Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How to save money at the coffee shop

Of course, the best way to save money at a coffee shop is to not go out for coffee in the first place. I just want to make sure you know I know that. :-)

Although there are a lot of fine, frugal folks with the fortitude to overcome a Starbucks craving, I will admit I'm not one of them. I've cut back significantly, yes, but I still go out for a caffeine-laden treat once a week or so. I enjoy coffee, I enjoy getting out of my house, I enjoy the free wi-fi at our coffee joint down the street, and I enjoy the atmosphere. I enjoy coffee shops so much that I even worked at one for several months. I can't see myself eschewing the experience entirely. 

When I do go, however, I try to choose the drink with the best value. Here's how you can keep the expense of your guilty pleasure at a minimum:

1. If you want plain coffee, make it at home. Why spend $1.50 or $2 for something that may have been burning away in the coffee carafe for an hour or more when you can make your own fresh brew at the strength you prefer it

2. Avoid the fancy drinks. Peppermint mochas, double tall vanilla lattes, salted caramel hot chocolates, Frappuccinos with espresso poured on top... These are expensive because of the syrup and extras that go into making them. Coffee shops do tally how much money each pump of syrup and each shot of espresso is. The more syrup and espresso in the drink, the more expensive it's going to be (and, in the case of the syrups, the more calories you'll end up consuming).

3. Stick with the simple drinks - they often taste better anyway. Small, plain lattes and cappuccinos and real macchiatos (shots of espresso with a dollop of foam on top) are probably your best bet, value wise. Because they don't contain the extras mentioned above, they cost less. They usually taste better, too. When I was a barista, there was nothing I liked more than to hear someone order a cappuccino. It put the spring back into my step as I worked the bar. Pulling the shot and foaming and freepouring the milk require some skill. A lot of baristas enjoy the chance to show off a little, and they'll put extra work into crafting your order.

If you want some flavor, help yourself to a couple (free) packets of sugar at the condiment bar.

4. Order small. Do you really need a medium or large? You'll save money by going with the smallest size. (Tip: It's not always advertised, but at Starbucks, you can usually order a short. It's 4 oz. smaller than the tall.)

5. Go local and save some dough. I used to be a Starbucks junkie, but then I discovered the independent coffee shop down the street. They charge 20 cents less on average per drink - it helps them compete with the chain stores - and brew a great Italian espresso. The quality of their product is better, too. Perhaps that's the case at your own local coffee shop. If you're going to spend, why not support a small business?

6. Bring your own mug. Most places will give you a 5- or 10-cent discount for doing so, and it's better for the environment than using a paper cup, plastic lid, and cardboard sleeve.

7. Make it a special treat. As a barista, I loved my regulars - the people who showed up once a day or even more. I couldn't help but wonder, however, how much money they were spending per year on their caffeine habit and whether they were even enjoying what they purchased. To me, it would get old. Instead of gorging on regular coffee outings, treat yourself once in a while and savor the experience.

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