When a Treat Stops Being a Treat – and How to Get It Back

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'Not the Same Old Grind' Coffee Shop by Mark Warner on Flickr!I’m writing this article in a coffee shop, one that I hadn’t set foot in for several months. I’m sipping on a big cup of chai – and it tastes great. I look around at the environment, glance at the newspaper that’s also on my table, and I realize that this is a very nice little morning treat for myself.

A couple years ago, I used to stop here every single weekday. I’d usually get some sort of beverage to go, finishing it off on my way to work. Some evenings, I’d even stop on the way home and get a cup.

Eventually, the experience became routine. It was no longer a treat, it was just a standard part of my weekday. $5 in the morning, $5 many afternoons, all for something completely routine.

It added up, too. $100 a month for my morning drinks. Perhaps $50 a month for my evening coffee. That’s $150 a month given over to a treat that had become routine.

So I stopped.

At first, I took it one day at a time. I would consciously remind myself not to stop there, even though it felt like the normal thing to do.

After a while, it began to feel normal not to go there, but the temptation remained. I would still drive by the shop and think, “Gee, it’d be nice to stop in there and get a cup.” On occasion, I would, usually when other things were on my mind.

But as more and more time went by and I kept to my regular pattern of not stopping by, I stopped even thinking about it as I drove by. The “norm” of my morning didn’t involve such stops any more. And my wallet was thankful.

Some people might read this story and think, “Yeah, but you had to give up something you enjoy – the stop at that coffee shop for a familiar cup each day.” What I eventually realized is that it wasn’t actually the coffee that I liked.

It was the familiarity of a morning routine.

So I established a new routine. Instead of stopping, I would take a beverage with me in the morning and enjoy it along the way. If I wasn’t finished with it by the time I arrived at work (almost always, I was already finished), I’d sit in the parking lot for a bit, finishing it off and listening to the radio.

After a time, this became the comfortable and familiar morning routine. The warmth of my truck on a cold morning, bundled in my jacket, listening to the radio felt familiar, and stopping to run into the coffee shop became the unfamiliar feeling.

And, with that, the coffee shop stopped being a habit.

Now, I rarely go to coffee shops, but when I do, they feel like a real treat, not a common and ordinary experience. That $5 doesn’t just buy me another ordinary piece in another ordinary morning any more. It now buys an experience – the smells of the coffee and scones, the sturdy table, the leisurely read of a newspaper, the overheard conversation, and the taste of a delicious cup that is sublimely better than the stuff I usually drink.

If I just wanted a morning pick-me-up, I could make it at home for pennies and get roughly the same enjoyment as a daily routine coffee shop visit.

The difference? $150 a month.

What can you take home from this? Look around your own life. What tired routines of spending money do you engage in on a highly regular basis? Do you shag a fast food breakfast each morning, or perhaps a sandwich as you leave work in the afternoon? Maybe you feel compelled to stop at the gas station every other day for a tobacco product. Or perhaps you always stop by bookstores or electronic stores on Tuesdays to see what the new releases are.

Look for those patterns in your own life – and put a stop to them. Replace them in your routine with a lower-cost alternative. Kick a bad habit in the teeth. Look for lists of new releases online instead of in a store where it’s easy to buy one – or, better yet, start reading or enjoying older media.

Finding those patterns of “ordinary” spending – and knocking them out of your life – is one of the most powerful things you can do to regain financial control.

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61 thoughts on “When a Treat Stops Being a Treat – and How to Get It Back

  1. Great post Trent. Especially considering how popular places like Starbucks have become in the past few years. I’m sure this really hits home for a lot of people. I’ve been talking to my brother and his wife for months telling them to start saving up some money, but they always respond that they can’t afford to at the moment (while they’re sipping on a nice cup of Starbucks cappuccino and an energy Sobe). I’ve told them many times that if they were to stop those two daily purchases that they make it would save them hundreds of dollars which they could start saving. I will definitely be forwarding this article on to them! Thanks for the great post Trent.

