Just Cutting Out a Coffee Every Day Won’t Save You

Oh, the super-sage wisdom of those who say, “If only you cut out that latte, you will have more money for your 401(k).

You’ve heard it. I have heard it. $5 per day for coffee times 20 working days in a month is an extra $100 that could be going towards debt, savings, retirement, or whatever. This is what I call fortune cookie wisdom.

It’s a term I’ve used a lot to describe people who drop tidbits of knowledge about finance, but really, it isn’t overly helpful.  

“Don’t forget to save 10% of your check, honey!” Is a good example of this fortune cookie wisdom business.

THE PROBLEM IS THE CONTEXT

It’s probable someone may say, “Well, every piece of advice cannot be presented in full context, Rob” but the person saying this is missing the point. The reason we suck so bad with money is because we tell each other feel-good statements about “solid” money tips and totally blow the context needed to make those statements. We are so high on our financial wisdom that we completely miss seeing if someone has the basics leveled out before we go into the details.

What are the basics?

Knowing the details of your finances and having a budget. Two things over 75% of Americans currently ignore. (In other words: Move #1 and Move #2

If someone asks me for money advice, I tell them to ensure they know all the details of their financials: Income, expenses, debt, insurance, and assets. Then I tell them to make sure all of that information is represented in a monthly budget that they try their best to stick to.

Once they have that information, they will better understand how lattes impact their financial plan.

IT’S NOT REALLY ABOUT THE COFFEE

If we are honest, when we tell someone to cut smoking to save money or to stop buying beer, we aren’t really caring for that person. You may think you are, but it would be similar to giving a child who hasn’t eaten in weeks a full meal. You may be well-intentioned, but you were foolish in doing so as they will get even sicker. You need to start at the beginning to treat the condition, not jump to the middle.

It’s the same thing in religion, really. We are quick to tell someone they are going to Hell, but that same person won’t bother to share the Gospel—we just do what’s easier for us.

Planning + budgets aren’t the most fun things in the world, but it’s where we need to start. Once we get an idea of our flex cash we will see more clearly when it comes to what to cut out of our budget. Maybe the latte isn’t the problem. Maybe that’s that person’s one pleasure in the month.

Maybe the real issue is they are paying on two cars and only need one. Maybe they have a $500 car payment on car #2 and crazy high insurance because they haven’t shopped around for better, more competitive, insurance.

The point is, we don’t know unless we get to the basics. It takes time, effort, and commitment. If you don’t have all three of those things to spend on someone, then don’t give financial advice. You will probably do more harm than good.

At the minimum, you won’t be doing any good.