Adventures in Replacing My Starbucks Habit

Disclaimer: This post is from a time when I was really focused on reducing my spending. I’ve since loosened up, and happily include a few lattes a month in my budget—and omg upgrading to a french press was life-changing. Coffee equipment, even just the basics, is worth the money if you’ll use it! I’m leaving the post up for posterity more than anything.

My love affair with Starbucks started in an airport. Do I remember which airport? No. Do I remember my first Starbucks drink?

Heck yes.

It was a toffee nut latte and it was freaking delicious.

I was travelling with my mom, this was the first time we had Starbucks, and I was hooked. The combo of the delicious, sugary (oh my god so sugary) drink and the adventure of being on vacation left a permanent positive impression, and in the years since, Starbucks has enjoyed a special place in my heart – and my budget.

Until very recently, I never blinked at a $100/month budget for coffee. Literally, I would sit down, review my monthly spending, write out a budget, and decide that my coffee habit was at least 80% as important to me as my contributions to my emergency fund if you looked at it from a dollars-spent-equals-importance perspective. 

But then I started reading more about mindful budgeting, and getting inspired by other frugal bloggers who examined their coffee consumption habits really closely. Could I possibly be as happy with a homemade coffee option as I was with my now twice-weekly $6 coffee habit?

I wanted to find out, one way or another.

Attempt One: Instant Coffee

You can probably already guess how this ends, but stick with me.

Since the whole point of this experiment was to save money, I wasn’t about to go out and buy an entirely new coffee-making system right off the bat. Luckily (…luckily?) I’ve had a pack of Starbucks’ Via instant coffee sitting in the pantry for at least a year. So one Saturday morning, I got out one of the packets, heated up some water, and “made coffee.”

After one taste, I got in the car and drove over to Starbucks in defeat. To put it gently, it was not good.

So instant coffee was clearly not an option. What else could I try?

Attempt Two: Cold Brew

Ironically, I found out about cold brewed coffee this summer via Starbucks. (I hear you coffee hipsters, telling me you’ve been drinking cold brew coffee since before anyone knew what it was. Hi.) Since I usually get iced coffee, it was an easy sell, and one taste convinced me it was my new drink – even with the extra $1 for basically the same drink as my previous iced coffee.

In an actual stroke of luck, as I dove into my research about at-home coffee options, it turns out that cold brew is one of the easier types of coffee to make at home (here are detailed instructions from Chow.com and Food 52.) At the most basic level, all you need is roughly ground coffee beans, a container to steep them in, a way to strain the mixture, and whatever you take in your coffee.

Convinced as I was that this would be the solution, I decided to put up the money to cover the “start up costs” of making cold brew at home. But I still wanted to be frugal about it, so I waited for a week or so until I could find the supplies I needed at a reasonable cost.

Here’s what I ended up with for my first adventure with cold brew:

  • 1 coffee bean grinder (acquired via Kijiji for a cool $10)
  • 1 (XL) package of Starbucks Pike Place coffee (acquired at Costco for $19.99)
  • 1 strainer (already had it)
  • 1 Mason jar (already had it)
  • “Coffee filters,” aka paper towel as makeshift coffee filters, because I forgot to buy real filters (already had it)
  • Milk ($3.99 at the grocery store)
My super-professional coffee making supplies.

My super-professional coffee making supplies.

So my total upfront costs came to $33.98, or what I would easily spend at Starbucks in about two weekends these days. It was a bit of a gamble, but for a two-weekends-of-coffee bet that might pay off in months of coffee, I figured it was a level of risk I could handle.

Since cold brew takes about 12 hours to steep, when Friday night rolled around, I got everything set up for Saturday morning’s coffee. I ground the beans, added them to a large Mason jar, added filtered water and stirred until it looked like coffee-scented sludge. All told, it took me maybe three minutes.

I get credit for ingenuity, right? It worked well, at least.

I get credit for ingenuity, right? It worked well, at least.

The next morning, I woke up, and instead of getting in the car to go to Starbucks, I took my coffee sludge jar and strained it using my entirely makeshift combination of a strainer with paper towels inside of it. Because I’m classy like that. It worked surprisingly well, and after straining the coffee, all I had to do was add milk and ice.

Houston, we have (coffee) liftoff!

After a very discriminating taste test, the cold brew passed – with flying colours! It’s true what they say about cold brewed coffee being much less bitter, since the beans have no risk of being overheated. It’s also true about it being strong, which warms my caffeinated little heart.

Above and beyond the fact that I feel like a bit of a coffee maestro*, I also didn’t even miss the Starbucks trip that had become an integral part of my weekend routine. It turns out, the yummy coffee was the real payoff, and being able to make something comparable at home means what I thought would be “giving up Starbucks” is more like “getting to run one less errand on weekends.”

Will I still buy Starbucks sometimes? Sure. It’s still a great place to go, grab a coffee and catch up with a friend – or sit for a few hours to catch up on freelance work. But eliminating it as a weekly must-have will cut my coffee budget way down to an incidental expense, more along the lines of $20 a month, not $100.

So long story short, if you’re struggling with at-home coffee options like I was, cold brew is worth a shot.

What kind of coffee do you like to have at home? Have you found it hard to cut out an expensive-coffee habit?

*My pride in this coffee accomplishment is entirely unfounded, since as far as I can tell, cold brewing coffee is nearly fool-proof.