  2. Once again, Trent, your gift of personal transparency has provided us with a beneficial strategy for saving more money. Man, having an extra $150/month had to feel good. Discretionary income that is converted to savings and invested wisely can add up pretty quickly. Great post. Thank you.

  3. At my school there is a Tim Horton’s (popular Canadian coffee shop for you Americans) located on the first floor and up until October I used to go there every morning for a coffee before class. Now I only go on days that I am extremely tired, which is like once every 2 weeks. By doing so I save about $1.50 every day which is pretty decent in my books.

    Sometimes the issue is not clear on the surface. Instead of consuming caffeine beverages I focused on sleeping more, which was the root cause of me being tired.

  4. Putting aside the “treat” aspect (which I agree with completely): Its amazing how much money you can spend on coffee and similar routines.

    At one time my morning routine consisted of Dunkin Donuts breakfast: muffin and coffee. I think it was just about $3. Doesn’t sound like much money, until you realize thats $90/month!

    Now, I stop for coffee when I’m driving and tired. But that’s about it. (And I do enjoy having this excuse for a treat when that happens.)

  5. I did the same thing recently. It was Starbucks for me. Every single day. I too was spending around $120 per month. Not good.

    Now my money lasts longer and works harder than when I was throwing it at overpriced coffee. Now when I DO stop in to get something, I get a cheap hot chocolate…one of the least expensive items on the menu and only do so one to two times per week now and only to do work. This way I accomplish something while I’m there and hopefully use the time to generate more revenue for myself instead of losing revenue on entertainment or relaxation.

  6. Excellent post that illustrates the point that the biggest change in leading a more frugal life is usually a shift in attitude. When we no longer consider these sorts of things as “things I deserve” and start thinking of them as the non-necessary luxuries they are, we not only save money, but we value them more too.

  7. Or, to give up a few of those drinks for yourself and spend the cash to sit with someone you care about and enjoy one with them on the weekends. The drink will be a lot better with good company and not the rush of a morning commute. A good someone to pass the time with would probably return the same goodness the next time. It doesn’t save as much a cutting it out all together, but it’s a good way of justifying money and time spent.

  8. I have just done the same thing, based more on financial reasons than b/c of habit. I’m VERY thrifty and ecologically minded, but allowed coffee to be my extravagance. I doubt I would ever tire of my morning latte (even at $4), but I work in a tiny (four-person) commercial real estate firm, and times are tough, clients are few and deals are dwindling. I’m fortunate to be the sole support staff person and not commission-based, but I have lost all overtime I was able to work when the economy was more flush.

    Over the past few weeks, I’ve been drinking the office coffee, but using the various flavored creamers on the grocery shelves. I previously thought my palate too good for office coffee, but realized I was kidding myself, considering that I live on jarred spaghetti sauce and chips and salsa. I know I’m saving money now, and when I do go to the coffee shop (I still allow myself once a week), it’s SUCH a treat!

  9. This reminds me of something my wife said to me the other day. On Wednesday she made me a latte in the morning before I left for work. When I asked the next day for a latte again she told me “lattes are a treat, don’t turn them into a habit.”

  10. Because I take public transportation, I have to build in wide margins into my commute, and sometimes I get there up to half an hour early. That was a really good excuse to stop in at Dunkin’ Donuts for a muffin and hot chocolate.

    A few months ago, DD closed for renovations… and by the time it reopened, it wasn’t a habit any more. It’s fine as a treat every couple of weeks — but yeah, just too expensive for a daily habit.

  11. Very thought provoking post. I can’t help but think that this also applies to other areas of life. What has become so routine to me that it’s holding me back?

    Thanks for giving me something to think on today. :)

  12. Trent, Very insightful…

    I use to visit a Starbuck’s at the Barnes & Noble at lunch break every day. When I quit that job, I broke the habit.

    How many areas of our lives become routine? Too many, if you ask me.

  13. I too stopped my morning and sometimes afternoons coffees. There is a point at which it turns from pleasure to routine, still costs you the same yet doesn’t give you as much satisfaction.

    In contrast to you, from the day I stopped I never actually wanted to go back in. I had decided that if I went in for one, I’d be back the next day so I haven’t been back since.

