Lattes! They are a gratuitous expense and you are an idiot if you buy one without first maxing out your 401(k) contributions and making a down payment on a house like a responsible adult, as JPMorgan Chase recently informed its customers. Also, people who buy lattes are hated by everyone, including themselves.
Or is the truth the exact opposite? It’s a personal-finance question that Americans have been grappling with for at least the past 20 years. (The latte question, that is. Americans have been grappling with feelings of self-loathing for much, much longer.)
An early draft of William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet offers a prescient perspective on this seemingly contemporary issue. In the following soliloquy, Shakespeare’s millennial protagonist, tortured by the existential question of how much control he truly has over his financial future, tries to decide whether or not to buy a coffee made with steamed milk.
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That is the goddamn question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of condescending personal-finance experts
Who assume I am broke because of coffee
Or to take arms against the idea that small luxuries
Shall be the sole province of the rich. To drink—to caffeinate,
Once more; and buy a $5 tall soy maple latte (no whip) to temporarily forestall
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ‘tis a morningtide consumption
Devoutly to be wish’d,
Even if it does mean spending $20,000 at Starbucks. To drink,
To caffeinate, perchance to have a bit of fun in life—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that latte haze what regrets may come,
When student-loan debt and wage inequality
Give my budget so little margin for error.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of Suze Orman,
Who says buying coffee is like “peeing $1 million down the drain?”
To grunt and sweat under a weary life of boring homemade coffee,
But that the dread of an emergency medical bill or a child’s college tuition,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose grip
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes it impossible for me to weigh short-term pleasures
Against the question of which mysterious long-term problem
Will eventually bankrupt me, and how best to plan for it?
Thus late-stage capitalism does confuse us all,
And so we overthink the latte as a symbol,
Infusing ordinary foods with questions
Of structural injustices and moral virtue,
And lose the name of action.
I would like one iced venti caramel macchiato, please.