A Lesson in Latte Factors, or Reaching Teacher Nirvana

Latte EffectLatte factor: the total cost of your regular, nonessential spending to show how much you could be saving each year. “Look at all that money!” A student gasped, staring at her calculator in disbelief. Sure enough, that burst of excitement flagged the attention of several other students. “Money?” “What money?” “Whose money?” “Where did it all come from?” As a crowd formed around the calculator, questions flooded my classroom after school, and a story was born.  

Last week, one of the students in our writing club came to me with the idea of writing about all the things her one friend could do with her money if she didn’t buy Starbucks every morning. Before I could stop myself, my eyes lit up and the words “latte factor” barreled out my mouth. It was a stupendous moment. Staying after school of her own free will, this student had been reflective and inquisitive enough to stumble upon an idea that not nearly enough grown-ups–nevermind young people–consider, an idea that could have immediate and long-term implications for her and for her friends. It was the closest to teacher nirvana I have ever come. 

I understand that there is nothing novel about the latte factor in and of itself anymore. The profusion of research my student unearthed with a few Google clicks is a testament to that. What was more interesting was what unfolded when this student pushed herself out of her desk and strolled over to two teachers who had stopped by. She excitedly strung together a sentence about Starbucks, this Dave Bach guy, an online calculator, and maybe having enough money to buy a new phone all on her own by next year.

Perfectly in sync, both teachers craned their necks. They had never heard of the latte factor*. To make things more exciting, when I prompted her to explain her research, they still looked puzzled. It wasn’t that my wonderful coworkers didn’t understand the concept; it was that they had never thought of their spending in that perspective. Schooled by an 11-year-old. It doesn’t get much better than that**.

In case you’d like to indulge in the full middle school experience, here are some of the ideas and questions that bounced around my classroom once the latte factor was explained:

  • Who teaches grown-ups this stuff? Does my dad know about this?
  • Maybe I should stand outside Starbucks and tell people.
  • If you add up all the little things you buy in a week, you could get something you really wanted.
  • I wonder if my parents realize they’re giving me this much money every year.
  • Why don’t we do this in math class?
  • After a year, I could buy a phone.
  • If I started saving now, I could buy a car by the end of high school.
  • When people say they don’t have a lot of money to donate, I bet they don’t think about their Starbucks money.

Next month, her story will go to print. I am uncertain of how widely it will be read, but I do know it had a profound impact on the dozen or so students in my room and those two teachers. I can’t promise that she’ll decide to solely write on matters related to all things personal finance, but I do know that this lesson on lattes is one that she won’t soon forget. Neither will her teacher.

* In other news, this moment was probably the first time I really regretted blogging anonymously. Not because I’ve written about the latte factor previously (I haven’t) or because I am an expert on all things money (I’m not), but because I realize there are so many more conversations I could be having with people in real life. We could be talking about finances, not The Batchelor (I refuse to watch).

** No, seriously. If I could push all of my students to “out-think” me, only then have I truly done my job. Don’t memorize facts. Learn how to ask questions.

So Tell Me…Are you surprised that this would be such a hot topic in middle school? How do you talk to children or teens about money?

Disease Called Debt
A Lesson in Latte Factors, or Reaching Teacher Nirvana

20 thoughts on “A Lesson in Latte Factors, or Reaching Teacher Nirvana

  1. I teach middle school and this makes me SO happy. I know exactly the feeling you’re speaking about. I teach social studies and we talk about money in a few ways that mostly is grounded in resources and accessibility to those resources (food, shelter, etc). I would love to connect more, it sounds like we have a lot in common 🙂

    1. Thanks for reaching out, Allie. I would definitely love to connect. It sounds like there’s some overlap in our curriculum – I also teach a section of social studies. Talk soon!

  2. I LOVE this! I love the questions they asked, they crack me up, haha. “I wonder if my parents know how much money they give me” is classic. I can just picture them going home and asking a parent that!

    And honestly, you would be AMAZED at how many people will start to talk to you about personal finance once you’re not anonymous. I think your points in the fall were all super valid, especially given your job, but the talking-about-finance thing is seriously the biggest perk ever.

  3. Oh my gosh – I love the “Maybe I should stand outside Starbucks and tell people.” That is some serious tenacity! I am a bit shocked, especially considering in middle school coffee wasn’t quite a part of our culture yet (even though I live in the Pacific NW and there’s 3 Starbucks per every corner)! I remember the small amounts of money my parents gave me were strictly for lunch & going ice skating with friends every now and then. It sounds as if everyone learned a lesson, and a great one at that!

    1. She meets her friend on the playground before school every day. The friend has starting coming later because Mom takes her to Starbucks each morning. Then, they were talking about supporting a penny drive and not having money to do so.

  4. What an awesome story! I’m so happy for the students as well as the teacher. Although I’ll admit that “Maybe I should stand outside Starbucks and tell people” made me laugh…I don’t think Starbucks would appreciate that and I wonder how many would actually listen. On the other hand, “When people say they don’t have a lot of money to donate, I bet they don’t think about their Starbucks money” made me really think. Out of the mouths of babes…

  5. Wow! If I were to ever come across an 11-year old who was sincerely knowledgeable enough to write an entire article about personal finance, let alone THE LATTE FACTOR, I think I would try to adopt them.

    Also – how beautiful

    “When people say they don’t have a lot of money to donate, I bet they don’t think about their Starbucks money.”

    You are obviously a wonderful teacher. Thanks for sharing this story.

  6. I’m definitely surprised it came up in middle school, but it’s awesome that she’s thinking so far ahead. (Though I hope she saves some of that phone/car money for college!)

    I had a friend in high school who had $0 when it came time to go to college. Since her mom didn’t cook, she was always buying lunch, and she liked to buy her friends birthday gifts. Even though she didn’t have a regular job.

    She did have something of a point that there just wasn’t really food in her house to bring with her. Still, would it really have been so hard to ask her mom to go get some groceries she could use for bag lunches?

  7. What a great experience for you, your savvy student, and your class! The statements that got me was “Who teaches grown-ups this stuff? Does my dad know about this?” (maybe, maybe not. You should teach him.) and “Why don’t we do this in math class?” (math concepts always worked better for me when I could apply them.)

  8. As a teacher, this is just amazing. I love when a student gets involved and takes it upon themselves to extend their learning. My school district is really pushing for financial literacy next year from primary to high school, which is great. I just wrote about Foundations U, which is online budgeting tools that are targeted for middle school, high school and college students (but I use some of the tools too!)

  9. That totally makes sense about it being a nirvana moment. I’m not a teacher at all, but once in a while now one of my friends in real life will ask me a personal finance question and I feel like a total bad a$$ when I can answer it and I see them actually learning something.

  10. Caroline says:

    This sounds like a wonderful conversation for your class to have and the younger the better! I live in the UK and there is a push here to have just these ‘finance’ conversations with all school age children so hopefully they are ALL much more savvy before they leave school with ‘no money’ and get themselves into a lot of debt like a lot of us did! Fingers crossed!

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