    Now that my idea of what is important or now has changed I tend to see the people all queuing up in the coffee shop as people who also need to ‘see the light’.

  14. Trent–your insight that it was actually the *routine* you enjoyed the most, as opposed to the coffee you bought, struck me still as soon as I read it profound. I recognized it as being true for me as well. Thanks for the article.

  15. Hello Trent, I too love coffee in the morning and
    a donout. I make international coffee at home. All I do is add water. It will definitely keep me awake all day and tastes good. Coffee is addicting. It is a hard habit to break. I enjoy coffee and do have it everyday. I use to spend a lot on coffee for me and a co worker once a week. I really liked treating my friend. They were so high maintenace. They wanted it boiled to a certain degree, extra shot of this, non-fat, etc. Wow!!! Well I changed from my usual and tried theirs and it was better. Well, anyway. There
    are routines in my life like this one that I broke and it saved me money. I enjoy coffee I made at home with a coffee maker I got for free. Now I figured just get International Coffee. It is so easy. I save money and enjoy my own java. Wow!!! I am thinking how much I must save along with other things. I do walk to post office instead of drive. This way I save gas, walk the dog and myself. This makes great sense. Thanks for your post.
    S.

  16. And now, with punctuation:

    Trent–your insight that it was actually the *routine* you enjoyed the most, as opposed to the coffee you bought, struck me still as soon as I read it. Profound. I recognized it as being true for me as well. Thanks for the article.

  17. Trent–your insight that it was actually the *routine* you enjoyed the most, as opposed to the coffee you bought, struck me still as soon as I read it. Profound. I recognized it as being true for me as well. Thanks for the article.

  18. Frugality aside, I (almost) never in my life bought coffee or chai or any other kind of drink from a coffee shop. I guess it’s a habit: I just can’t do it. I drink two cups of cha(i) (aka tea) every day which I either make at home or work myself. I just can’t understand why people go to the coffee shops, have their daily dose and then make a big deal out of it.

  19. I had to give myself a “only one pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks a week” rule this year. Last year it kind of became a habit as I would stop by almost everytime I was on that side of town. Funny thing, the first two weeks they had them this year, I went once a week. Since then, I haven’t stopped to get one. Something about the feel of the cash in my wallet feels better than spending over $5 on a drink.

  20. I had to LOL when I read comment #17!!
    My husband and I thought we were the only ones that thought so….we remark on it every time we pass by a skunk smell!! LOL!

  21. I’ve never had the coffee shop coffee habit…always seemed too expensive, and too many calories for the fancy drinks. The similar habit I’ve broken is the idea that a dinner out is the only way to celebrate a birthday or something. We (ok, usually me) make a lovely dinner at home. If it’s a birthday, the birthday person gets to pick whatever they want and I make that, on a more general holiday (Valentine’s day, whatever) each person gets to pick something. However, the favorites are usually the same, fettucine Alfredo with chicken and broccoli for my daughter, fish sticks for my son (we seldom have these because I think they’re expensive and not very healthy) my husband chooses steak (and generally everyone has a small steak too since that’s a universal favorite, purchased on sale and waiting in the freezer) and I generally get crab legs or a nice piece of fish (also bought on sale, of course). It’s a more expensive meal than we usually have, but WAAAAY less than any restaurant. And my kids are learning to cook this way.

  22. Great article, and a great way to finish it off. While I have very few habits that cost money, my wife and I recently realized that watching TV had become a habit. Though there is a monetary cost to it, I realized it was costing us the opportunity to interact. Rather than spend time catching up, we would sit there in silence staring at the tube.
    Thanks for making your point relevant beyond simply a monetary savings.

  23. Great post Trent! I’ve never been one to drink coffee out much (I’ve got cheap taste I bet), but I do have other things in my life that were similar. Usually an afternoon snack from the gas station. Just something sugary to pick me up. Perhaps a soda and some chips or cookies. I know that my wallet thanks me for altering the habit, but my dentist probably won’t. ;)

  24. Great post. It is a good way to get rid of an expensive habit, one day at a time! I admire your effort. One thing that I missed from your post though was what is your motivation, or “higher goal”? Do you want to save just for the sake of it, or you have better things to do with your money? What is your financial strategy? If you invest, you should be very motivated to save, right?

