The term “Latte Factor” was popularized by David Bach in his best-selling book, The Automatic Millionaire. The concept highlights how small purchases everyday add up to big money over time – in this case exemplified by a daily $5 latte. It’s a specific example of how opportunity costs work. When you use your resources for one thing you are giving up alternative uses for that money. Per Webster Merriam the formal definition follows.
– the added cost of using resources (as for production or speculative investment) that is the difference between the actual value resulting from such use and that of an alternative (such as another use of the same resources or an investment of equal risk but greater return)
Bach’s book popularized the art of slamming Starbucks purchases as extravagances for spendthrift millennials that have no long-term financial sense. It’s a good concept, and the math works. If you take the $5 a day and instead put it into low-cost index funds or other investments the accumulation over time is enormous.
Here’s a July 2018 example post, using the $5 latte example, from US News. Over 50 years, $5 a day invested across the stock market would yield you an $800,000 portfolio balance. It’s a great, powerful example of how returns compounded over years can add up to big money. The big missing piece of getting these returns, however, rests upon actually investing the $5 a day. Opportunity costs only really matter if the alternative uses are uses that one will actually take. You may not like Starbucks at all so you never spend $5 a day on coffee, or you may have incredible willpower and forego your treasured cup of mocha java daily for years on end. Unless you take those individual $5 savings and everyday invest them you will not see the $800k pot of gold at the end of the 50-year rainbow. If the money sits in your checking account and is then used for a trip to Disneyland, or a shopping trip, or the monthly dozen streaming service bills it has not been saved, nor invested. It’s been spent on a different consumption use. Unless one is very diligent or budget-focused it is hard to monitor each dollar and actively redirect from spending to investing.
I had the Latte Factor in mind when I was considering how to be a better, more consistent investor about a year ago. It was shortly after the New Year and resolutions were on my mind. I decided to use the idea of the Latte Factor in reverse – by starting with investing and making a daily investment the priority. My thinking was that if I made the $5 investment a priority each day, and automated it I would be embracing the investing side of the Latte Factor which is the most important part. Getting your money to work for you is the goal, not self denial at the coffee counter. They are both part of the equation, flip sides of the coin, since we all deal with finite time and money. Although they are related, I view the investment side of the coin as more important than the saving side. And knowing myself, giving up my daily coffee just isn’t in the cards.
I used my existing Vanguard account to create a recurring weekly investment for each day of the week. (Since you can’t create an automatic investment on a weekend day I doubled up on a couple of week days to have 7 total investments a week.) Here’s my current latte investing setup – there’s an additional 8th weekly transfer to a money market fund as an emergency savings additional goal.
I’ve blanked out the amounts above as I don’t think it’s relevant and will depend on each person. For you, the $5 a day may be a great start. Perhaps you earn a lot more money than I and $500 a day would be a better fit. The important bit is to start, and automate, your investing so that you remove the need for active attention and willpower to ensure it happens. This is likely already the case if you have a 401k or other employer investment plan – you set it up once and rarely think about it again. Adding an investment plan for yourself individually can be a great complement and remind you that your financial future is ultimately in your hands, and needs to be on your mind.
In addition to the power of compounding, I’ve enjoyed the psychological element of having a daily investment habit. When I’m winding down at the end of the day I can tally a small win, every day, that even if I did go out for coffee, or dinner, or booked an expensive trip I was also investing for the long-term. That little bit of positive reinforcement and encouragement has been meaningful to me. My wife and I both set up our own daily investments in this vein. It’d be a bit cleaner and simpler to just lump the investment dollars together and do it once a day instead of twice. However, just as you can’t have another person eat well for you, or do your daily exercise routine I find it important for us each to be invested in the process and have a daily win.
Our first year of latte investing went well, and with the calendar turning over we took a few minutes to discuss and update our daily investments. Things have been going pretty well, so we were able to increase our daily amounts a bit. Maybe in the future we’ll need to decrease the amounts. Either way, I plan on continuing this daily habit to have our small daily money wins and to remind ourselves that everyday we are going to be investors. Hopefully, as the years go by, the returns will grow and our balances will accumulate.
I hope sharing this daily habit is helpful to you, and if you have ideas to share about building wealth for the long-term I’d love to hear them. Cheers.