Why Skipping Chai Lattés Won't Help

Personal finance is, well, personal. Everyone has their unique needs and budget to meet those needs. However, the other day when a co-worker was lamenting that her husband said she had to cut out her couple of chai lattés a week so they could do a better job saving, I raised an eyebrow.

Now, I won’t disagree. I won’t give $5 for a cup of coffee or a chai latté. But when you think about it, is a chai latté habit really the lynchpin to savings?

I’m no expert on personal finance, and this shouldn’t be construed as “advice”, but a  bit of research from experts may change your mind.

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I’m going to argue “no”. At $5 a piece, having a latté five days a week means you’re looking at $25 a week and $100 a month. Significant, yes, and probably a good thing to make a Saturday treat rather than a daily ritual, but not exactly the key to retirement.

Even then, it only contributes to savings if you take every dime you are saving from not buying those lattés and actually saving it.  Meaning, it goes directly into a bank account or to pay down debt. If you cut them out, but then spend the money on something else, you haven’t saved anything.

This why shopping a sale and “saving” 50% isn’t really saving. Not unless you would’ve spent the full amount anyway, and you then put the amount you “saved” into the bank.

The three main things most America spend their money on are food, housing, and transportation.  Not necessarily in that order, as it depends where you live, your income, and what phase of life you’re in as to what eats the largest part of your check. But for most of us, it’s still these three things.

 

Housing

Housing is the single largest expenditure for most Americans. A part of me wonders how much of this has to do with Americans buying far more house than they actually need. Certainly, if you live in New York City, there is no way to not spend a fortune. A 750 square foot one bedroom apartment runs over $3,000 a month. But if you live in the rust belt (excluding Chicago ) like I do? Well, this is where it gets tricky.

There is a tax incentive to buy a larger and more expensive home. For example, if you have a $100,000 mortgage at 5%, you pay $5,000 in interest for that year. Most people will be able to write off $1,250 from their taxes that year, making the interest only $3,750.

If you have a $200,000 mortgage at 5%, you’re writing off $2,500. A $500,000 mortgage means $6,250 in tax savings.

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What this forgets, however, is you are still paying the interest on this and the principal. Sure, you own a more expensive house (maybe bigger, depending on location), but you’re still paying more in interest. Sometimes, a lot more. Plus, you’re paying for the principal, and that isn’t tax deductible.

Your monthly payments for these mortgages over 30 years are as follows:

  • $100,000 house – $536.82
  • $200,000 house – $1,073.64
  • $500,000 house – $2,684.11

So, yeah, you’re getting some nice tax savings, but you have to be able to afford the mortgage payment first.

But a house is a great investment, right? At the very least, you should be able to recoup the principal plus a nice return. Not necessarily. Nobel-prize winning economists don’t think so.

Still, it’s hard to compare investing in stocks versus a house as you get to live in your house. But, it begs the question, could you do with less house and put the difference into the wealth-generating power of the stock market?

You’ll also note that the comparison between owning a home and owning stocks doesn’t do a great job of taking into account several things:

  • Dividends from stocks,
  • Tax ramifications of capital gains, property taxes, or  selling a home.
  • Risk from lack of liquidity
  • Hidden costs of having a larger, more expensive home.

Let’s talk about the last two for a minute.

Risk from lack of liquidity comes from having a home that you must find a buyer for. If you own S&P 500 stocks, finding a buyer is very easy. These are heavily traded stocks and there is an entire exchange set-up to trade them. A house is a harder thing to sell. Location matters, and things can change over time. The factory that once employed 6,000 people is now gone. Maybe you’re facing urban creep. Or maybe you didn’t mind a small yard (less to take care of), but you’re in a town with a lot of young families that want yards.

There is always a risk you won’t be able to sell your home, or sell it for as much as it’s worth if you need to move quickly. This isn’t an issue with stocks.

There are also some additional costs to having a more expensive house. Namely, you have to pay property taxes on it. You also have to heat it, cool it, and maintain it.  Replacing the roof on 1,500 square foot house is much cheaper than replacing it on 3,000 square foot house. There’s yard work, shoveling, etc.

I am not saying to not buy a house. Not at all.There are so many reasons to do it as well. As much as I hate yard work and am allergic to grass, I love having a place that’s mine. A bit of roots and permanence.

You’d need to talk to your financial adviser to see if it makes fiscal sense for you.

Whether you buy a house or rent, for most Americans, housing is still our single largest expense. I know I felt pressure to buy the biggest house I could afford when I started searching for our home. Just the other day, a co-worker asked me when we’re upgrading now that we have children. As we bought our home in a district with excellent schools, I see no reason to move.

