Book Review: How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else

This past weekend, I had the chance to finish off three books that have been on my short list for a while. This post is a review of a fun one, How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else.

Overall, while it has its faults, in many ways I gave this book my second highest form of praise: I’ve already loaned it out to two people.

I’ve actually realized that with books, for me, they end up falling in one of the following categories (from lowest to highest):

  • 1 star: This is a book so poor I basically decline to finish it. Since I tend to read almost compulsively, it really takes a terrible book to lose me like this.
  • 2 stars: This is a book that I finish, but poor enough that I find that I’m not proud that I’ve read it. It gets hidden away on a low shelf, or packed away, or donated. I have no interest in reading this book again.
  • 3 stars: This is a good book, and I’m happy to have it around to remind myself that I’ve read it. I tend to publicly display it on my bookshelves, although it’s unlikely I’ll ever read it again.
  • 4 stars: This is a great book – so good that I actually find myself recommending it to friends with similar interests. I not only display it on my shelves, but I’ll actually actively loan it out to encourage others to enjoy it as well. Sometimes I will buy multiple copies as gifts for friends.
  • 5 stars: This is a truly great book that actually connects with me. I can tell when a book is this good because I find myself coming back to it and reading it again, either in parts or in its entirety. Not many books fall into this category for me, but the ones that do are close to my heart.

This book was 4 stars for me… I doubt I’ll read it again, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend and loan it to friends.
So what did I like about this book?

A few things really.   First, I actually enjoyed the character (the author).  He offered me a legitimate insight into an anachronistic personality type – the Upper East Side aristocrat, raised in enough privilege to be completely divorced most of his life from feelings of economic insecurity.  I might be biased here, since growing up on the west coast leaves me less tolerant of this type of character.  Still, it’s fascinating to hear from someone who grew up meeting the truly famous and powerful, went to Yale and got a job purely on connections through Skull & Bones, and then had a full, successful career without ever really learning math or how to handle money.  There is definitely some form of schadenfreude here.

Second, despite the heavy-handed repetition, I enjoyed the basic epiphany of the journey – the realization that a supportive, friendly environment can in fact be a part of a great company and workday.  Starbucks clearly comes from the west coast, modern style of company, but there is some delight in his simple realization that Starbucks offers health insurance, stock options, and a respectful & enthusiastic culture for its employees (nee, partners).

Third, I thought there were some genuine personal economic insights here.   You can be rich and “successful” your whole life, but without some attention to personal finance, you can find yourself in significant financial trouble in your later years.   In this book, the author is laid off in his 50s, does some lightweight consulting for a while, and finds himself almost broke in his 60s.  The additional fact that he has an affair which leads to an expensive divorce at this late stage is worth noting as well.  There are very, very few people who are truly wealthy enough to be able to ignore the realities of managing your money.

Lastly, I enjoyed a much more subtle point in the story.  It’s the fact that, in the end, happiness in retirement has a lot to do with the availability of social interaction.  For many lucky people, this comes from family & friends.  In this case, the author has alienated much of his family, and as a result, he only discovers this fact through Starbucks.  Truth be told, there is something meaningful about the idea that, even in “retirement”, it might be extremely rewarding to be in a job where your day-to-day involves friendly & respectful interaction with new people, regular customers, and a dedicated service team.  The job offers him more than money, more than health insurance.  It offers him goals, tasks, social interaction, and comraderie.  It offers him purpose, and that is often underestimated in the most common misperceptions about what is important in retirement.

What I didn’t like

This book will be tough to take it you react negatively to an overdose of corporate culture speech and repetition.  The author talks about “partners” and “guests” and “respect” almost relentlessly.  He also glosses over the details of anything negative – his entire affair, divorce, and illegitimate child get mere paragraphs.  Cleaning the bathrooms at Starbucks get pages.  This is book is mostly about his experience at Starbucks, and you could get jaded to it if you believe that this book is largely company propoganda.


The great thing about this book is that it largely doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s short and sweet.  An easy evening read – small pages, large font.

I particularly recommend it for people of a few disparate types of interest:

  • Personal finance & retirement
  • Starbucks fans
  • People in this age group (50+) who can empathize with the rise of uncertainty and change in the labor markets for professionals

If you do read it, let me know what you think here in the comments.  The links above will take you directly to Amazon, and the copy of the book that I ordered.

Don’t Count Out the Fed

Still digesting the news from the Fed yesterday on the new $200B Term Securities Lending Facility.  This type of arrangement has been discussed for some time as a possibility, but its still dramatic to see it unveiled like this.  This is a big deal for a couple reasons – first, it allows for 28-day loans, not just overnight, and second, it allows a much broader range of bonds as collateral, including mortgage-backed securities.  Combined with the other two $100B initiatives, the Fed has opened up over half of its $700B+ balance sheet to stabilize the credit markets.


It’s becoming fashionable in circles to doubt the Fed.  I’ll be posting a book review of “Greenspan’s Bubbles: The Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve” soon, and I’ve seen a lot of commentary doubting Mr. Bernanke.  All I can say at this point is that it is way too soon to be counting out the Fed.

They can’t work miracles, of course, but the power of almost unlimited resources is significant, if wielded properly.

The most fascinating aspect about central banking is it’s amazing foundation on the irrational and the immeasurable.  In the end, it’s more about confidence than anything else.  By convincing the markets that you will solve the problem, you create the confidence that increases liquidity and solves the problems.  You can’t be predictable, because, like in warfare, predictability leads to people thinking steps ahead and countering your actions.  Like a great General, you have to be unpredictable enough to instill fear and uncertainty in those who would fight against you, and through that uncertainty, ironically you win.

So you want uncertainty, but only the type that destabilizes those that would bet against you.  You want to reduce uncertainty around the likelihood of Fed success.

Got it?

If the juxtuposition sounds funny, blame it on the fact that I read the Greenspan book and a biography of George Washington all within a two week period.

Anyway, at times like this, it’s good to remember that the guy we have at the helm, at this time, is someone whose fundamental academic expertise is the mistakes made in the 1930s Great Depression, and the mistakes made in Japan in 1990s.  A quick reference from Paul Krugman:

What you probably should know is that Ben Bernanke, in his capacity as a professional economist, spent a lot of time worrying about Japan’s experience in the 1990s. (So did I.) What was so disturbing about Japan was the way monetary policy became ineffective; by the later 1990s the short-term interest rate was up against the ZLB — the “zero lower bound.” This is alternatively known as the “liquidity trap.” And once you’re there, conventional monetary policy can do no more, because interest rates can’t go below zero.

Krugman also points out that today’s TED spread indicates a mixed message – confidence seems better slightly, but not significantly.  That could be an indicator that the weight of uncertainty.  Still, in his own words, yesterday’s move was a big slap in the face for the credit markets.

I can’t wait until the weekend when I have time to dig into all of this further.