  25. Thanks for a great post – and my addiction is coffee and books…a great combination but definately costly. So, I’ve started buying the better tasting coffee at home and using my library more. Maybe I’ll get a steamer for Christmas and can enjoy some latte’s at home.

    Thanks for a great blog!

  26. One thought as a parent…if you have very young ones, it’s easy to get into habits with them…I knew one family who somehow wound up in the local Toys are us store at least once per week, and the boy had the biggest collection of action figures I have ever seen. For some reason (I could never see why they did this)they felt it important to give this boy (4 years old)nearly everything he wanted. That was 12 years ago, and we’ve lost touch, but I wonder what they are needing to buy him now as a teen.
    Also, once I was visiting my newly married friend in their new place. Promanently featured in their front room was hubby’s CD collection. I did a quick count, and by my estimates, he had over 1000 CDs. Now, if you multiply that by $15…uhmm, that’s a bunch of money!
    These habits can come in many forms…lucky for me I read The Tightwad Gazette as a young bride, and avoided many missteps financially.

  27. I can completely relate–my husband threatened to go looking for a Starbucks 12-step program in order to break my chai tea habit. I was spending about $125/mo. I broke my habit by doing two things. First, I kept track of how much I was spending per month at Starbucks. That was a real eye-opener. I justified it by telling myself that I work hard and I could afford it. Then,I found the Tazo chai tea mix at my grocery store and more recently found it at my local Costco. I can still have my tea, but for a fraction of the cost!

  28. I had the same epiphany years ago with weekday work lunches. Now I brown-bag it and only go out for lunch AT MOST once a week – sometimes not even that.

    Buying lunch every single work day makes it routine – not the treat it is for me now. Most people I work with buy lunch out everyday. Bad for the wallet …. and the waistline.

  29. I’ve never been a latte guy, but I am currently struggling with eating out at lunch. For a while, I consistently brought leftovers, or a simple sandwich from home, but here lately I’ve enjoyed getting out of the office and eating lunch out. When I don’t, I feel like the walls are closing in around me. I might change up the routine a bit and start taking a short walk during my lunch break to get out, but not spend money, and get in a little exercise.

  30. I must agree. I did the same with McDonalds. I had not indulged in it for 2 months. Well last Friday I decided to treat my self after Two months and I must say it was lovely. Nice for a treat. For the earlier two months I decided I would save my $ and bring my own lunch to work.

  31. I’m with you. And a little ahead of you. I did the math about 3 years ago only I took it a step further. $150 a month is $1800 per year.
    I used to spend about $40 per month on dry cleaning or $480 per year. Now i wash and iron my own shirts.
    $65 dollars a week for a house cleaner? Add that one up.
    Frugal is cool.

  32. At my last job I was making $8 an hour. I bought lunch (usually fast food or Subway) every single day. $5 a day, $125 a month. For someone barely bringing home $500 a week, I was quite oblivious to the fact that 1/4 of my income went to making me fatter. Unfortunately I couldn’t bring a lunch to that job so I ended up literally driving the 2 miles home and eating whatever I could find at home while I watched Huckleberry Hound on Boomerang.

    $5+ a day of Fast Food has nothing on cheap leftovers and Huckleberry Hound episodes.

    The ironic thing is, since fast food was no longer my routine once I got the job where I make much more than the old job, I still no longer eat out even though I can “afford” it. It’s just not routine for me.

    The only routine I have on my lunch break is I tend to go for a 5 mile or so drive just to get my head clear. It was really tough to do on $4 a gallon gas but it was my own little reward. Certainly better than expensive crap food. :)

  33. @Sandy Yeah, I know people who have CD collections like that (my brother being one.) He, however, bought a good number of them at tag sales or from the FYE bargain bin in Albany for $1 or so.