 

Transportation

This is something most people understand, but it can still be very difficult to tackle. Most of us get that the longer you own a car, overall, the cheaper that car is going to be.

A $25,000 car kept for 5 years costs its owner $5,000 per year. Keep it ten years, and you’re looking at $2,500 per year. Even if you have to make repairs to the vehicle as it ages, older cars are still cheaper to own. For example, if you had $1,000 of repairs per after those first five years, you’re still looking at total cost per year of $3,500 for the vehicle over its ten year life. And in the last 5 years, your out-of-pocket costs is only the repairs..

Keep the car 15 years, and you’re at $1,670 per year to own it plus repairs.

Americans are currently keeping their cars for 11.5 years, and that’s expected to increase to 11.8 years. As car makers have responded to consumer demand for more reliable vehicles, we are in turn keeping them longer. This offers quite the savings.

In addition to keeping cars longer, it’s also important to negotiate a good price on the car in the first place. There are a ton of articles out there about new car buying, yet I’m amazed how few people read them. A car is most family’s second largest purchase. Yet, the number of people that buy on emotion never ceases to surprise me.

I suppose that’s what the car companies are relying on with all of their advertising. They’re trying to appeal to us emotionally and get us to connect with their car. To equate a portion of our self-worth to what we drive, so we’ll want their car to make us feel better about ourselves.

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Okay, yeah, it’s a sweet car. But where am I going to put the car seats?

 

I view my car as a means of getting the kids and me from point A to point B. I want the car to do it reliably and comfortably. Both cars I’ve bought I’m pretty sure will rust out before the powertrain goes.

Making the decision to buy new versus used is another area that needs attention. Yes, we bought our car new even though a lot of people questioned me on it. But as I explained at the time, the price I negotiated combined with the factory incentives, made a new car $1,000 more expensive than a two-year-old used car. We decided it was worth the extra $1,000 not to have to take the 30,000 miles someone else had put on the car when we put less than 10,000 miles a year on a car. But we thought about this. It was a decision.

Just like making the decision on the car to buy. Do you need a SUV, or would a car do? There’s a huge price difference between a Camry and Highlander.

 

Food

This is one area that I think is trickier than the others. Sure, grilled chicken breast with a side salad and sliced mangoes for dessert costs more than hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. But health is a many-faceted thing, and if you look at the graph, you’ll see healthcare is our 4th largest expense.

I’m not sure selecting the cheapest route is the best, though cutting back on eating out is a way to reduce our food budget and get better quality food into our bodies. If you look at the salt content at your favorite restaurants, you may be surprised. I know I was.

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Fueling ourselves with good quality food is better for our bodies, our brains, and help us be healthier and live longer

At the same time, this doesn’t mean you have to have those chai lattés every day, either.

As with housing and transportation, it’s about balance.

 

What about you? Any tips for saving money that have helped you? Do you find your household expenses mirror the same categories most Americans spend? For me, this was missing daycare which costs more than twice my mortgage.

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6 thoughts on “Why Skipping Chai Lattés Won't Help

  1. A $5 latte every day for a year costs more than one mortgage payment on that $200,000 home. (Couldn’t resist.)

    There was a money or frugality expert guy on one of the too many (but free!) podcasts I listen to and he talked about he evaluates every spending decision in terms of whether or not it will bring him “joy.” It seems obvious until you think about how automatically we spend much of our money.

    I’m about ten years from what would normally be retirement age, but since those numbers seem to change often, I’m not sure.

    Two years ago we moved to a smaller house that cost a bit more than the one we sold and has slightly higher property taxes because it’s a better area with a cheaper commute. On balance, the difference in just the utilities (gas instead of oil and half the square footage) made it a wash.

    Ironically, we had bought too much house the first time because in 96 it was one of the only ones that fit our budget and was in the area we wanted. It was a bit of a fixer-upper.

    Having equity in a home to sell made that move a lot easier, and moving when interest rates are at a historic low made it even easier.

    I’d like to stay here when I retire, but as you point out, the rents in this area are incredibly high. Owning our home makes it possible since we “only” have to worry about property taxes. (Which are about $2k a month right now….)

    I think “too much car” is another phenomenon. I don’t understand a $30,000 SUV to drive the kids to soccer and piano lessons on dry pavement.

    If I could live without a car I would in a heartbeat. As it is, I hope our tiny little ’07 Fit outlives me.

    1. I’m with you. I think home ownership is the hardest. It’s so personal, and if you have kids, getting into a good school district costs money.

      And, there is time. Time is incredibly valuable and precious to me. I am totally willing to spend more money to have a shorter commute! We did that, too, and our house cost us 25% more than a comparable house if I was willing to commute 35-45 minutes instead of 15. I paid more, and I’ve never regretted it.

