At a Starbucks across the street from Seattle University School of Law, Kirsten Daniels crams for the bar exam. She's armed with color-coded pens, a don't-mess-with-me crease in her brow and what she calls "my comfort latte."
She just graduated summa cum laude, after three years of legal training that left her $115,000 in debt. Part of that debt, which she will take a decade to repay with interest, was run up at Starbucks, where she buys her lattes.
The habit costs her nearly $3 a day, and it's one that her law school says she and legions like her cannot afford.
It borders on apostasy in this caffeine-driven town (home to more coffee shops per capita than any major U.S. city, as well as Starbucks corporate headquarters), but the law school is aggressively challenging the drinking habits of students such as Daniels.
"A latte a day on borrowed money? It's crazy," said Erika Lim, director of career services at the law school.
To quantify the craziness, Lim distributes coffee-consumption charts. One shows that a five-day-a-week $3 latte habit on borrowed money can cost $4,154, when repaid over 10 years. She also directs students to a Web site she helped create. The "Stop Buying Expensive Coffee and Save Calculator" (www.hughchou.org/calc/coffee.cgi) shows that if you made your own coffee and for 30 years refrained from buying a $3 latte, you could save $55,341 (with interest).
Inside the Starbucks across from the law school, Daniels seemed surprised -- but unmoved -- to hear all this. "I guess I never had done the math," she said. "On the other hand, I would be a very crabby person without my comfort latte."
Therein lies the rub for those who would curb latte consumption with pocketbook reasoning. As Lim concedes, "no one pays any attention."
Financial planners, best-selling investment gurus and a number of advice columnists have been warning consumers for years that seemingly insignificant daily spending on such luxuries as gourmet coffee can, over time, sabotage savings and hobble a person's financial future.
But these warnings, too, have been ignored, at least as measured by the runaway growth and profitability of Starbucks, the world's leading purveyor of specialty coffee. Its stock is up more than 1,200 percent in the past 10 years. When it went public in 1992, the company had 125 stores. It now has more than 9,000 locations around the world and long-term plans for 20,000 more.
Starbucks declined to comment for this article, referring questions to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade group. Its spokesman, Mike Ferguson, said that coffee shops provide an excellent opportunity for students to do their homework.
"You can occupy a table for two hours for about $3, which is unique in a retail setting," he said. "At a traditional restaurant, they will kick you out."
The second-largest gourmet coffee retailer in the Seattle area, Tully's, did respond. Its chief financial officer, Kristopher Galvin, said he had never before heard any complaint about the long-term financial impact of spending $3 a day on coffee, either for consumers or for students buying the drinks with borrowed money.
"I would guess, based on my years in college, that having lots of good coffee would help you get through college and help you pay back those student loans," Galvin said.
Nonprofit groups that specialize in lending money to college students disagree. They object not to lattes or cappuccinos but to the several thousand dollars of student debt that can be incurred to buy them. In decades past, lenders chided college students for excessive spending of borrowed money on pizza and cigarettes, but the staggering ubiquity of Starbucks appears to have narrowed the nagging to foamy espresso drinks.
According to recent federal figures, 42 percent of undergraduates borrow money for school. In professional schools such as law and business, 78 percent rely on borrowed money.
"The question that needs to be posed is 'Do they really need to have a Starbucks every day?' " said Jeffrey Hanson, director of borrower education service at Access Group, a Delaware-based organization that is the nation's third-largest provider of graduate school loans. "Since they are living, in part, on borrowed money, they need to be aware of the opportunity cost of that $3 latte. Once they spend it, it is not available for a loaf of bread."
In visits to college campuses around the country, Hanson hands out fliers that detail the "real cost" of lattes purchased with borrowed money. He also gives away cautionary stickers that can be attached to credit or debit cards. They show a steaming espresso drink, a dollar sign and a question mark.
At the University of Washington in Seattle, the largest higher-education institution in the Pacific Northwest, money-management courses also single out lattes, warning that they can be a "major budget buster." About half of the university's 36,000 students receive loans.
But these warnings have a way of getting lost amid the sweet aromas emanating from university-owned espresso shops inside nearly every major building on campus. The university began a major espresso expansion in 1997, after a survey found that coffee was far and away the favorite on-campus "food."
"We will do about 50,000 pounds of coffee a year," said Vinnie Gore, associate director of housing and food services at the university, adding that "coffee is still extremely popular, and coffee sales have been growing every year."
Jon D. Markman, an investment manager and writer in Seattle, has done a lot of thinking about why gourmet coffee sellers such as Starbucks are so successful, especially among young people. Markman himself spends $3.22 every workday at Starbucks on a double-tall, extra-hot latte with a single pump of sugar-free vanilla.
"Finger-wagging won't stop people from buying lattes," said Markman, who argues that Starbucks has pulled off "a cultural hat trick that is unparalleled in restaurant history."
He says it has created the white-collar equivalent of the tavern next to the car plant, a place where office workers, 20-somethings and teenagers can all gather in comfortable surroundings for "an addictive product that doesn't kill you."
"Financial planners and career counselors will never have any effect on this behavior, unless they can break the psychological mold of the latte-drinking cohort by mounting a campaign similar in size and impact to the campaign against cigarettes," he said. "I don't see that happening."
At Seattle University School of Law, Lim concedes the futility of persuading students to stop spending borrowed money on high-priced coffee. Still, she refuses to give up. The consequences of latte-larded law school debts are worrisome for the legal profession, she said, insidiously tilting career paths toward jobs that pay more but satisfy less.
"The amount of money you owe directly affects the professional choices you have," she said.
Debt-panicked law school graduates, she said, tend to run away from low-paying jobs such as public defender (about $45,000 a year) and into the more remunerative arms of corporate law.
Lim, by the way, is not a latte drinker, unless someone else pays.