Coffee has for years now been the straw man burned in effigy to the gods of fiscal responsibility. It’s the reason you’re not a millionaire, why you can’t afford a house, whatever it is that you are supposed to want but don’t have, there’s some self-proclaimed financial guru out there who will tell you the reason you don’t have it is because you drink coffee (and occasionally order the avocado toast). It’s an exceptionally dumb argument made even dumber with each new iteration, like a stupidity phoenix rising from its own steaming, coiled ashes.
But it wasn’t always just a quippy soundbite for some rich nitwit to tell you how to not spend your money. In a recent article, Vice traces the history of the coffee vs. savings platitude and finds that the origins had a much more positive bent.
According to Vice, it all begins with Grandma Rose, the grandmother of financial guru David Bach. Back before her kids had kids, Grandma Rose worked at a department store, living paycheck to paycheck until she “figured that being poor sucked and decided to become rich.” Her plan to escape this lifestyle was to put “50 cents into a coffee can each week, then [deposit] those hard-earned savings into a brokerage account at the end of the year.” This, as the story goes, led to Grandma Rose’s financial security.
This quaint little story about how making a small change can have a big impact (if you were lucky enough to be born a 20th century white privileged American etc.) was the inspiration for Bach’s first book Smart Women Finish Rich, one that launched his financial guru’ing career. But after a 20 year game of telephone, the story has mutated into something more heinous and weaponized against whatever generation the olds feel need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In its most recent iteration, Suze Orman—who saves 20% off her name by not writing the i—has stated that she would not “insult [herself] by wasting money that way.” (All her insults are reserved for the people she is being paid to pretend to help.)
Many financial advisors are now saying that focusing on small changes is an ineffective strategy. Our focus instead should be on larger decisions like “saving $150,000 on a house purchase or negotiating a major raise.” Others see comments like Orman’s as some mix of nonsensical and classist (and also definitely racist, because the whole history of property ownership in America is racist). Senior researcher at the Economic Policy Institute Elise Gould notes that even those with “stable, middle-class incomes” find themselves living paycheck to paycheck.
“In a world where lots of people can't find $400 for some unexpected expense, like fixing their car, I think a lot fewer people are spending money on lattes to begin with,” she said. “It's like, who are we even talking to?”
Like with most things, this wisdom from the “simpler times” doesn’t track with modern life. Back in the day, Grandma Rose could easily save 50 cents a week to pull herself out of poverty or work a part-time job flipping burgers to pay her way through college (and then some!), but those options simply are available to the generation currently being admonished for not owning homes and having too much debt. Today's reality for prospective home owners is incalculably fucked, except people have calculated it, and the numbers are tragic.
Fuck a Suze Orman. Grandma Rose's house is now worth 30x what she paid for it and she and her realtor won't take a penny less. There's only one thing that's going to help people in America level the playing field when it comes to home ownership and generational wealth accrual, and it's fast on the way.
In the meantime, we drink coffee.