The Library Latte Factor

If you’ve read any articles or books on personal finance or America’s dismal savings rate over the past few years, you’ve probably seen reference to the “latte factor.” If not, here’s the nutshell summary: We don’t tend to think about how small things can add up and about the opportunity cost of spending money on one thing instead of another. So, you may pick up a Starbucks latte every morning on the way to work (yes, let’s pick on Starbucks again…), thinking “It’s only $4.00.” Over the course of a year, 5 lattes, or $20, a week adds up to $240. If you instead put that $240 each year into a higher-yield account, or contribute to your IRA, or up your 401k or 403b contributions, you can play with the math and be suitably amazed by how much more you would earn over time.

The idea here is that all these little things add up — yes, maybe you don’t feel the pinch when you buy lattes (or whatever your personal vice may happen to be), but add lattes, to lunches out, to having to have that iPhone the week it comes out, and eventually something has to give. If you buy lattes, or lunches, or iPhones, that’s money you now don’t have to spend on something else.

This comes to mind when reading David Lee King’s recent Answering the What Do I Have to Stop Doing Question, on how to answer library folks who ask what they have to stop doing in order to do new things with technology. David’s answer focuses on reframing the question in terms of library priorities. He explains:

Will your daily work change? Maybe. Will some things that you currently do not get done? Maybe – but that’s ok. Because you’ll be focused not on “doing stuff,” but on moving the organization forward.

So yes – the less important, non-prioritized stuff will either get done or get forgotten – and that’s ok. Because you have reframed your question.

That’s a good answer, which fits right into the latte factor idea of determining your priorities and where you want to spend, whether it be money or time — but I’m not sure it goes far enough in answering the question. (Read the comments and links as well for more perspectives.)

Some of the commenters point out ways in which Web 2.0 technologies help save time in the long run, which is another piece of the puzzle here. In smaller, less well-funded libraries than David’s, the time issue is a more major concern: every bit of the day can be filled up with serving organizational priorities, especially if you are the only one there. The “that’s OK” answer also carries the danger of how we define the “smaller, less important” stuff — it’s easy to get sucked into Web 2.0 things instead, defining these as more important because they’re, well… FUN. But, someone still has to sweat the small stuff and keep those library wheels turning.

I think that we need to acknowledge that answering “what did you have to stop doing in order to start doing these new things?” question involves true opportunity cost. At home, the answer may very well be “watching so much TV.” At work, though, it’s not always as simple, especially if your organizational (or administrative) priorities don’t as easily translate to “take time to try new things.” Sometimes taking time to try new things means not taking the time to do “old things” that are useful to or cherished by some segment of your population. If you can make the argument that both reflect organizational priorities, how do you choose? How do you make sure your choice reflects your library’s and your patron’s needs, rather than your own preferences? That’s a piece of the conversation I’d like to see extended further.


  1. Ryan Deschamps:

    Hallelujah! It’s about time we talked about productivity as it relates to Web 2.0. Sometimes “work” means doing the mundane things that keep the machine running, even though its not fun.

    The only caveat here, of course, is that sometimes the benefits are not lost once consumed (like the latte) but instead involve a growth factor that will make people more productive in the long run. The risk is that you have a whole lot of potential power, but none of it is put into action because we are too busy learning.

    Balance is always good. I think its important to admit that in a Web 2.0 world, balancing learning with elbow grease is extremely difficult.

  2. librarybob:

    I ask the public through my weekly web-posting (the lead on our website). The readership likely skews somewhat younger than the general public (if older than the most web-savvy segment).

    Answers matter. We only now started circing Blu-ray due to public cautions the last three years.

  3. Greg Smith:

    “Over the course of a year, 5 lattes, or $20, a week adds up to $240.”

    $20 x 12 months = $240, but $20 x 52 weeks = $1040!

  4. rachel:

    LOL – that’s what I get for doing math in my head!! Doh. No latte for me.

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