A Frugal Person’s Guide to Coffee

Over the last few years, I’ve really begun to appreciate a cup of coffee in the morning, particularly on days when I need to tackle a lot of tasks that require focus and ideas. My personal preference is cold, black coffee, cold brewed in the refrigerator and consumed without sweeteners or cream (I’m actually sipping a cup of this as I write this article), but everyone has their own particular way that they like their coffee. Sarah, for example, likes hers quite hot with a bit of cream in it.

Of course, a morning coffee routine can be quite expensive. I used to drink coffee pretty regularly back in the day, but I did it by stopping at a local coffee shop on my way to work and dropping $6 or $7.

Even if I were to go to Starbucks and buy a venti black coffee, I would pay somewhere around $3. If my wife got her preferred drink, it would be somewhere closer to $5. (And I don’t even particularly like Starbucks – it usually has a “burnt” taste to my tongue that I don’t enjoy.)

If that $3 cup of coffee was an everyday thing, I’d be dropping just shy of $100 a month on coffee. That’s just not sustainable for me.

What do I do instead? I brew cold brew coffee in my own refrigerator, using 3/4 cup of coffee beans ground up with 32 ounces of water. This produces the equivalent of two venti coffees from Starbucks. This is about 2.75 ounces of beans, and I typically buy 42 ounces of this coffee for $20. That bag provides about 16 batches of my cold brew coffee, with each “batch” providing two 16 ounce coffees equivalent to that $3 venti from Starbucks. My cost for coffee, in other words, is about $0.62 for the same amount of coffee that I’d pay $3 for at Starbucks, and it’s substantially tastier in my opinion and doesn’t require much effort or equipment.

My wife basically does the same thing, except that she usually adds cream or some sort of flavored creamer to her coffee. The cost of her additives, on average, seems to add about $0.30 to the cup (depending, of course, on her specific choice of flavor additions), bringing her typical venti-sized coffee up to just shy of $1, but you’d be paying around $4.50 to $5 for the same thing at Starbucks.

Let’s break down exactly how I do this, step by step.

I use a simple cold brew coffee tool – no expensive machines. The one I use is very similar to this one, in that it’s basically a small glass pitcher with a fine sieve that you can insert into it, with measuring lines along the side. I picked mine up on sale at a local store for $10. I’ve made literally hundreds of batches of coffee with this, meaning the cost per batch of coffee is getting down in the one cent range.

Why do I choose cold brew coffee? It’s really easy to prepare. It doesn’t require extra filters or anything. It’s also less acidic and really smooth, and you can adjust the strength by how long you let the grounds sit in the water. It’s really easy to clean up, too.

You really don’t need anything more than this, except…

If you want to use whole bean coffee – and I really recommend it, because using freshly-ground beans is really flavorful and doesn’t require nearly as much grounds to make great coffee – you’ll also need a grinder. You don’t need anything fancy here, either. The one we have has been in steady use for ten years and seems to no longer be made; of the ones available easily on the market, I’d probably recommend this sub-$20 Mueller grinder. We grind coffee twice a week or more and have done so for ten years, meaning the cost per grind is now below a cent.

That’s it for equipment. Everything I need to make coffee for a very long time costs less than $50 and doesn’t ever need new filters or anything like that. It’s a fixed cost. The only additional cost is the beans.

My favorite “bang for the buck” coffee beans, as noted above, are Eight O’Clock Coffee original beans, which I buy in a large bag and keep sealed. It’s not the best coffee in the world, but it’s really good and I’d have to pay multiples of the price to get somewhat better coffee.

So, what’s my process?

In the morning, if I empty out the pitcher of coffee, I simply make another batch. I rinse everything out, then I measure out 3/4 cup of whole beans and grind them at the coarsest setting on our grinder. Then, I put those grounds right into the metal cold brew filter, fill the pitcher up to the 32 ounce line with cold water, and put it in the fridge. The next morning, when I pour myself some coffee from this pitcher, I toss the grounds, usually right into the compost.

If I happen to want hot coffee, then I just microwave some of the cold brew stuff until it’s piping hot. Some mornings, when Sarah’s in a hurry, she’ll snag some of my cold brew and microwave it rather than making her own. She has a drip coffee pot that she got as a gift in college that she’s still using most of the time, when she’s not pilfering my cold brew coffee.

Most mornings, I drink a single sixteen ounce cup of coffee, which, if you’re comparing to a typical coffee mug, is about two of those. The cost for this, if you’re including the residual cost of the cold brew coffee pitcher and the grinder, is about $0.65. As noted above, a similar sixteen ounce coffee at Starbucks is about $3, and the price is much higher at other coffee shops.

In terms of quality, I prefer what I make at home to Starbucks (because Starbucks has that vague “burnt” taste that I mentioned earlier), though I have had coffee at coffee shops that I probably prefer to what I make at home (though I’ve never really done a side-by-side comparison). I know that when we have more expensive beans, usually because they were gifted to us, I sometimes prefer the more expensive beans and I sometimes prefer my old Eight O’Clock standard, but the quality difference in the pricier beans is not enough for me to start buying much more expensive coffee.

I drink coffee about five mornings a week, so the total cost in a given week is around $3. Seriously – I drink coffee for a week at home for the cost of buying a single cup of what I like at Starbucks, and I prefer what I make at home.

What’s the take-home message here? If you’re in a routine of stopping for coffee on a frequent basis, try altering your routine and making it at home. There are lots of methods for doing so, most of which are quite easy and involve minimal cleanup, and it can be really tasty. My belief is that the method I describe above is about as easy as it gets for coffee at home and I’m really happy with the quality of coffee I get from this process.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.