Skip the Pricey Cafe Latte: How to Make Good Coffee at Home
If you’re anything like me, then one of the biggest challenges in your budget comes down to one little problem: the bone-deep need for a good cup of coffee.
As someone who’s been addicted to the bean since before high school, and is now old enough to make that statement feel embarrassing, I know what it’s like to have a coffee budget, but also to break that budget many times over for the sake of a barista-made pick-me-up whenever the mood strikes.
But here’s the thing. While a fancy cuppa would have only cost you three or four dollars a few years ago, it’s likely now closer to five-plus bucks per cup. Just last month, it was reported that Starbucks increased the prices of all their menu items from anywhere between $0.30 and $0.70 per item, which comes out to a roughly 10 to 20% increase since last year.
Add to that the upcharges for flavor shots, milk alternatives and all the other jazz, and you’ve got yourself an $8 coffee, at least that’s how much I paid last week in a local café that my friends and I fondly (but also bitterly) call the “ten-dollar latte place.” (With tip it comes pretty darn close).
So how can you stop blowing your hard-earned dollars on coffee drinks? By learning how to make them even better at home, for a fraction of the cost. Here’s my guide to making “ten-dollar lattes” at home, for a third of that price. Yes, a third.
How Much Can I Save Making Coffee at Home?
The answer is, quite a bit. In fact, if you skipped buying expensive lattes 47 times you’d have enough to buy a $330 plane ticket. Now because I’m a nerd, and also because I’m actively fighting the good fight against the ten-dollar latte, I did a bit of math to reach this conclusion.
And here’s what I found. Using this recipe for a Brown Sugar Oat Milk Latte, which has some pretty expensive ingredients including cinnamon and vanilla extract, my homemade lattes — with oat milk and good espresso beans — still only cost me $2.70 per cup.
If you don’t need the milk alternatives and fancy flavors, you’re looking at $1.16 per cup, assuming you buy a gallon of regular milk at the going rate of $4.41 per gallon and use roughly 18 grams of coffee beans from a 12-ounce, $16 bag of beans. If you can cut those costs further, either by buying cheaper beans or just drinking black coffee, you’ll spend even less.
Because here’s the thing: You can always save money by cutting corners. But that’s not what this is about — it’s about making delicious, barista-worthy coffee drinks at home, for a fraction of the cost, because we all know that if it’s not as good as the drink you can buy, you won’t want it.
Ready for my best tricks from one coffee snob to another? Let’s dive in.
Tip 1: Buy Good Beans
If you’re trying to stop frequenting your regular cafe, it’s worth it to invest in good coffee at home. The reason? Because if the choice is Folgers or a $10 latte, I can tell you which one we’ll both pick, every single time.
Good coffee starts with good beans, period. No matter how much you jazz it up with different milks or flavors, fresh whole-bean coffee shines through in a way that grocery-store ground coffee doesn’t. And there’s a pretty simple reason for that.
While whole beans can retain their flavor and shelf life for months, ground coffee goes stale pretty quick. So even if you’re loath to spend $16 on a bag of beans from your favorite cafe, do yourself a favor and at least make a commitment to buying whole beans from the store. Many grocery stores will carry beans from local or national brands that are pretty delicious, and they usually usually have a grinder onsite you can use to avoid buying one. On the flip side, any cafe selling beans should also be able to grind them right there for you, to your exact specificities (for espresso, french press, pour over, etc.).
Otherwise, you can look into buying coffee online, with fresh beans delivered to your doorstep. This might make sense if your favorite bean-selling cafe is a long drive from home, and if you already have a good coffee grinder at home. My current favorite for buying coffee online? The Pennsylvania-based Happy Mug.
Tip 2: Get Yourself Some Coffee Gear
Now I realize the point of this is to save money, not buy a bunch of expensive coffee accessories, but the simple truth is — if you’re going to make barista-level drinks at home, you’re going to need some coffee gear.
If buying an espresso machine isn’t within your budget right now, consider getting a Moka, $30. This stovetop coffee pot brews rich dark coffee that can be drunk by itself, or paired with your favorite milk to create a delicious latte.
Another affordable coffee maker I love? This cold brew bottle from Amazon for $24. I’ve owned one of these for years now, and once you figure out the proportions of coffee to use, (ie. how strong you like it) this is a super affordable way to make a reliable iced coffee drink.
