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Deciding How Much to Pay for a Cup of Coffee Is About More Than the Price

Whether you make coffee at home or purchase it at a store depends not only on how much money you make but also on what makes you happy.

by Matthew Kassel
Aug 9 2018, 3:53pm

Photos by Stocksy

Everyone knows it’s cheaper to make coffee at home than it is buy it out every day. But how much exactly can you save?

It depends on what kind of coffee you enjoy and how you like it made. Good home-brewed coffee, for example, can get pricey, if you’re investing in a suitable grinder, maybe a scale and a good Chemex, French press or ceramic dripper—which might run you $100 or so altogether.

The coffee itself is the biggest investment. I myself enjoy artisanal Ethiopian beans, which cost between $15 to $20 for a 12-ounce bag. That yields me about 20 generous mugs and lasts a week or more—nearly $800 a year on coffee alone. (I’m excluding milk and sugar expenses for simplicity’s sake.) As far as equipment is concerned, I use a four-cup French press (about $35) but occasionally pull out my stovetop espresso maker (which will run you around $30 depending on the model).

If you aren’t into craft beans, your home coffee expenses will go down. Let’s say you buy a cheap coffee maker—$20 will get you one—and only use pre-ground mass-produced stuff. A 42.5-ounce canister of Maxwell House coffee, which costs just under $10, will last you a while—about 300 servings, according to the company. If you only drink a serving a day then, presumably, you could make the container last for the better part of a year, though even if you go over it’s a relatively negligible expense—a little more than $12.

How about Keurig—around $100—or another pod machine? A 72-pack of pods might be about $30 a pop, and at one cup a day, that’s five packs a year, costing you around $150. Not bad.

When you venture outside the home, prices invariably appreciate. The average cost of a regular cup of black coffee in New York, for example, is $3.12, according to a new report from UBS, which looked at coffee prices in major cities around the world. If you spent $3.12 every day, you’d end up burning through nearly $1,140 a year.

Let’s say you know a cheaper place. The bodega on my corner, for instance, sells sort of bad cups of coffee for a dollar each, and so do most carts. That is, of course, $365 a year—cheap, though it’s just one cup a day, and most of the caffeine-addled workaholics I know need more than that.

Whether you decide to spend more or less money on coffee depends on a number of mitigating factors, like taste and class and probably geography. In 2011, Katherine Rosman wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal arguing that buying expensive cappuccinos is worthwhile even if your budget doesn’t allow for it. “To my mind, a few out-of-budget small purchases aren't going to break us,” she wrote. “And they might actually benefit us, giving that little lift that can come from a quiet moment of self-appreciation. That's when a cup of coffee is so much more than a cup of coffee.”

She’s right, but not everyone has the wherewithal for such purchases. If you agree with Rosman, then you are probably the kind of person who will often buy coffee out. Perhaps you don’t want to bother with making coffee in the morning before you go to work, or you don’t want to dirty a few dishes, or you like the sense of community you get from buying coffee in a public space—a big reason people buy out, says Morris Altman, a professor of behavioral and institutional economics at the Newcastle Business School in Australia. “As social animals most of us enjoy being in a place where there are others,” he told me in an email.

In the end, though, it really just depends on what makes you happy—and what you can afford.

Follow Matthew Kassel on Twitter.

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