't think your view is consistent with MSI's, as expressed here. You can't really consider thriftiness an virtue if people are considered to have it based on their subjective determination of what is a reasonable amount to pay based on their own income and situation in life.

Phoebe said...

"You can't really consider thriftiness an virtue if people are considered to have it based on their subjective determination of what is a reasonable amount to pay based on their own income and situation in life."

I disagree. A person who makes tons can be considered and rightly consider himself thrifty for, say, not buying a summer house or a fancy car, for taking public transportation, etc., whereas a grad student who takes the subway is not, on account of that alone, a thrifty person. How thriftiness manifests itself varies according to wealth. And subjective judgments have to be made, by the thrifty and others - you know if coffee is one of many unnecessary purchases, or if it's your one real indulgence.

PG said...

OK, if thrift cannot be a virtue of necessity, and if there is some objective measurement of it: what percent of after-tax income is it reasonable for a childless person to spend (including on repayment of past debt, e.g. school loans) in order to be deemed thrifty? And do we expect all people to be thrifty (i.e. it's a virtue like sexual fidelity) or is it an exceptional trait (like charity)?

Belle Lettre said...

I disagree that thrift cannot be a virtue of necessity, but I have to think about why I disagree in a more coherent manner. I feel like there is an aretaic/virtue ethics model of thrift, in which there is both an objective rule and a subjective experience. But I'm not really smart enough in philosophy, and I've read of all of a few papers and books. Matt?

WhatKathyDid said...

As a student I used to work as personal assistant to an estate agent in a posh shopping district in London. Urgh.

At lunch I would escape from the office to buy an egg mayo sandwich from Pret (their cheapest at £1.15 - about $2) and a short latte from Starbucks for £1. [the sneeky beggars don't advertise short lattes, you have to ask].I would then wander around afore-mentioned shopping district and lust after Marc Jacobs dresses etc.

The cost of my lunch (£2.15) was well worth it - thinking about my lunch was the only thing that got me through the long mornings there.

WhatKathyDid said...

Oh, and I am a philosophical ignoramus, but doesn't Kant say that doing something even though you don't want to or have to is more virtuous than doing it because you want/have to?

The poor are thrifty by necessity i.e. they have no choice. Therefore they are less vituous than the rich woman who forgoes a fur coat because she questions the morality of excessive spending/killing animals to look beautiful/whatever.

In other words, it's rubbish being poor. Not only can't you buy stuff, but you can't even claim to be virtuous about it.

Sissie Sue said...

To my way of thinking, thriftiness in any given situation cannot be disconnected from the actual material conditions it involves. So, let's say I'm looking at two cartons of eggs, one "regular" and one free-range-organic-whathaveyou. If I can afford the latter, I can hardly justify buying the former based on the amount of suffering that went into the "regular" eggs.

I wonder, does this ever figure into discussion of thrift as a virtue?

Matt said...

Replying to Belle above,
Aristotle, as far as I can tell, doesn't talk about thrift as such. But he does talk a lot about spending and giving money in various ways, and says things like, "What is suitable, then, is relative to the person concerned, and to the context and what the expenditure relates to", and "Attributions of open-handedness [generosity, sort of] do, however, take account of a person's resources; for the essence of open-handedness does not lie in the quantity of what is given, but disposition of the giver, and this ensures giving that takes account of his resources."

So, insofar as we want to think of thrift as a virtue, it would certainly take in account the resources of the person. I think Aristotle would could a lot of aspects of thrift under "prudence", but not all of them. Importantly, you don't really have the virtue unless you do the action as an expression of your character. Note also that a wealthy person who is always looking to save very small amounts will likely count as mean on Aristotle's account. I should say that while there are some attractive elements in Aristotle's view, to my mind developments in biology and psychology make it very hard (though perhaps not impossible) to hold it in a very strong way.