It’s always bothered me when Baby Boomers, or even Gen Xers like my parents, say things like “Well, just stop buying that fancy coffee!” when I mention money being tight. I always just assumed I was annoyed because I like coffee and no one likes being told what to do with their money. (Just as a general tip: if someone is talking to you about their money troubles, they do not want advice. Money advice always comes out judge-y, no matter how you mean it.)
But I was thinking about this the other day when I bought a decaf Java Chip frappuccino as a reward for getting up at 7am to work out. It took me half an hour to convince myself to go, but I did it, and I know it probably sounds stupid, but I was really proud of myself. So I got some coffee, and immediately I felt guilty. And then angry that I felt guilty. This was a small thing to thank myself for trying to take better care of myself. I should not have to feel bad for spending $4.
But the Boomers and Gen Xers are right, right? If I get one $4 coffee once a week, and there are 52 weeks in a year, that’s a little over $200. Spending $200 a year on coffee feels absolutely ridiculous when you’re living at your in-laws.
I was thinking about this, feeling guilty, when I started wondering why all my friends always bought coffee. Even my friends in grad school when we were making less than half the poverty line, or my friends who were working unpaid internships. How did we all afford it, if money was so tight? I wasn’t judging—after all, I do it too—I was genuinely wondering how.
The answer is so obvious, I felt a bit stupid once I realized it. But then, entire generations don’t seem to have caught onto this yet, so maybe it isn’t so obvious: It’s easier to afford coffee when you can’t afford any of the big things you need. Nice place to live? That’s a joke, right? Car that isn’t old enough to drink? What am I, a Rockefeller? Decent health insurance? Maybe you can swing it if you don’t have any pre-existing conditions. Maybe.
The truth is, basic needs like housing, transportation, and healthcare have gotten exponentially more expensive in the last few decades, even when adjusting for inflation. They’ve become luxury items to many Millennials and Gen Zs. And the second-rate substitutes we use for them only drain our resources further. Renting costs significantly more over time than owning. Every time you get halfway to your savings goal for a new car, your beater breaks down and you have to spend those savings to fix it and start over. When you have minimal health insurance, you’re less likely to go to the doctor, more likely to use sick days, and more likely to make costly ER visits.
So we live in crappy apartments (or with our endlessly gracious in-laws), drive money-pit cars, and stay sick to save money. These things save us a lot more than $200. They save us enough that we can afford to live a life that’s at least a little bit shy of austere. We can afford things like nice shampoo, books, gifts, and occasional nights out. We can afford coffee. And drinking less coffee won’t help us save nearly enough to buy the things that Boomers and Gen Xers took as a given at our age.
** I want to acknowledge that all of this is written through an incredibly privileged lens of whiteness and general middle class-ness. There are people without homes or warmth in the winter, and there are people of color whose relatives from the Baby Boomer generation went to segregated schools and took nothing as a given. Although I do believe people who say things like “Just drink less coffee!” are completely missing a huge societal shift in what the term “basic necessity” means, I acknowledge that those comments do not oppress me in the way that our financial, housing, healthcare, and educational systems systemically oppress people of color. **