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Go Ahead, Splurge on Takeout Coffee

Call it the "Ditch Starbucks, Get Rich" meme. It crops up like an unwanted perennial on personal finance blogs year after year. Finances a mess? Just stop buying Starbucks, and watch the money roll in! Indeed, a piece that recently ran in the Huffington Post comes emblazoned with an infographic that lets you know, Here's What You Could Buy if You Quit Your Crazy Starbucks Habit. Never mind that it sounds like one of those "One Weird Trick" ads that crop up like kudzu on every link farm and spam site since time immemorial.* It's lousy advice for those of us who care about community, coffee, our well-being, and -- believe it or not -- even our finances. On one level, it's hard to take issue with the HuffPo article (or any of the other guises under which it's appeared). If you're drinking take-out coffee at two bucks a pop every work day, it does add up. Even if you're drinking regular 'ol brewed coffee at two bucks a pop (we're not even getting into venti double shot, double-pump, soy mocha latte territory here), that can still add up to about five hundred dollars per year. Of course, that article does go on to suggest that instead of making that one small purchase daily, you instead spend it on something else that's frivolous,** thereby negating the savings. Even the more "responsible" takes on the "Ditch Starbucks" meme assume that all that money will automatically go into your savings or your kids' 529 account. In a piece for Forbes titled The Smart Reason We Waste Our Dollars On Coffee, Rob Asghar notes another reason why cutting out your coffee habit isn't what it's cracked up to be, and why we gravitate toward coffee even when simple economics and common sense tell us that it's not a "smart" buy. He notes that after taking a slight hit during the height of the 2008 recession, Starbucks didn't just bounce back, they expanded with a vengeance, going from 15,000 stores in 44 countries to having more than 21,000 stores in 65 countries. By the conventional wisdom, that probably shouldn't have happened. In hard times, after all, wouldn't we all be drinking less coffee, or spending more time brewing our own? But as usually happens, the conventional wisdom was more convention than wisdom. Convenience sells, but that's only part of the equation. Asghar quotes psychologist Bill Dyment, who states, “So what drives us? Is it simply the caffeine? No, you can satisfy that craving for much less money at home. I think there’s more to the story: The $4 coffee is a pleasing brew of social ritual, self-reward, feeling valued by attentive servers and a welcome pause in a busy day.” The coffee, in other words, is about much more than just the coffee. In some places, Starbucks, Blue Bottle, and other cafes of their ilk are small but significant status symbols for those of us who can't afford a Maserati or a pair of Louboutins. For others, it's a reward for a hard day's work, but without breaking the bank. And cafes serve another function as well: for years -- before the Third Wave, before Starbucks -- they've been a locus for sharing and community. Those functions aren't something that's readily quantifiable. Nor, apparently, are they something we're quite ready to do without. Our take? We'll take the latte with our friends. You can keep the rollerblades. *You know the one. "Dermatologists are FURIOUS With This Denver Mom's Five Dollar Skin Care Trick!" Complete with an animated GIF of a toddler defenestrating handfuls of mice. **A hot tub? Cheap beer? Roller blades? Has ANYone rollerbladed since August of 1993 or thereabouts? Images: Starbucks cash image courtesy thedailybalance.com Starbucks Money by flickr user Yosuke Hasegawa