Friday, May 8, 2015

Hey, buddy, can you spare a dime for a cup of coffee? -- no, really

[Previously posted at A Statistician Walks into a Grocery Store...]

We've previously talked about bloggers trying to live on a food stamp budget for a week (yeah, that's a thing). One of the many odd recurring elements of these post is a litany of complaints about life without caffeine because...
I had already understood that coffee, pistachios and granola, staples in my normal diet, would easily blow the weekly budget. 
Which is really weird because coffee isn't all that expensive..

That comes out to a nickel a cup. This might be underestimating the amount of coffee you'll need. Six ounces is a fairly small cup and I find the recommended dosages a bit weak. Let's make it eight to ten ounces and double the amount of coffee we use. That takes us to a dime.

Just to check our assumptions, this is very much a mid-range estimate. There are, of course, more expensive options but there are also cheaper choices. You get substantial savings by going to a large economy size or by going with a store brand or both.

On the other end, if you go to $0.15  or $0.20 a cup and you know how to shop, you can move up into some surprisingly high-quality whole bean coffee (which should not taste like they came from Starbucks, but that's a topic for another post). Eventually, of course, you will reach the point where this gets too expensive to justify on a limited budget -- this stuff can get appallingly expensive -- but you can do better than the typical cup of diner coffee for a dime and better than what you'd get from most coffee houses for a quarter.

To be clear, I'm not recommending that everyone rush out to Wal-Mart for a big ol' barrel of Great Value Classic Roast. If your weekly food budget is more than fifty dollars a week, bargain coffee should be near the bottom of your concerns.

What we're interested in here are perceptions. The people we discussed earlier suffered through a week of headaches and other caffeine-withdrawal pains, not because they couldn't afford it but because the belief that they couldn't afford it was so strong that it trumped the evidence before them.


  1. Food stamp people are extremely cash flow limited. Can they afford to blow $5 on a single item? Granted, they wouldn't have to do this very often, but it could prevent them from getting other food or toiletry items. Do they trade off toilet paper or kidney beans for caffeine? Can they scrimp enough to save a dollar or two a week and make the big buy when they've saved up? I've never taken the challenge, but I know that my purchasing patterns are quite different.

    1. Good point.

      I picked a middle of the road choice -- you can get house brands for $3 and there are some 99 cents store options -- so we aren't necessarily talking about a five dollar pop, but the question of of prorating is very complex and very important here.

      I've been taking a cost-per-serving approach so far because I've been trying to start with how much food costs under optimal conditions then look at how various constraints can drive those prices up.

    2. > Can they afford to blow $5 on a single item?

      Yes. Most food stamp programs make benefits available either once per month or every two weeks. If anything, this payment schedule *could* encourage wise bulk purchases. However, it could also encourage less-healthy feast-fast cycles.

  2. I find this whole issue of wealthy people living on food stamps to be weird. It isn't pleasant, but it also isn't particularly hard.

    I paid my own way through grad school in 1991, and I doubt I made more than SNAP for food. My food? Baked potatoes and margarine, salt and pepper. Oatmeal. Off brand this and that. Buy a bottle of hot sauce to mix things up. I'd steal my salt, sugar, and pepper from the school cafeteria. Top Ramen. Frozen chicken pot pies. Canned soup. Biscuits and honey. An occasional apple. Never eat out. Store brands. Coupons. I'd spend $12 to 15 per week, which with inflation came to $25 to $30. I did this for three long years.

    The trick is to recognize food as fuel, not a past time. I suppose it also helps that I had hope - I was working toward a goal.

    When I was poor, I saw a lot of other poor people buying a lot of processed (expensive) foods - sodas, chips, etc. The never used coupons. I occurred to me that being poor and being a poor manager of money likely coincided with most people.

  3. The very idea that someone receiving food stamps would be unable to budget for coffee, is astounding to me. I cannot help but feel that the majority of the country has no idea of the amount, what that will buy week to week in an actual grocery story, and that they've never worked in a store that accepts food stamps or WIC vouchers. People on food stamps rarely, if ever, budget. They buy high end processed foods and top quality cuts of meat, and actually rarely buy ground coffee. They use their own money for coffee at their favorite vendor. This isn't a disparagement, this is just reality.