A friend of mine was visiting the other day – we’ll call this friend Donnie – and I offered Donnie a cup of coffee. He said he wanted one, so I asked whether he wanted it cold or hot. He wanted hot, so I pulled a pitcher of cold brew coffee from the fridge, filled up a cup with it, and microwaved it for just enough time to get it steaming hot.
He loved it. He asked where I had bought it. I told him the truth – I made it myself. It’s actually really easy if you have a water pitcher and an infuser – you just put some coffee in the infuser, fill up the pitcher, let it sit in your fridge for a day or two, and then remove the infuser and add a bit of water if the resulting coffee is too strong.
His response? “That’s too much work to bother to save a few cents on a cup of coffee. I just buy cold brew coffee at the store.”
This comment stuck in my head and I wanted to price it out for myself, so I went to the store, found a brand of cold brew coffee I’ve tried and liked in the past, and compared the cost of buying that bottle per eight ounce cup compared to the cost of making my own cold brew coffee at home. I found that making my own, using my preferred beans, is about $0.38 per cup cheaper than buying a bottle of my preferred cold brew coffee at the store.
Now, when I make cold brew at home, I make about six cups of it at a time. I just fill up an infuser with coffee grounds, toss it into about four cups of water, and let it sit for about a day and a half or so in the fridge. At that point, I remove the infuser, add about two cups of water to the pitcher (because it’s honestly too strong for me at that point and I need to cut it with water to get it to where I like it), and put the pitcher back into the fridge. Boom – six cups of coffee for about a minute of effort.
Sure, you say, but I’m really not saving much money. Thirty-eight cents isn’t that much money in the big scheme of things. It’s pocket change. I find more than that on the ground when I walk to the grocery store. (Seriously – the last time I walked to the grocery store, I spotted two quarters on the ground.) Isn’t this “sweating the small stuff”?
I’m not a fan of sweating the small stuff. I don’t do things like wash Ziploc bags because, honestly, the savings is too little per washing for my time. My time isn’t worth that little to me.
This situation is different. When I make my own batch, I’m actually making six cups of coffee at once. That’s not $0.38 in savings. That’s $2.28. Furthermore, the whole process takes about a minute using stuff I already have at home, so that $2.28 in savings takes about a minute of my time. It takes far longer for a bag of coffee beans or grounds to run out than it does for a container of cold brew from the store to run out, so I’m spending less time in the store actually shopping for coffee than if I bought cold brew, so it’s actually less than a minute to save $2.28.
Here’s the thing to remember: It’s not worth your time to sweat the small stuff, but frequently repeated things aren’t “small stuff.” Frequently repeated things add up incredibly quickly.
Let’s say Sarah and I each drink two cups of coffee each day for a year, hypothetically. (Sarah drinks more than I do, but it’s hard for me to assess how much more because she often drinks it when she’s at work or when I’m at work or when I’m doing something else.) Using that calculation above, let’s say it takes me one minute to prepare six cups of coffee using my cold brew method.
Over the course of a full year, that’s 1,460 cups of coffee. Let’s take that calculation above, that my coffee making method at home saves me $0.38 per cup versus buying similar coffee at the store. That’s $555 per year in savings by using my method. $555. That’s two car payments saved by using my method versus using Donnie’s method.
But isn’t that a lot of time? Well, over the course of a year, I would have to prepare 243 six-cup batches of homemade cold brew coffee. Each one takes a minute, but as I noted above, it’s actually a little less than a minute because I’m spending less time at the store buying coffee than I would be if I just bought that coffee. So, let’s round it down and say that I spend a total of 4 hours per year making cold brew coffee.
If I’m spending four hours and saving $555, that’s $139 per hour of effort saved by making my own cold brew coffee at home rather than just buying it at the store or at a coffee shop.
That’s why I sweat the “frequently repeated” stuff. If it’s something you do every day, shaving even a penny or two off of the cost of that expense adds up so fast that it begins to look tremendous over the course of a year.
To me, the two best ways to make a financial difference in your life is to sweat the big stuff and sweat the repeated stuff, especially the frequently repeated stuff. If it’s a small thing that doesn’t come up very often, it’s probably not worth your effort to optimize, not when there are big expenses and frequently repeated things on the table.
What are the big things? I worry about housing costs and mortgage payments. I worry about insurance costs. I worry about the cost of buying a car and all of the associated costs with keeping it. I worry about my career and income levels and how I can raise my income from my current methods and find new income streams.
What are the frequently repeated things? I worry about food costs. I worry about our energy usage, because we use energy constantly. I worry about every regular bill that comes into our home, from our energy bill to our cell phone bill to our internet bill to our Netflix bill. I worry about household supply costs, because we use things like dish soap and shampoo and bath soap and razor blades and toilet paper and laundry soap constantly. I worry about expenses that keep showing up on my credit card bills over and over again, because that’s a sign of a recurring expense I need to look at.
Those are the things I concern myself with. The big things are obvious – when you point at those individual bills, they each represent a lot of money on their own. The frequently repeated things seem small on their own, but they’re repeated so much that they add up to a lot over the course of a year.
It’s the small things that I just don’t sweat. I don’t freak out about financial apocalypse if I forget a $1 coupon or if I have to buy a name brand item because the store brand of that item is out of stock. I don’t sweat it if the girl who lives down the block knocks on my door and asks if I’ll buy some Thin Mints again this year (yes, indeed, I will buy those Thin Mints… mmmmm… Thin Mints). I don’t stress out if I rip the corner of a freezer Ziploc bag and have to toss it. I don’t carefully calculate whether I’ll save money by paying a dime less per seed bag at the other gardening store that’s further away from my home.
The small things that aren’t frequently repeated are such small wins that they don’t add up to enough to really worry about, especially given the extra time that would be needed to correct them. The only real concern I have about them is that I don’t want them to turn into frequently repeated mistakes, but I honestly don’t think about it unless I see that same spending choice popping up again… and again… and again…
Honestly, though, those repeated expenses usually are made clear to me when I look at my credit card bills, which is something I view as a big thing, not a little thing.
The moral of this whole story is a simple one. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Sweat the big stuff and the frequent stuff. If something costs enough money that you notice, pay attention to that expense. If you add up the total cost of what you spend on a particular repeated small item over the course of a year and that’s a dollar amount you notice, pay attention to that expense.
Right there, you have enough on your plate to worry about. Worry about the big things. Worry about the repeated small things. Just getting those things in order, along with efforts to improve your income, will give you more than enough to tackle. Don’t spend your energy sweating over one thing that will save you a dollar one time. Use it on the big things and the repeated things instead.