December 9, 2023

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Original article from The Hustle Consider the most ubiquitous financial advice of the 21st century: “Can’t Buy a Home? Just stop buying lattes.”

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Every millennium has heard some variation of this myth. It’s popped up all over Twitter, despised on personal finance blogs, and out of the mouth of pundits on national television. Sometimes, “latte” is interchanged for a different millennial trope, such as avocado toast.

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The idea that less lattes could solve the financial woes of millennials has been around for more than 20 years and can be traced to one person: a financial advisor and author named David Bach.

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“Are you playing with your future?” Bach asked in a 1999 book. “Everybody earns enough money to be rich. What keeps us alive from paycheck to paycheck is that we end up spending more on stuff we don’t need. ,

In the 23 years since then, we’ve seen a dot-com crash, a Great Recession, a global pandemic, a housing shortage, 40 years of high inflation and a massive surge of student loans.

Yet the latte is still a flashpoint for arguments about personal finance—a stand-in for any small luxury that can be given to boost wealth, and a recurring theme in Bach’s 12 bestselling books. .

David Bach wants you to stop buying lattes (Photo by Dominic Bindle/Getty Images; Illustration by The Hustle)

“It’s a huge draw as a culture, and I don’t think any of us are above it,” Helene Olen, Washington Post opinion writer and author of Pound Foolish, a critic of the personal finance industry, told The Hustle. “I think we all take it for granted on some level.”

Perhaps it is surprising that when macroeconomic forces have pushed retirement and home ownership out of the reach of young workers, lay advice has proliferated.

But lay advice exists because of these issues, as the idea of ​​retirement shifted seismically, wages stagnated, and the ticket price of the middle class rose significantly.

When pensions died and personal finance boomed

David Bach grew up in the financial advice industry. His father ran his own planning practice, The Bach Group, as part of Dean Witter (now Morgan Stanley). In the early 90s, when Bach was in his 20s, he joined his father’s practice.

The industry was flourishing. In 1995, the US had 30,000 designated financial planners, a number that had increased by 50% over the past 5 years.

Before the boom in personal finance, most people received a “defined benefit” pension. These plans require employers to set guarantees and funds to pay their employees after they retire, putting the burden of savings and investments on the employer.

Estimates vary on the amount of workers once covered by a pension. But according to data from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, ~88 percent of Americans employed in the private sector had defined benefit retirement pensions in 1975.

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“Americans Need Both” [financial] There was less advice and less reason to invest because for most people it was assumed that there would be a pension,” Olen said.

But changes were underway:

IRAs and 401(k)s were introduced by federal law in the 1970s. Keeping pace with a warming economy in the mid-80s, the 401(k) replaced the defined benefit pension as the most common retirement strategy. As of 2005, 33% of private sector workers had defined benefit pensions, according to Boston College.

Percentage of pensioned workers by industry

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

The concept of retirement savings rapidly transformed. Over time, the burden shifted from employers to employees, who had to make more savings and investment decisions on their own.

Back then, financial planners and money managers became a hot commodity—as did the self-help advice presented in books and on TV.

But telling people that investing earnings is important, while not spending more, could be said in half a sentence, lucrative strategies were necessary to make waves in the financial advice self-help sector.

Enter the latte.

Like the 401(k), the American specialty coffee scene was flourishing in the ’80s and ’90s. Local shops and huge chains like Starbucks exploded. By the mid-90s, the specialty coffee market was estimated at $1.5 billion.

Specialty coffee was also associated with quick financial decision making – the kind we have become accustomed to thinking.

Although the lattes were richer in flavor and price than a cup of Folgers, the beverage was seen as a substitute for excess.

Analysts speculated that espresso drinkers consumed lattes because they wanted to avoid nightclubs or couldn’t afford an expensive pair of jeans from Nordstrom, calling specialty coffee “an affordable luxury in a society with low incomes and expectations”. as described.

“People are watching their money in the ’90s,” a Washington, D.C. coffee shop manager told the Baltimore Sun in 1994, “so coffee shops are becoming rendezvous.”

pouring a latte

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

For those who enjoyed lattes – urban youth and women at large – coffee culture was inextricably linked with financial responsibility.

But for the older generations and suburban residents who had yet to find the first Starbucks store in their neighborhood, lattes were the epitome of frivolous luxury, which was recognized in 1997 by the use of the phrase “latte town” to describe the bubble of America’s elite. Made famous by famous columnist David Brooks. ,

The cultural meaning and generational divide, said Meghan Lertz, a professor of practice at Kansas State University who has researched the psychology of money, make the latte “an easy thing to point out.”