  2. So I live in California (bay area) where everything is ridiculously expensive. To save money, we basically don’t eat out much. Now half of the reason is health, but we noticed so much went to food and my coffee addition 😊

    1. I can’t even imagine! And yes, we gave up eating out as much, and realized how much better quality food we could afford and still lower our grocery bill. We could have beef tenderloin for about the price we were paying for fast food.

      We still have the same food budget, but if we go under for the month, which we do a lot now that we’ve reduced eating out, we put the savings into college funds for our kids.

  3. It’s a difficult situation, saving money. We use coupons, of course. Then we’ve done other things.

    We buy our movie card at Costco. It’s a discount from the standard price. Then we go to matinees, where it’s less expensive yet.

    I’m retired military, so we always ask if a discount applies to me. Now I’m sixty, so I ask about discounts for my age. However, many businesses also have a buy local discount if you’re a local and you ask.

    We cut the cable in 2013. That’s a huge savings per month and year, although there’s been some creep as I begin buying streaming services. Most of those are subscriptions, so we rotate them, opting out of one and opting into another as we binge through shows and movies and run out of things to watch on them.

    Solar panels were installed in 2007 to save money. It was $20,000 out of pocket in that time (2,000 watts). With state and Federal credits, the total out of pocket ended up being $7,000. It’ll still take a long time to break even but it’s great to see electricity sold back to the city reduce our electric bill. March’s electricity cost us $9.00. We use gas for heating, drying clothes and cooking. We do hang things out on the line to dry.

    That electic bill combines several street use, sewer, and drain fees and taxes. Our electricity was $9. The water was another forty. (Water costs have been going up in response to new infrastructure building in response to recent droughts.) Together, though, the electricity and water amounted to $49. Yet the utility bill was $101. Not much we can do with the other costs.

    Other savings ideas we’ve pursued is using VOIP. We bought an OOMA in 2009. That’s been another savings of $29 per month, and we’re not limited by worries about how long we’re talking when we call others. The downside is that when the Internet goes down, so does our phone.

    We have a cell phone for emergency use. It’s not a smart phone or an iPhone. We pay TracFone for advance minutes and service. Cell phone use and their support plans boggle our minds. One company is currently advertising ‘just $15 per month per line, up to four lines’. But we don’t have children. We would probably view this differently if we did.

    As far as housing goes, we cashed out of the Bay area in 2005 and moved up to southern Oregon where housing and the general cost of living is cheaper. We don’t have a mortgage. Many local improvements on the county and city level are funded through homeowners, so our property tax bill keep rising. We pay $5400 a year at this point.

    As for the car, yes, we went for a $30,000 SUV. This was mostly to provide us with all wheel drive capability. Fully loaded, our Mazda CX-5 ended up costing us $26,000 with trade in and discounts. We save on insurance by maximizing our deductibles. But I’m astounded by the maintenance costs for this vehicle. Every four months, we’re required to bring it in for a check up and an oil change. That’s the cost of having a high tech car.

    We still have and drive my wife 2003 Ford Focus, though. It cost us $16,000 when we bought it in 2004. It now has 99,000 miles. We try to walk places to reduce our driving costs, and of course, coordinate errands to minimize running around.

    The other place we save is with gas. We purchase it through Costco, which is the cheapest around by a few cents. When we travel, we look for Costcos to fill our tanks. We get cash back on our Costco Citi Visa from this.

    Now, Costco’s annual membership is $110 for our level. Our last cash back check was $126. From that point of view, we covered our nut and benefited. But many things purchased via Costco offer significant discounts. Meats are much less expensive, as is salmon and cheese. Although we have a stand-alone freezer, we can’t eat that much, so we go in with others and split the purchases, who are also interested in the savings but can’t use the quantities.

    Then there’s the blueberries, blackberries, peaches and cherries that we pick ourselves and freeze each year. That’s another savings.

    Finally, we generally buy used books, and typically buy paperback or trade backs. Then we trade them in again.

    It all adds up.

    Sorry for such a long comment. Your excellent post touched on something important to me. I consider it being mindful. Some would call it economy minded. More would call it cheap. I think they’re missing the big picture.

    Cheers

    1. Lots of good ideas here!

      We cut the cord in 2009. Netflix is way cheaper and no advertising. We have Prime, too, so the kids aren’t deprived by any means, and I can take them down the cereal aisle without a peep.

      We went for a mini van. Not cool, but very practical, especially with the kids in those HUGE car seats. Couldn’t have fit them both in a Corolla.

      But we thought about it. Put 50% down for the van, and I bought on 12/31. Amazing how far down you can get them on that day, especially as I’d thoroughly researched the car, dealer incentives, and invoice price.

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