When it comes to hot drinks, it’s worth investing in a milk frother. You can heat up your milk of choice in the microwave or in a pot on the stove, then use this Zulay Handheld Milk Frother to achieve the perfect foam-liquid ratio. This $15 frother has the added benefit of being easier to clean than some of the more expensive vessel-type frothers.
Another coffee purchase to consider is a Nespresso machine. I was against these until I spent a few weeks at my in-laws’ house in France and realized how convenient it is to be able to make a frothy, dairy-free decaf or caffeinated drink at the touch of a button. The company even sends you bags you can mail back to get your used pods recycled. The flavor profile of these espressos isn’t for everyone, so my suggestion would be to visit one of the company’s stores and try a few cups before investing in a machine.
Last but not least? If you’re a black coffee person (but like a really good cup of black or lightly sweetened coffee) consider getting a french press or a pour over. Pour overs are best for single cups of gourmet coffee, with the added benefit of instantly making you feel like a pro.
A French Press makes more sense in households with more than one heavy coffee drinker (so you’re not making individual cups all morning), and it’s also a better use of coffee. If you do buy one, invest in a metal one like this. I can’t tell you how many glass French Press beakers I broke before finding this metal one, which I’ve had now for years.
Tip 3: Get as Homemade as Possible
Once you’ve got good beans and a few kitchen coffee tools, the sky’s the limit for how many different coffee drinks you can make really well. But another tip is to get as homemade as you possibly can in your recipes. What do I mean by this?
Well, if you have a drink that calls for pumpkin spice, go to the store and actually get a bottle of pumpkin spice, like the one you’d use to bake a pie. Not only can this save you money in other areas like baking, but it will also likely taste better and be slightly healthier than any of the faux pumpkin flavor substitutes you can find in stores or online.
You can also experiment with things like canned pumpkin, homemade vanilla extract or a homemade mocha sauce. The key here is to get as homemade as you can, while still making things convenient enough that you’ll actually choose this over the drive-through.
Another thing to keep in mind if you like flavored drinks is that it’s actually really easy to make your own syrups. I made a homemade lavender syrup this summer for my cold brew, which I came to enjoy even more than the $10 version in my local cafe. One reason for this is that by making my own syrup I could actually control the sweetness of it — I like my drinks to be less sweet but packed with flavor.
Tip 4: Use a Few Good Premade Ingredients
So I know I just said go for homemade, but some days this coffee addict just isn’t in a Betty Crocker mood, and I imagine the same is true for you. The other thing is that there are some pretty darn good coffee fixings in grocery stores these days, and while they’re more expensive than making everything yourself, they’re still a lot cheaper than buying individual coffee drinks. The point here is to balance convenience with savings.
A few of my favorite things right now:
- Starbucks Blonde Roast Cold Brew (black, unsweetened)
- Stok Cold Brew (unsweetened, yellow label)
- Califa Oat Milk Creamer
- Silk Almond Milk Flavored Creamers
I personally prefer oat milk in coffee over almond (too watery), or soy (too hard to digest), but you should experiment with what tastes good to you. If you’re not dairy averse, the answer might simply be to get a good whole-fat milk and splash some into whatever drink you’re currently vibing on.
Tip 4: Do the Math
I could talk about coffee for many, many more pages than what’s been said here, but here’s the bottom line: If you want to save money on your coffee, spend some time doing the math. Pay attention to how much you’re paying for a cup of your favorite coffee drink, then calculate how much it costs you to make at home.
Try thinking about your savings in the long-term as well. As in, if I skip this many coffees, I’ll be able to pay off my debt by this date, or buy this plane ticket for my dream destination.
The Last Drop
Let’s be honest, fellow coffee lovers. You’re not going to completely stop buying those $10 lattes, and neither am I. But you may as I have come to buy them a whole lot less. And like me, you may also start studying what your barista does to make those fancy drinks taste so good — a secret dash of cinnamon, anyone? And you might just take that coffee prowess back home to make yourself a delicious and satisfying drink that costs a third of the price.
Contributor Larissa Runkle specializes in finance, real estate and lifestyle topics. She is a regular contributor to The Penny Hoarder.