Recently I found $20 worth of Starbucks gift cards in my home office. Bought probably two years ago, they’d been set aside and forgotten. Whoops.
Certainly I’m not the only person who’s failed this way. The Starbucks annual report notes $1.64 billion in “stored value” liability – i.e., money in gift cards and on the app.
Some of that money could be from misplaced cards. However, the majority of it is likely due to the Starbucks auto-reload feature: Attach a payment method, set a minimum balance and never run out of coffee credit again. The coffeehouse chain allows up to $500 to be stored on a single card (and up to $10,000 on a combination of cards). That’s a lotta lattes!
But even if you keep only a $50 balance, is this the best use of your funds?
There’s nothing wrong with a coffee or a scone now and then, or even every day if you’ve budgeted for it. But automatically reloading a balance encourages overspending, because consumers tend to treat “stored value” differently than real money.
“It doesn’t have that emotional trigger of pulling out the cash and handing it over. You have to make the conscious decision that yes, this is a transaction that I want to go through with,” says Ian Bloom, a certified financial planner in Raleigh, North Carolina.
How much people spend on coffee depends on which study you believe. A survey from Acorns, an investing company, cites an average of $1,100 per person per year or about $92 a month. The site also notes that 34% of Americans spend more on java than on investments.
While the “latte factor” has become a phrase people love to hate, at heart it makes sense. If you invested that $92 every month starting at age 25, you’d have $286,000 at age 65 (assuming an average annual return of 8%).
Note, too, that cutting that monthly expense even by half would mean an extra $500 a year. Those bucks could beef up your emergency fund or retirement plan, help you pay off consumer debt or save for a down payment on a car or a home.
This money could also be put into bonds, certificates of deposit, peer-to-peer lending, a real-estate crowdfunding site like Realty Shares or Fundrise, equity crowdfunding or a high-yield savings account. Or the money could go toward your child’s education fund.
The latte factor isn’t necessarily just about caffeine. For example, Amazon makes it easy to auto-reload your gift card balance. Other services (iTunes, anybody?) are also happy to have you front-load store credit for future online purchases. Two possible results:
You buy only what you actually need, or
You see a cool T-shirt featuring your girlfriend’s favorite gaming character, or a new hardback in the mystery series that your fiance just loves. Then your gift card balance and one-click ordering can can easily lead to unnecessary expense.
With each unplanned expenditure comes opportunity cost. The $20 you spend on a T-shirt or the $92 you drop for coffee every month is money that can’t go to a long-term financial goal — or even a short-term one, such as plumping up that emergency fund.
Another issue: Stored credit is money that can’t be used any other way. When you buy a $4 coffee with a $5 bill, you get a dollar back. When you buy a $4 coffee with stored credit you get a lower balance. If there’s $9.65 left in your account, you have to spend it at the coffeehouse.
And if there’s only $1.25 remaining? You have to spend more money to use it up, either in cash or by reloading the card or app.
Things like coffee or T-shirts can be part of a smart budget. But it’s essential to track how much you’re spending. Get too accustomed to an auto-reloadable account and you can lose sight of how much money slips away.
Certified financial planner R.J. Weiss suggests turning the auto-reload idea into a force for financial good. First, cancel any existing refill agreements you have with Starbucks or anyone else. Next, schedule automatic withdrawals toward retirement, homeownership or any other money goal that matters to you.
“Take that concept of automatic withdrawal and apply it to an important goal,” says Weiss, of Geneva, Illinois.
Here’s another way to turn Starbucks (or any other retailer) into a positive financial experience: Use stored credit to set limits. Michael Izbotsky, a certified financial planner in Los Angeles, notes that stored credit “can actually be a great way to limit or budget your spending.
“You’re essentially giving yourself a monthly allowance by preloading these accounts with a set dollar amount,” he says.
“If you are on track with funding your home purchase goals, travel goals, retirement goals and any other goals, then I say enjoy that daily cup of coffee.”
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Image: Rebecca Aldama
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