Sunday, April 20, 2008

beginning advice

Photo © 2006, Conor Dubin

In 2006, New York Times reporter Darren Darlin wrote an article for soon-to-be college graduates about how to save money. His advice was: "Let's Start With That Daily Latte Latte". So often, especially here in New York, we get ripped off for things that become "luxury items" because of name brands, popularity, or even the affluence of the neighborhood in which you are purchasing. A coffee at a bodega in Harlem costs far less than a coffee at a bodega in SoHo. It's no surprise then that many of us in this food-obsessed city pay out the majority of our income on food-related items, whether on groceries, a fine meal, or your Starbucks addiction that only got worse since the corporation went coffee house.

In order to make ends meat, you have to start by being savvy about your consumption practices. Don't compromise quality, but do make what you are paying for count. I demand quality in what I eat, or else eating isn't worth it to me. I buy organic when available and reasonably affordable, and I eat at restaurants that serve quality food that is worth the price demanded. It isn't worth the dollar less to buy discount produce, nor is it worth it to me to buy a plate full of rice (origin unknown) from the Halal cart that could feed a small family for $6.

There are simple things that you can do to maximize the value of your food. For example, shopping at Citarella might be fun because their bags are so tote-able, but Fairway Market right next door is much less expensive, even if their double-bagged paper/plastic bags are hard to carry. Buying lunch at work is certainly easier than preparing something you can carry on your subway commute, but (especially in Manhattan) you'd save an astounding amount of money if you took the extra effort to prepare your own lunch. Getting ripped off on food is something that can easily be avoided. To begin the first of many tips to come, here is Darren Darlin's advice on economic eating:

Make your own coffee You probably know you spend a lot at Starbucks, a company that collected $6.4 billion from coffee drinkers last year. You probably don't have any idea how much of that total came from you. A calculator at let's you figure that out and also forecast how much you will spend over a decade of coffee breaks. (This Web site contains a treasure trove of financial planning calculators.) Say you spend just $3.50 every workday for your latte. If you drank the free office brew instead, you'd have more than $11,500 to play with after 10 years.

Does coffee shop coffee taste better than the free stuff? Probably, but ask yourself, do you want to live in a roach-infested studio apartment with two roommates your entire life?

By the same logic, if you smoke, now is a good time to quit. Doing so will save you on average $25,600 over 10 years.

Learn to cook Unless you have learned the art of sneaking into conferences at hotels to snag a breakfast croissant or cocktail-hour shrimp, you need to reduce your dining budget. A twice-a-week kung pao chicken takeout habit can easily drain you of about $10,000 over 10 years.

At the very least, learn how to pack a lunch. Taking your lunch to work may seem like the equivalent of sitting with the nerds in the school cafeteria, and going out to lunch with colleagues can sometimes be a smart career move. But bringing your lunch lets you be more choosy about who you are eating with and saves money. How much? Back to the online calculators ( and you'll discover that the savings could be as much as $23,000 in 10 years.

The tally so far: $34,500 (for the nonsmokers), or enough to make a down payment on a $172,500 house. That won't get you much in most big cities, so you really need to exert yourself.

From Darren Darlin, "Advice to All You Graduates: Let's Start with That Daily Latte", Your Money; The New York Times, June 10, 2006.

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