    My DVD collection is harder to justify …

  34. This is a very insightful post. My treat that’s become routine is music. I used to love picking through the racks at used CD stores – but since I was a poor grad student back then, I was very particular about what I bought, and I’d make sure to thoroughly enjoy every purchase. Now, I have an emusic subscription, through which I get the equivalent of maybe 4 CDs per month, some of which I’ve listened to just once or not at all. New music now feels like a routine for me, and I rarely get as excited about it as I used to. Thing is, canceling my subscription probably wouldn’t save me any money, because it costs less than I would otherwise spend on CDs. I’ll have to ponder this some more.

  35. I got out of that habit a few years ago – but I bought some high end espresso/latte machine second hand on Craigslist and have replaced it with making my own fat-free-lactose-free lattes. I even have my own vanilla/cinammon sprinkles.

    If you really do *love* the taste – invest in a good machine – not a cheapy. Make it yourself and enjoy.

    Once in a blue moon I still go (like this time of year – I can’t seem to replicate egg nog or pumpkin lattes). But it’s a nice treat, and not a guilty one.

    As a side note, replacing worn and expensive habits with HEALTHY ones is much easier than just giving up a habit altogether. In my opinion. We just all *need* a little something to make the daily grind pleasant. Even if it’s ice water with a touch of lemon on the road instead of a McDonald’s 32 ounce Diet Coke.

  36. This reminds me of ten years ago when I was working to support my husband and myself while he went to graduate school. We were very lucky, he had a fellowship and my pay covered our rent, and just enough extra to live on – just. Everyone in my office ordered in coffee on a daily basis from the gourmet place on the ground floor. Not me. My big treat of the week was a Starbucks coffee every Friday morning on the way in to work. Just the one per week, and I always really looked forward to it.

    I remembered this recently, and now, as a (much) more frequent visitor to Starbucks, I have decided to go back back to my once a week rule. That coffee money can be put to much better use in gradually purchasing materials needed a new career that I’m hoping to break into. Thanks for the reminder.

  37. Oddly: I’ve always hated most coffeeshop coffees. The sole exception was this little convenience store that sold $1 cups. So of course, I didn’t think anything of $1….

    Luckily this frivolity was one of the two I indulged in with comparative moderation, so I never went broke for it.

  38. Excellent post Trent. I’ve noted before how habits I thought were so essential and special are easily replaced. And usually it only requires a little bit of time and suffering for the changeover.

  39. I had to do the same thing with Starbucks. It was hard at first because i like you stopped everyday sometimes twice.

    I also carry my coffee with me now most of the time. Now when I go to Starbucks, it is a treat for me and not just another cup of coffee!

  40. I like this post. I now work two overnight shifts per week on top of my day job. I do stop by for coffee but I have transitioned myself to a cheaper place. i also have realized that when i go out with friends that their company is more important than the food that we get. So, I usually meet them for coffee and enjoy the conversation. We all save money and are still able to get together.

  41. What a great idea! You are soooo right. This can apply to most anything. It is a lifestyle change..with money, diet most anything. Like Ice Cream and a Diet. Instead of the norm to have ice cream (and all those calories and fat) every night after dinner, it could be a once a month treat. And much more enjoyable. I love all your emails and don’t leave many comments, but this just hit the nail on the head. Everyone thinks that because I am frugal, that I am missing out on something, but in reality, when I do buy something it is much more enjoyable because it makes it a special occasion. Great way to put it!

  42. “Do you shag a fast food breakfast” – great article but this line made me laugh out loud. Shag? Ever seen an Austin Powers movie? Do you know what that word means????

  43. I agree with the need to break habits. Mine was getting a cup of coffee and some other treat at Tim Horton’s while at work. Now, I brew coffee in my office and try to limit my junk food treats to one per week.

    Another habit was eating out. I loved going out to eat whether it was McDonald’s or Denny’s. Now, I have discovered the joy of eating in. I can make better food at home than most of the restaurants I used to frequent, and my wife and I limit our meals out to truly special occasions (anniversaries and birthdays) when we go out to eat what we could not prepare at home ourselves (good sushi, for example).

  44. Another thought: This article is a perfect tie-in with the “fulfillment curve” that they talk about in “Your Money Or Your Life.” In posts about the fulfillment curve, a lot of people seemed dubious about the idea that you could actually get more fulfillment by consuming less. But this article explains it perfectly.

