How to stop spending money on mediocre campus coffee

One more crappy student union latte now is one fewer flat white in Melbourne later. Photo by YJ.
One more crappy student union latte now is one fewer flat white in Melbourne later. Photo by YJ.

Like lots of other graduate students, I drink several cups of coffee or tea every day. Unlike a lot of graduate students, though, I’m almost never in line at the campus coffee shop. Why? Because the campus coffee sucks, and spending money on it adds up super quickly. With a little planning, I can spend far less money and get far higher quality coffee and tea.

Let’s say you spend $2 on a small coffee every weekday from the campus cafe, and that you’re on a campus with a 16 week semester. That adds up to $10 a week, $160 a semester, or $320 an academic year, all on mediocre coffee!

What else could you do with $320 a year? That money could go towards any number of higher priority goals. You could stick it in your emergency fund, save it for retirement, or spend it on something you really enjoy, like traveling or supporting your favorite charity. Heck, if you really love coffee, that $320 could go to multiple high quality espresso drinks at your local cafe, or a few bags of kopi luwak.

Instead of mindlessly spending $2 (or more) a day on coffee from the coffee shop, why not figure out how to save that money for a higher priority?

Here are some ways you could still get your daily caffeine fix without spending money at the cafe:

  • Bring it with you. For the first few years of grad school, I would make two cups of coffee in the morning: one for drinking at home before heading to campus, and one for packing in a vacuum bottle for drinking later. This was super easy when I used an automatic electric coffeemaker and pre-ground coffee. When I switched over to using an Aeropress and a manual coffee grinder, it got a little bit more complex, but it was still manageable in the morning. Nowadays, I put brew tea (in bags) in my vacuum bottle, which takes almost no effort at all.
  • Make it on the spot. If you have an office space, see if you can plug in an electric coffeemaker. Your colleagues will love you. The hardcore connoisseurs among you could use a plug-in kettle and your manual brewing method of choice. If you’re not so hardcore, maybe instant coffee (in jars or single serving packets) is the way to go. The great thing about bringing coffee with you or making it on the spot is that you can control the quality of the coffee, if that’s important to you. Even if you buy the most expensive beans from your local hipster roaster, chances are it is still going to be cheaper per cup than the mysterious industrial swill from the campus dining hall.
  • Keep it on hand. A few months ago, I brought back some Fererro Pocket Coffee from Italy and kept it in my desk for those times when I had forgotten to bring caffeine for the mid-morning slump. That stash, unfortunately, is long gone. These days, I keep small cans of green tea (bought in bulk from Amazon) in my desk. They’re instantly gratifying, and still far cheaper per serving than going to the cafe.
  • Buy it, but less often. I can’t stick to my own rules all the time. Sometimes, near the end of the term, there are genuine coffee emergencies. (You caffeine addicts out there know what I’m talking about.) It’s at those points that you’ll see me saunter over to the cafe like a zombie for a fair trade espresso. Even though I’m spending money on not-so-great coffee, I don’t feel so bad about it, because it’s an emergency and because I’m not doing this every day of the year.
  • Cut down on your consumption. Maybe it’s time to think about cutting down your caffeine consumption. Not only is it expensive, but it could also be causing physiological or psychological effects that aren’t so great. For various reasons, I’m now down to one coffee in the early morning and one tea for the mid-morning slump. I don’t know if it’s brought any health benefits, but I’m certainly buying coffee beans at the grocery store far less often!

Coffee is a small expense. But when you’re a graduate student making less than $25,000 a year (or going in debt for your degree), that’s an outsize percentage of your income. Think carefully about how you could use that money instead. Since I’m motivated by travel, I like to think that every insipid cup of mud that I buy in the student union is one less Turkish coffee I can sip along the Bosphorus, one less fika in a Stockholm konditori, one less ca phe sua da on the streets of Saigon. Do I want to spend that money now, or do I want to get better value from it later?

Introducing the Itinerant Egghead

Century duck eggs (皮蛋) at the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne.
Century duck eggs (皮蛋) at the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne. Photo by YJ.

Hello, thrifty world travelers! I’m YJ and I’m an itinerant egghead: itinerant because I have an insatiable passion for travel, egghead because I’m a doctoral student trying to make a dent in the bubble of knowledge.

The Itinerant Egghead is a blog about how I make travel a big part of my life without breaking the bank. Wandering the globe is important to me, but so are career building, staying out of debt, and saving for other life goals.

Figuring out how to do all of that with limited time and resources is a matter of managing priorities. I’ll be sharing tips and strategies for making ends meet on a tight graduate student stipend/salary, as well as stories and pictures from my adventures across the US and around the world.

My general philosophy about travel and personal finance is that it’s all about your priorities and the best value option, given those priorities. I choose to spend more on certain parts of my life (e.g. travel) and less on others (e.g. transportation around the city when I’m at home). When I travel, I make similar priority judgments: high quality local cuisine and a well-located place to sleep are high priorities, while souvenir shopping and going to typical tourist attractions are lower priorities.

I’m all about making occasional travel a sustainable lifestyle choice that fits with your life circumstances today. Not everyone can afford to or wants to be a perpetual nomad, hopping from country to country and hostel to hostel. Likewise, not everyone can afford to or wants to live the luxury travel life, sipping champagne and showering in first class. For me, right now, the ideal is somewhere in the middle.

Some topics I plan to cover soon include:

  • General personal finance
    • How to manage your priorities and start saving
    • How to save money and drink better coffee
  • Travel
    • How to use the money you save on coffee to fly to Asia in business class
    • How to find good value in hotels, hostels, sharing economy room rentals, and couchsurfing
  • Grad student finances
    • How to find (and fund!) travel opportunities as a student
    • How to deal with insufficient summer funding

If you have some more suggestions, please let me know in the comments!