The great unemployment coffee experiment

coffee beans and iced coffee

You spill my coffee beans. But you also give me a tasty beverage. Do I slap you or hug you? I'll get back to you with my decision. (courtesy of

I’m a creature of habit. My morning commute to my five-month freelance gig always included a stop for coffee. The project’s long hours made caffeine a necessity. Soon enough, the caffeine headaches made caffeine a necessity. My trip always led me past one of two decent coffee places, depending on the route. The fancy-sounding though utilitarian Pret A Manger – located between the R train and the office – was one. The tasty though overpriced City Bakery – located between the F and V train and the office – was the other. A Pret iced coffee cost me $2.49; a City Bakery iced coffee $3.00 or $3.75, depending on the size. Both were well within my budget while employed.

The freelance gig ended a week and a half ago. The smartphone I was helping to market successfully launched, and is available in a store near you, and 137 stores near me. I won’t say which smartphone it is, though here’s a hint: touching a certain spot with your bare hand won’t hang up your call, unless that spot is the disconnect button. If you need another hint, follow me around and listen. You may catch me inadvertently humming the intro music to one of the videos. It’s forever burned into my temporal lobe.

Another smartphone project may be in my near future. And smaller, unrelated projects are starting to roll in. The last few months of paychecks have bulked up my bank account. But the next few months of paychecks are uncertain. Being essentially unemployed, I’ve reverted to my super, extra frugal ways. No more weekend trips to the south of France . No more summer vacations in the Hamptons. No more chauffeured limousine double-parked out front and ready for my next cookie run. It’s back to life, back to reality.

My first order of business, as someone without a steady income or government handout, was to reexamine my extravagant spending. I brought in executives from PriceWaterhouseCoopers to review my books. They determined that I have no books. But were I to have books, they would be empty, because compared to their usual clients, I’m broke. But were I to have books and money to track in those books, they would contain no extravagant spending. Wifey verified, citing the closet full of toiletries, paper products and breakfast cereal purchased in bulk on sale. I’m one frugal bastard. A raging $3.00-a-day caffeine addiction accounts for most of my discretionary spending.

Cutting back on coffee purchases is every financial advice columnist’s go-to tip. Want to be rich… make your own coffee. Somewhere along the line a Starbucks barista screwed up a freelance writer’s grande double soy mocha-frappu-latte and the company has paid the price in print ever since. Though lazy and cliche, the point is still valid. My coffee purchases add up to $90.00 a month or $1080 a year or $108,000 a century. That’s a lot of money. If I saved for the next 100 years, I could buy a kitchen cabinet or, perhaps, a bathtub in Manhattan. Of course, by then I’d be too dead to enjoy it.

The savings could still come in handy in the shorter term. There was just one problem. I only knew how to make hot coffee. And hot coffee in the New York heat and humidity is about as unappealing as reading job boards. Whatever is a caffeine addict to do? My solution – made possible by a grant from my last full-time employer – was pretty damn ingenious. I would make my own iced coffee. And because I figured out how, you don’t have to. Everyone always says, “that Norm… he’s a giver.” They’re right.

The first step is to buy some decent coffee beans. Wifey (then girlfriendy) taught me once upon a time that coffee doesn’t have to taste like runny tar water. Up to that point in my life, I’d drank it only to stay awake for exams and term papers. Enjoyment never mattered. These days, I’m a bit of a coffee snob. It doesn’t have to be expensive; Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds both make a cheap yet respectable cup. It just has to taste like something I want to drink. I went with the NYC blend from Oren’s Daily Roast for $13.49 a pound. Sometimes saving money requires a small upfront investment.

The second step is to brew the coffee really strong. Pouring regular hot coffee over ice cubes doesn’t give you iced coffee. It gives you a watered-down, room-temperature brown liquid. And that’s only enjoyable for people who like hanging out in 12-step meetings and hospital waiting rooms. Most recipes call for two scoops of coffee grounds for every cup of water (hot coffee is generally a 1:1 ratio). That was a little too strong for my refined palate and sensitive constitution. Delicate flower that I am, I had to let the ice melt and water it down. Adding a little more water to the next pot did the trick. Iced coffee, I discovered, reaches perfection at 12 scoops of coffee grounds for every 7 cups of water.

