Suze Orman wants young people to stop “peeing” away millions of dollars on coffee. Last month, the personal-finance celebrity ignited a controversy on social media when a video she starred in for CNBC targeted a familiar villain: kids these days and their silly $5 lattes. Because brewing coffee at home is less expensive, Orman argued, purchasing it elsewhere is tantamount to flushing money away, which makes it a worthy symbol of Millennials’ squandered resources.
Orman’s not alone in this view. The old guard of personal finance has spent years turning the habit of buying coffee into a shorthand for Americans’ profligacy, especially that of young Americans. Dave Ramsey, a finance personality who hosts a popular radio show on getting out of debt, says that forgoing lattes is one of four keys to saving thousands of dollars. Kevin O’Leary, one of the investors on the entrepreneurial reality show Shark Tank, once told CNBC, “I never buy a frape-latte-blah-blah-blah-woof-woof-woof.” Even the official Twitter account for Chase Bank has gotten in on the fun, intimating via meme that a failure to brew at home is why young people don’t have any money.
In the face of coffee shaming, young people usually point to things like student loans and housing prices as the true source of the generation’s instability, not their $100-a-month cold-brew habits. Nonetheless, coffee endures as a personal-finance flash point because it provides such a tidy intersection of generational tensions. A cup of coffee embodies changes in everything from how younger Americans eat to where they live and how they approach their finances. For young people who buy one each morning, the walk up to the barista can be a shame-tinged tug of war.
Finance media has seized on coffee in part because, in the space of a generation, how Americans drink coffee has changed dramatically. In 1994, Starbucks had fewer than 500 locations in the United States. Today, it has more than 14,000. With this expansion, the Seattle-based coffee chain pioneered a more European approach to coffee throughout the country, replacing the mediocre-at-best cup of mud many Americans were accustomed to with espresso-based drinks and beans sourced from far-off locales.
Americans under 40 have only known this brave new world of relatively good, premium-priced coffee. Frappuccinos and flavored lattes were much more pleasurable bridges to the world of adult caffeination than what most young Americans’ parents had, and their generation’s consumption numbers reflect it: Millennials make up less than a quarter of the overall U.S. population, but in 2016, they drank an estimated 44 percent of the nation’s coffee.
In this sense, Orman isn’t wrong about young Americans’ eagerness to sink cash into java. Professionally constructed lattes are now morning-routine staples for millions of workers. Orman’s million-dollar math might be fuzzy at best, but the accusation that buying fancy coffee is wasteful has seeped into the conventional wisdom of contemporary America, even for people who couldn’t name any financial celebrities but struggle between the allure of small pleasures and the constraints of their personal budget.
Orman’s criticism doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. Coffee has proved such a convenient cultural totem that lattes got sucked into politics almost as quickly as they hit the American palate. Traditionalists in the U.S. have a habit of regarding anything too European as intolerably fancy, and the American espresso boom’s continental legacy made it easy to dismiss as a symbol of modern frivolity. It was the too-feminine foil to the pot of drip, the enjoyment of which American coffee advertising had long sold as a marker of masculinity. Accusations of “latte liberalism” date back to a 1997 article by the columnist David Brooks and were used regularly for more than a decade afterward, most notably against Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
This history of resentment over American coffee extended to where the drink is consumed. Coffee shops and coffee “culture” in the country began in urban centers, enabled by and geared toward the young people who have moved back to cities and gentrified neighborhoods that previous generations of white Americans fled for the suburbs. Those young people, toting their laptops to coffee shops to sip almond-milk coffee concoctions, weren’t just rejecting Folgers, but also a few other key values of their parents’ generation, which venerated things like marriage and home ownership. In 2019, young Americans are less likely to buy homes, get married, and have kids than their generational forebears.
Despite the long pushback, coffee won out. Not only have young, city-dwelling progressives come down on the side of Big Coffee, but so have plenty of homeowners, parents, and people in suburban and rural areas. Professionally made coffee tastes good, and Americans tend to like things that are sweet and rich and that can be procured via drive-through. Finance traditionalists might have notched a victory or two along the way, but their war against Starbucks and its ilk was over before it had even begun.
As a love of fancy coffee has lost its status as a unique demographic marker, refutations of its stain on financial stability have become far louder. Orman and her compatriots now receive widespread pushback when denigrating coffee aficionados, a change that reflects the shifting intergenerational tensions that are frequently a feature of the post–Great Recession personal-finance genre. The industry posits that many of the sweeping generational trends affecting Americans’ personal stability—student-loan debt, housing insecurity, the precarity of the gig economy—are actually the fault of modernity’s encouragement of undisciplined individual largesse. In reality, those phenomena are largely the province of Baby Boomers, whose policies set future generations on a much tougher road than their own. With every passing year, it becomes harder to sell the idea that the problems are simply with each American as a person, instead of with the system they live in.
“There’s a reason for this blame-the-victim talk” in personal-finance advice, the journalist Helaine Olen wrote recently. “It lets society off the hook. Instead of getting angry at the economics of our second gilded age, many end up furious with themselves.” That misdirection is useful for people in power, including self-help gurus who want to sell books. (Orman didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
In the face of the troubling economic and social trends that have shaped adult life for young Americans, buying a coffee every morning isn’t necessarily a bad way to cope. “Little luxuries actually have a real effect on people’s happiness,” says Laura Vanderkam, the author of All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending. “It’s these small, repeated treats that do a lot for you long term. In many cases, you’re probably better off getting a cheap dining room table and using that extra money to get coffee or go out to lunch with friends.”
That’s not to say that keeping an eye on your day-to-day finances is a bad idea, or that buying everything that catches your eye is a solid plan for your financial future. But when it comes to money, Vanderkam says, there are usually only a couple of things that actually make a difference in how stable people are. It’s the big stuff: how much you make, how much you pay for housing, whether or not you pay for a car.
Personal-finance gurus obsess over buying coffee not because it is unsustainable, Vanderkam suggests, but because being a personal-finance guru is. “The strongest finance advice can be summed up in a couple sentences,” she explains. Maximize your income. Limit your big monthly expenses. But if your job depends on doling out financial wisdom, Vanderkam notes, “you have all this real estate you have to fill on your blog, your podcast, and your books. That’s where all this little stuff winds up coming in, but in the larger scheme, it’s kind of irrelevant.”
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