Suze Orman is furious. The target of the popular personal finance author’s ire is not the high cost of education, nor soaring health-care expenses. No, Orman’s angry that some Americans spend $1 to $3 a day at Starbucks and other similar coffee shops, costing themselves, by her count, $1 million in retirement savings if only that money was invested in a tax-free account. “It’s not a need it’s a want,” Orman yelled in a recent CNBC video. “I wouldn’t buy a cup of coffee anywhere, ever — and I can afford it. I would not insult myself by wasting my money that way.”
Let me first point out Orman was wearing a leather jacket that likely cost several hundred dollars — if not four figures — delivering this increasingly angry lecture. But that’s the start of what’s wrong with her claims. Orman doesn’t account for inflation; her promised gains are all but ludicrous, (“I literally have a billion dollars for anyone who can get my clients those fat 12 percent returns annually for the next 4 decades,” sniffed financial adviser and columnist Barry Ritholtz.) And she ignores that housing, health care and education have been increasing at rates substantially in excess of inflation for decades. Child care, for one, now costs more than sending a child to a public college in a majority of states. Giving up spending $1 to $3 a day on coffee isn’t going to help much with that.
But none of this is a secret. I’m one among many people who routinely point out that the idea Americans could solve their long-term financial woes by staying out of coffee shops and giving up avocado toast is a myth. But it’s a myth that won’t die.
The idea that Americans are “peeing” (to use Orman’s word) their funds away as result of caffeinated beverages dates to the 1990s, when coffee shops such as Starbucks were gaining in popularity even as the average American’s savings rate was falling well below 10 percent. Personal finance writers quickly put the two facts together, arguing a causality between those two facts. Eventually one scribe named David Bach dubbed it the Latte Factor, and used it to achieve personal finance guru status.
It was completely fallacious. Americans might well spend more money on Starbucks and other unnecessary luxury goods than absolutely necessary, but as I pointed out earlier, that isn’t the real source of their financial woes. The real issue is the continuing hollowing out of the middle class that is, in the view of MIT economist Peter Temin, sending the United States back to developing-nation status. The top 1 percent of earners and wealth holders aren’t getting ahead because of their diligent savings habits; they are making out because they excel at such things as tax avoidance and playing our political system so that business practices and laws favor them and not the bulk of the population.
But the myth lives on because while not everyone realizes the systemic nature of the problem, people do know that most households’ finances are under pressure — how could they not when more than half the adult population has less than $1,000 in savings? And small personal spending — be it on lattes or avocado toast — is something we intuit to be in one’s direct control. It’s in our face: You’ll see someone carrying a latte, but you are hardly likely to know about their rent or insulin bill. Our age of inequality doesn’t lead to an explosion in empathy. If anything, it’s the opposite. It often leads to a crabbed meanness and casual obliviousness to the circumstances of others. (Plus, people who obsess about others' spending on coffee are revealing more about themselves than they realize: The typical Starbucks customer is hardly poor. The company’s customer sweet spot is someone earning around $90,000.)
There is, of course, nothing wrong with thrift. But it’s also true there’s a long tradition in the United States of avoiding the main problem when it comes to money. Women are told they are shopaholics, when in fact they earn and spend less than men, while African American young males find themselves lectured on sneaker purchases and not, say, housing discrimination and its large role in the low net worth of minority households.
There’s a reason for this blame-the-victim talk: It lets society off the hook. Instead of getting angry at the economics of our second gilded age, many end up furious with themselves. As for the wealthy? It allows them to convince themselves of their unique virtuousness even as they fly private jets — which is how you end up with someone such as Orman, whose millions derive from telling others their faltering personal balance sheets are their own fault because of a few $3 purchases. That brew’s aroma stinks.