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And a lot of people were ready to point.

Latte math doesn’t add up

“The Latte Factor” was first used by Bach in 1995, according to a trademark he later filed for the phrase.

He claims he came after hearing how a 23-year-old woman in one of his investing classes bought a latte every day and didn’t have enough money to invest. She featured this advice prominently in her 1999 book Smart Woman Finish Rich, calculating how this woman could one day be a millionaire if only she curbed her latte habit.

Bach estimated the cost of a latte (plus a Diet Coke and other treats) at $5/day. This put the woman’s monthly lay expense at $150 per month, or ~$2k/year, in Bach’s estimate. He told her that if she gave up on Layte every day and invested $5 in stocks, she would make over $2 million by age 65, assuming an 11% growth rate.

Skipping Latte Vs. Ordinary Investing

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

There was some questionable mathematics in Bach’s formula. (The annual return on the Dow Jones, for example, was ~9.7% between 1949 and 1999 – not 11% – and even assuming the latter rate, Bach’s own “Latte Factor Calculator” Turns out that would save $5/day for 40 years. Doesn’t produce anything close to $2m.)

Nonetheless, his lay advice worked.

Smart Woman Finishes Rich became a New York Times bestseller and Bach soon landed on The View and Oprah, emphasizing that downing lattes or similar small luxuries was the key to saving enough for a good living. .

He eventually created something he called the “double latte factor,” asking people to reduce spending on other items they considered expensive luxuries – cellphones, gym memberships and cable TV.

Schtick has attracted its share of critics.

“I don’t like the narrative,” said Cliff Robb, faculty director of consumer finance and personal financial planning programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “where we’re basically saying, ‘Okay, we’re making the social safety net vulnerable. Granted, we’ve taken away a lot of employee benefits that people used to get, and more stuff is on you. And you must feel bad about what you’re doing.’”

Preston Cherry, founder and president of Concurrent Financial Planning, describes lay advice as a smart entry point to help anyone understand how to better assess financial health.

But it works, he said, if assessed as part of a bigger picture encouraging people to strive for greater abundance, leaving them worrying about cutting back on every little thing. will not be required. Without getting into the bigger picture, he said people wouldn’t even want to “connect with” [their] financial goals.”

house price vs wage

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

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Many new personal finance experts would agree. Several business books released this year have been marketed as “not about the latte.”

But Bach, who did not respond to multiple interview requests, has remained steadfast in aiming to eliminate petty spending as “secrets” to get money even in the context of America’s economic downturn.

“Who Stole the American Dream?” He asked in the 2016 edition of his book The Automatic Millionaire, noting that old approaches to saving for retirement were unsatisfactory.

Chief among his handful of solutions for achieving the dream was his most determined approach: “The Latte Factor®.”

what really motivates the loss of money

The real root cause behind why average people gain or lose money is, of course, a bit more complicated than lattes.

Going back to the times of Thorstein Veblen and “conspicuous consumption”, the answer has often been determined to depend on how much money you spend.

Veblen’s views were updated by people such as Bach, Suze Orman, and Juliette Shore, who wrote in the 1990s that “millions of us have become participants in a national culture of upscale spending.”

In 2012, Jeffrey Lundy published a dissertation questioning this long-held rhetoric, finding that little research had been done to drive wealth loss and accumulation. Lundy studied spending patterns from the US Consumer Expenditure Survey and compared them with the loss of household assets over the years.

His answer? Higher-than-average discretionary spending typically didn’t lead to major changes in net worth — but larger forces did, such as divorce, job loss, high-interest debt, costly health emergencies, and being widowed.

“Americans are tough on themselves,” Lundy told The Hustle in a message, “but it seems less of it is about extravagance and more about unexpected negative life circumstances.”

Another thing Lundy found was that Americans spent a declining or steady amount of their total income on things like entertainment and entertainment over the past three decades. The same was the case with food and drink outside the house.

We are eating a lot more and drinking more lattes (~67m in 2017) than in the 1990s, but the share of post-income Americans spend on food and drink outside the home is ~4%-5% every year. It’s been years since 1980.

disposable income expense

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

Yet despite being as conservative with their discretionary spending as generations ago, Americans, aside from a turnaround at the height of the pandemic, are not saving as much as they did in the ’80s.

For Olen, there is a clear explanation: “People know very well how to save money. They [just] It’s hard to do that.”

In other words, the problem is a little harder to swallow than a latte.

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