The third step is to add sugar while the coffee is still hot. Sugar doesn’t dissolve in cold coffee; it ends up as a tasty sludge in the bottom of a cup. While a nice little dessert to your beverage, it doesn’t really sweeten it. Four spoonfuls for seven cups proved to to be the right level of sweetness. Wifey would argue that that’s four spoonfuls too many. She would be wrong. It’s the perfect amount to bring out the flavor of the coffee without overwhelming it.

The fourth step is to chill. I put the coffee pot in the fridge. Six hours later, the iced coffee is ready to drink. If nothing else, unemployment has made me good at waiting. Pour it over some ice cubes, add some milk and enjoy. Maybe click away from or for a few minutes. Coffee time should be me time.

One $13.49 bag of coffee beans has given me six days worth of iced coffee so far. And there’s probably another four days worth to go. That’s a savings of $16.51 per bag, or $49.53 per month… not too shabby. If my knowledge of first grade math still holds up, that’s almost $50. I could buy something with that kind of money, besides coffee. Maybe when I find a full-time job, I will.

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  1. jeff rogers wrote:

    you’ve convinced me. I need to do this. I have a coffee grinder, a coffee pot, a recipe and no excuses (or beans.. yet).

    Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Scatcatpdx wrote:

    Since Unemployed and before in March I kicked my coffee buying habit. Even on 260 and saying no to food stamps I mange with Ebay to squeak out 6.00 for a half pound of coffee beens at Peets or a local roaster. I only make 1 1/2 cups put in a thermos and sip it throughout the day.

    Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  3. suenosdeuomi wrote:

    Why is it that home made coffee never quiet tastes as good? Only the other day I came to realize that a cup is not necessarily 1 cup, but in my case 2. This had thrown off whatever measurements I had applied. Live and learn. No iced coffee for me thanks, but learning to make a good coffee at home sure saves some money. I like mine made from organic fair trade espresso beans with added vanilla, grated nutmeg and/or ginger and these days brown sugar instead of maple syrup. The 12-step comment was a cheap shot, but hey, you are forgiven. Nice going, keep your chin up!

    Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 12:53 am | Permalink
  4. Danielle wrote:

    Being unemployed and also highly annoyed by it, I must say I enjoyed the creativeness and good humor you shared in your coffee story. I am completely new to the blogging world but have to say that I picked an interesting one to read for my first one. I always wondered why the iced coffee from “Micky D’s” tasted so much better than coffee with ice at home. Now I know the secret…at least I may. I WILL of course have to try your concoction first. Thanks for the “distraction”.

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  5. Norm wrote:

    Hey Danielle–I hope the unemployment ends soon. It’s definitely rough out there. Glad I could help you save a couple bucks on iced coffee. Thanks for the kind words.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 12:22 am | Permalink
  6. Lama wrote:

    Hey Norm, I just saw this and thought of your post. It may not be focused towards the unemployed, but does talk about cheaper ways to make good iced coffee, so I thought I’d share.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink
  7. Norm wrote:

    This is very interesting. I’ve been meaning to experiment with other methods… french press, double brewing, etc. I’ll add this to the list.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  8. Saw you on Katie Couric with my co-blogger and good friend, Scott. Nice job, Norm! Hope things continue to go well and I’ll keep my ears open too. How have things been going?

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 12:13 am | Permalink
  9. mark wrote:

    freeze coffee in in ice cube trays for coffee ice cubes. i read that somewhere. i don’t drink coffee. seems like a good idea, though.

    Friday, August 13, 2010 at 2:53 am | Permalink
  10. Here’s a tip that makes me feel a little bit bad, but I’ll send it out anyhow. At Starbucks, you can get refills for only 54 cents. BUT, usually, they don’t mind if you just bring back your cup from earlier in the day (or even the day before – they don’t know) and ask for a refill. That means that you can buy one hot or cold coffee every couple of days and have it refilled for only 54 cents a pop.

    As a coffee addict, I hope this helps other folks!

    I just started a new blog, also about unemployment. I hope it makes you laugh during a hard time!

    Monday, September 13, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Permalink