On Coffee, Habit and Paper Cups

You know what’s weird?  Day-by-day, nothing seems to change.  But pretty soon…everything is different. -Bill Watterson

It seems every Financial Independence and Early Retirement blogger has to have an article discussing the effect of small, regular purchases such as coffee from a café or restaurant.

Here’s mine.

There’s an important piece of the puzzle that seems to be so often missing from this discussion, except in this original battle of two rival Financial Independence kings, Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich and Mr. Money Mustache.  And that missing piece is sustainability and the environment!  I am finding a lot of Personal Finance and Financial Independence blogs make a strong focus on earnings and net worth, but very few suggest to their readers that they should consider the consequences of their lifestyles and actions.

As MMM points out in his rebuttal to Ramit’s attack on the practice of daily, small acts of frugality, the resources required to sustain our current lifestyles into perpetuity do not exist, and highlighting a path to personal riches without any consideration of what it would look like if everyone were to follow the path (which, presumably, is the ultimate goal of iwt.com – to reach and sell to as many people as he can).

On his part, Ramit’s philosophy is not as all-consumerism as it is sometimes made out to be.  What he actually suggests is that people who want to be able to spend on the things they really love, guilt-free, also need to be ruthless about cutting out all the other bullshit before they can do that.

So, ya, I guess if getting a coffee from the shop you walk or bike by (instead of drive) on your way to work seems like something you love so much you just can’t go without, then that’s OK.  That is, I am not going to lose any more sleep on it after I press the “Publish” button later today.

But consider taking the next step.  Do what almost all people seem unable to do, and take that step outside yourself and do what is good for others as well.  And if you still just MUST have your overpriced, underheated coffee from the most  inconveniently busy Cafe on your route, bring a re-usable mug.  The rest of us shouldn’t have to deal with your mess just because you’re too unimaginative to consider any kind of change to your habits and routines.

And yes, I am just talking about coffee mugs (and lids).  But consider the following:

  • 1.58 billion cups are thrown out in the USA every year.
  • Every 4 cups = 1 lb of CO2 emissions.
  • 20 million trees are cut down JUST to make paper cups every year.
  • 12 billion gallons of water are also used.
  • The energy used to create them could power 53,000 homes for the year*.
  • A lot of the cups have a plastic coating and can’t be recycled.
  • None of these stats even consider the lids for the cups or the oh-so-convenient little one-time-use cardboard sleeves we use to keep our precious hands protected from the scalding paper.

Now, apply that mindset of not ‘flexing your frugality muscles’ to larger things, as your earnings are also growing, and do you really think you’re going to simply increase your savings and not your spending as your income grows?  Probably not.  Think of it as financial procrastination: we seem endlessly able to convince ourselves that we will have the willpower/energy/motivation/you-name-it to take on the task at a later date, without any real notion of where that is going to come from.  If you’re not willing to make the little changes now to get to your goals, what makes you think you will suddenly start ‘after your next raise’, or ‘next month’? 

Not unless you have been practicing pushing your comfort limits will you ever have the chance to learn that you can get just as much enjoyment from a delicious home-brew, save 10 minutes in line on your way to work, and still arrive with the same reusable mug in hand.

The thing about change is that from where people stand, they can’t possibly see themselves as doing things any differently.  Until one day, they have to.  Consider that after a massive Tube (i.e. Subway/Underground Train) strike in London in 2015, a study of commuters showed that of those who were forced to find an alternate route or method of getting to work, 5% actually stuck with that method after the strike had ended.  They may not seem like a lot at first, but these people are commuters in one of the most commuter-centric cities in the world.  These are people that, you would think, have perfected their commute over the years and surely, by now, have determined the optimal route for them to get to where they need to go.  But, as it it turns out, that once they had been forced to make a change, thousands of them found something that worked even better for them.

And that is the power of habit.  It works on a positive feedback loop.  The more you do the thing, the more automatic it becomes, the more you tend to ‘crave’ the thing; for better or worse.  Consider smokers who are under the illusion that even if they do manage to quit smoking, they will be living a life of deprivation forever and ever, knowing what they are missing out on.  However, if a prospective quitter can wrap their mind around the idea that they are not depriving themselves of anything, but rather gaining endless health and wealth by quitting, not only does quitting become easier, but it becomes more likely that they will stay  a non-smoker forever.  After you have quit smoking, you don’t sit around thinking about how great smoking is.  No, you marvel at the new you and all the benefits it has brought.  And you can apply that to anything in order to reach your goals – even that daily cup of coffee you ‘just can’t go without’.

I used to drink my coffee with cream and sugar.  Now I drink it black.  I used to be in average physical condition with very little clue about nutrition.  Now I am in great shape and crave my two daily workouts or some other physical activity.  I used to smoke cigarettes, completely unable to fathom a life without them.  Now I can’t stand the thought of smoking.  I used to look for external validation from others, often finding it in the form of a relationship with a poor foundation that therefore was bound to fail.  Now I am happy with who I am, and am only interested in a relationship where I can find someone else in the same state of mind where we can share ourselves with each other, and give to each other, rather than focusing on what the other can offer to us.  I used to be convinced that learning another language was virtually impossible.  I now provide Spanish-English translation services online and practice everyday, with the intention to add other languages to the mix eventually.  I used to watch Cable TV.  Now I read books.  The current me doesn’t spend a single moment feeling deprived of a single thing the old me used to do or have.

So you can change your coffee drinking and spending habits without feeling like you are going without.  In fact, you can even learn to enjoy all the gains you get from changing your routine, such as the chance to learn about the production and brewing of various coffees, saving 10 minutes in your morning routine**, or saving the world by consuming less disposable goods. 

As a proactive, mindful, contrarian, FIRE type, you should also take pride in knowing that you will be on the right side of history, rather than among the billions who waited until they were up to their knees in garbage to realize the folly of their ways and how easy it would have been to implement small changes long ago.

So you don’t have to dig your heels in and fight for your right to buy coffee daily on the grounds of just loving it too much to ever give up.  Because that is the kind of mentality we are here to combat.  The “my mind can never be changed” or “that’s just the way it is” type of attitude that is so rampant in our politics and culture today. Not only is it holding society back, but it’s holding you back as well.

If you want your coffee have your coffee, but just be aware of the very real and equally enjoyable alternatives available to you, and the gains you could accrue over time by avoiding it.  If you are resistant to change, there is probably something there.  Stop resisting.  Explore it.  Because just like anything in this world, it’s all in your head.

Change your mind, change your world.

*That’s presumably 53,000 ultra-consumer Western-sized homes.

**Maybe to meditate and add some intention to your day.  If you haven’t built the habit already, trust me, its (subtly) transformative.

5 thoughts on “On Coffee, Habit and Paper Cups

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  3. 6figurefire

    GREAT great post! At my job we experience change A LOT! So I always tell my team that my role is help us adapt to the change. And it’s amazing how a lot of them still just hate change, even when it’s for the better.

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