Why We’ll Pay $3.25 for a Small Coffee

Posted: September 5, 2012 in Daily Life
Tags: , , , , , ,

Buying a nice, warm latte is part of many people’s morning routines. In the United States alone, there are over 11,000 Starbucks. Over half the people in the U.S. drink coffee every day. A tall latte costs $3.25, a number that doesn’t seem too threatening until you do the math. $3.25 per coffee means $22.75 per week. $22.75 per week means $91 per month. $91 per month means $1092 per year spent at Starbucks. And that’s without any syrup.

Photo credit
I’ve probably given this woman the down payment on a car.

Why doesn’t 3.25 per cup seem like that much money when we’re standing in line in the morning? There are a few tricks managers can pull out of their green aprons to make that number seem like small change. Some stores, including Starbucks, drop the dollar sign from their list of costs. Customers tend to “follow the path of least resistance” when it comes to their purchasing choices; subtle changes like leaving the dollar sign out and marking the price in a smaller font encourage buyers to focus on the product and not the price. It also helps to have prices that end in “9” or “5,” because people usually read prices from left to right, processing a $3.95 order as $3 instead of $4.

But, let’s face it, spending too much money on coffee is not an obscure problem. Even if they’ve never done the exact calculations of the amount leaving their bank account, most people realize that their coffee habit is costing a significant amount of money over time, and still don’t change their ways. The reason can’t be convenience–it takes more time to wait in line at a coffee shop than it does to wait for a pot to brew at home.

It comes down to our ability to weigh immediate gratification against future reward. The choice between immediate and delayed gratification is a war between emotion and logic. The emotional part of the brain, the ventral striatum, thinks about how tasty a vanilla latte would be, while the logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, remembers how much the electric bill is this month. Deciding to delay gratification and pay the electric bill comes from the ability to project ourselves into the future–a skill that comes more easily to some people than others.

In the famous “marshmallow experiment,” researchers at Stanford University offered children a single marshmallow, a good hour in any child’s life. However, if they waited for just a few minutes, the researchers told them that they would receive two marshmallows. They left the marshmallow on the table in front of the children while they left the room. After the experiment, they followed the children throughout their school years, and found that the children who were able to resist eating the first marshmallow had better academic success and were less likely to become addicted to drugs than those who chose the immediate reward.

Although that information may be discouraging to people who spend $5 on coffee every day, there is hope. Our ability to delay gratification isn’t set in stone; many of the kids who ate the first marshmallow had learned to focus on future rewards by the time they were adults. With some practice and willpower, we can break our coffee habits and save money for our future needs.

I won’t count the trip I took to Starbucks this morning in the battle to break the latte habit–that was for research. Do you have any immediate gratification habits that you want to break?

  1. thekittchen says:

    I have often thought about how much I spend at Starbucks on an annual basis. I usually go 3-5 times a week. The other thing I think about is the insane amount of fat and calories in some of their drinks. If some people quit their Starbucks habit they would loose weight and save money. Just some food for thought.

  2. I hate playing video games. They seem like a waste of time. Time better spend doing something else (reading, studying, working out, investing in social life).

    • I feel that way about the amount of television I watch. I have sketch books lying around to teach me how to draw and a keyboard that is calling to be played, but it’s easy to let the hours pass in front of a sitcom.

  3. Spijder says:

    I don’t know about anyone else but I’m just too picky about my coffee or am far too attached to the measurement of my home sugar spoon (whether it’s that or any other sweetener even packets on the side always get it horribly wrong). No matter where I’ve tried when I’ve been caught in a spot, but I’ve just pretty much given up on finding a decent cup of coffee outside of my own kitchen.

  4. Staffan says:

    I find music, films, and tv shows to be addictive. They just instantly put me in a mood of my choice. Food and drugs don’t do that form me, thank God; otherwise I’d be a fat junkie by now. The only exception is nicotine which I really made an effort to give up, but it was totally worth it.

    Instant gratification is a serious problem. Children who are deemed impulsive at age three are much more into crime, alcohol, and drugs when they are 21. So the research you refer to is well spent money. Let’s just hope the politicians realize that.

    • My two biggest pet indulgences are sugar and television. Fortunately, they tend to go together; when I cut one out, the other usually follows.

      It is a problem. It does seem to be coming more into the light lately, though, which is a positive sign.

  5. The bad news is: I was drinking a cuppa coffee as I read this. The good news is: it was just my usual cup of cheap instant.

    Of course, by not going to Starbucks I give up a chance to see and be seen. Then again: who wants to be seen drinking a cup of cheap instant?? : )

  6. likeahaiku says:

    Reblogged this on Lauren Volpone and commented:

    As I sipped an expensive latte this morning, I was reminded of a blog I wrote two years ago promising not to do that anymore.

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