Cupping Coffee

I’ve given up many vices in my life but coffee is not one of them.  Some I’ve walked away from, others chased me long and hard before I got away from them.  Enjoying a good cup of coffee brings all the senses into play and leaves me with a nice buzz.  You can hardly beat that.

I start with whole bean coffee, ground finely with a pinch of salt for smoothness.  I fill the coffee maker with cold water and set the coffee cups on top of it so they will warm while the coffee brews.  I find a good cup of coffee depends much more on how the coffee is made than what it is made with.  I get my coffee from Costco, the grinder came from Wal-Mart and we found the coffee maker at K-Mart.   I’ve spent twice as much on coffee beans but the coffee wasn’t twice as good (marginal cost .NE. marginal taste).  The one thing that affects my enjoyment of coffee is the cup I drink it from.  That’s why I go to the Goodwill resale store when I want to find a special coffee cup.

What I have come to realize is that unlike so many things that can be scored using standardized, objective, evaluation criteria, my selection of a coffee cup is based on my own, subjective tastes.  As a result, I don’t find the options at most department stores fit what I’m looking for.  So often I find just a handful of styles in a whole bunch of colors/patterns I don’t care about:  three styles of cups times 25 color schemes = three cups to a blind guy.  I do care about how well a cup will keep my coffee hot, how it will sit on my desk (without tipping), and how it fits in my hand.  When I go to Goodwill I’ll find 75 cups that actually are different from one another.  And, if I don’t find one that is just what I want, I can come back next time and I’ll find another 75 different cups.  I’ve even just gone crazy and tried a cup out only to find my $0.50 wasn’t well invested.  Oh, well.

Lessons learned:

I realize the way I choose a coffee cup is unlike the decision processes I use for many other things.  I’m of the school that says buying the highest quality you can afford now will provide the best value in the long run.  Whenever we make a large purchase, we try to find a reliable source (Consumer Reports, etc.) as a buying guide.  Other things, like my coffee cup, I’d just as soon buy at a resale shop and maximize my subjective preferences while minimizing the amount I spend.  If it turns out I made a bad choice, I’m only out $0.50.  The reality is that even though I thoroughly enjoy a good cup of coffee in a good cup I don’t really want to put a whole lot of time and money into buying one.  I kind of enjoy the mismatched collection of coffee mugs we’ve accumulated and even though I have my favorites, I can’t imagine paying more than a few bucks for a coffee mug.  

What this little exercise has done is helped me to recognize that there is a line in my brain that divides things I evaluate based on objective criteria and things I evaluate based on subjective criteria.  This line has something to do with the trade-off between cost, benefit, and utility.  These three factors form a triangle that helps me understand how I’m balancing them.  When we bought our house we focused on balancing cost and utility.  We had a checklist of things we wanted in a house (utility) and found a place that filled those needs at a reasonable cost.  When it came time to replace our car, we figured the landscape for cars and driving are in transition so we decided our best option would be one with a good maintenance record (benefit) and low operating cost.  We’re not planning to replace it when it dies.  When I look for a coffee cup I focus on the highest utility, knowing the cup will have a low cost.  The benefit I get from the cup comes in its ability to keep my coffee hot and ready for me to drink.  While this is very important to me, I can always find another cup if I need to.

As I write this, I realize that I’ve wound this story around buying a coffee cup but I didn’t have to.  The blue jeans I’m wearing right now also came from Goodwill.  I know they won’t last as long as if I had bought them new but I also know that if I had paid $58 for a new pair of jeans they wouldn’t last eight and a half times longer than the $7 pair I’m wearing right now. 

Applying the lessons:

Balancing cost, benefit, and utility:

  • What is most important in making the decision?
    • The lowest cost right now?
    • The highest benefit over time (cost savings, time savings, etc.)?
    • Getting just the right tool for the job (utility)?
    • How do you balance cost, benefit, and utility?
      • Cost vs. benefit?
      • Cost vs. utility?
      • Benefit vs. utility?
    • When do you just say “I don’t really care, I just want what I want?”
      Epilogue:  As I was preparing to write this story, I noticed my favorite coffee cup seemed to be leaking.  It turned out to have a crack and needs to be replaced next time I’m at Goodwill.
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