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The Latte Factor, Poor Shaming, and Economic Compassion

There’s a piece of conventional financial wisdom called the Latte Factor. It goes like this: if you’re looking to save money or pay off debt, start by skipping small luxuries like lattes and instead put that money toward your financial goals. The single digit savings will add up to a significant amount over time. All because you had the fortitude to practice a little self-control. It’s a simple, effective way to find some wiggle room in your budget and a great first step toward living a frugal lifestyle.

The Latte Factor is both virtuous and practical. It gives its frugal practitioner a sense of self-righteous superiority over those who continue to waste their money on overpriced, over-sweetened, caffeinated beverages every day. And because it’s such a simple solution, those preaching the gospel of frugality peddle it like a magic elixir. Can’t seem to save money? Just skip the latte! It works miracles!

Yet to those who truly struggle with systemic poverty, getting advice about the Latte Factor feels horribly condescending. In fact, being told that skipping a small luxury here and there will raise you up out of your low-income status feels downright cruel and deliberately ignorant. Because in cases of economic disenfranchisement, a lack of frugality is not the root of the problem.

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Buying the $7 Chocolate Bar

Buying the $7 Chocolate Bar

Last time I found myself in a high-end grocery store, I remember looking at the prices of everything and thinking “who the hell would buy a $7 chocolate bar?” Yesterday, I got my answer. And it was a pretty surprising one! It opened my eyes to a truth I’ve struggled for years to acknowledge.

I have a friend who is struggling with homelessness right now. She was in my house, staying for a spell while she looked for a permanent place to live. I watched her unpack her few belongings.

And there it was. Inside her purse was a large, rather expensive, luxury-brand $7 chocolate bar. She held it up and twiddled it back and forth in her hands, letting the silver foil catch the light.

“Sweetie, I’m homeless,” she said, very matter-of-fact. “You’d better believe I’m getting the good stuff.”

And boy was she making a great point.

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