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.
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?