  45. This might help some folks break the rich-coffee-drink habit.

    Starbucks’ web site says a 16-ounce Pumpkin Spice Latte has 380 calories, 13g of fat, and 51g of carbs (of which 49g are sugar).

    McDonalds’ web site says a 16-ounce Triple-Thick Vanilla Milkshake has 550 calories, 13g of fat, and 96g of carbs (no breakdown for sugar content).

    In other words, that Pumpkin Spice Latte has just as much fat as a thick milkshake.

    I’ve often referred to Starbucks’ beverages as “hot milkshakes for grown-ups.” Now I see I wasn’t that far off the mark.

  46. I tend to eat out alot because the wife is on the road most of the week. I solved the issue wasting money on coffee by giving myself a weekly budget and not going over it.

    As an aside for me my Epiphany moment came when I walked into a starbucks with mirrors, caught a good sideways glimpse of how that extra weight is looking and decided then and there no more cookies, anyways at €1.90 they are way overpriced.

  47. Great post–both insightful and very impactful. For readers that want to expand on this very topic you can read “The Latte Factor” by David Bach(which Trent has already posted on!). Cutting out items like your morning coffee, can add up to a small fortune. Try it!

    Quickly see where you are headed financially at http://www.buildmybudget.com

  48. I used to go to a coffee shop before work a few years ago to write for an hour and a half or so. I would buy a coffee for $2 and I’d get a lot of work done. There was something about being out and about that made me take is seriously, almost like work. Which I liked. But then I moved in with my wife and there is no coffee shop close enough, so I make coffee and write in our living room. It’s easier to get distracted, believe it or not, because I’m on my computer…but I’ve created a new routine that saves me some money.

  49. Thank you for that eye-opener. I’m guilty of both – the breakfast & online book treats. The latter hasn’t quite become a hard habit yet..so thanks for helping me catch that one especially just in time.

  50. I liked your insight…I realize that the reason I eat fast food for lunch (when I could be bringing in leftovers) is that it serves as an excuse to get out of the office alone, and away from the stress there.

    I think I’ll bring a meal and a book instead. now I just need to go buy groceries…

  51. I liked how you touched on it being the routine you liked, not necessarily the coffee itself, which was the real money waster. If it was their coffee you were addicted to, this might be a different story.

  52. During a recent VERY tough time financially, my husband and i allocated $6 a week each for “walking around money”. Lunches had to be brought, no dinner out, no buying anything outside of our budget.
    It became VERY amusing to see how our “walking around money” got spent. A trip to Taco bell was NIRVANA. Before however, eating out was a routine.
    We talked about how we felt like kids getting our allowance and dreaming of how we’d spend the money. That was as much fun as spending it.
    Once we got into an argument about who a musician was on a song. He suggested we bet a dollar on it.
    ” A DOLLAR? Are you nuts?” was my reply. No F-ing wway dude. That was MY walking around money!
    We still laugh about it.
    Simlpy changing your routines and what is a norm and what is a treat is relative.
    Things are a little looser now but we still think fof Taco bell as a “treat”.

  53. I’ve been doing the same thing recently, making a stop nearly every morning to get something to drink on the way in to work. I think mine is out of boredom though. Work has been slow lately and that was literally the highlight of my day, sad I know.

    I used to have a pledge to myself to not do a Starbucks/McDonald’s/Panera Bread coffee stop more than once a week – so I’m going back to that starting now. I’ll try to time it on a day I feel most wiped out, so the caffeine actually helps me that morning.

  54. My wife and I came to the same conclusion several years back as we both ordered Venti drinks at Starbucks, which with tip was at least $10/day…sometimes more. Probably, $4,000/year between the two of us, ignoring the unnecessary gasoline consumption for coffee that was frequently awful. So we instead bought a nice $700 machine that we’ve had for over 3 years. Our total 3-year cost (including coffee beans, milk, electricity, and water) is less than what we used to spend in a single year. The coffee is now consistently good and we share more time at home.

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