Please pay for your coffee!
January 29, 2007 8:17 AM   Subscribe

How do I encourage more people to pay into the work coffee fund without actively guarding the coffee pot?

OK, we have a coffee fund at work (higher education institution) which is 25ยข per cup, or a monthly price of $4.00. This is for coffee, tea, or hot cocoa beverages. In my opinion, this is more than reasonable pricing (side question: what are other coffee funds priced at?). The coffee fund was never meant to be a money-maker, just to pay for the supplies and upkeep of the equipment (Bunn coffee maker, microwave, fridge). Unfortunately, as my question hints, few individuals are paying for their drinks.

The appliances are in an open office area and nobody is officially in charge of monitoring the snack area. A student worker does make sure there is fresh coffee throughout the day, but there is nobody on hand to enforce payment. The payment location is simply a coffee cup on top of the coffee maker with an indication on it to deposit money there.

There is prominent sign on the coffee maker explaining the cost. Here is the text:

Coffee, tea or hot chocolate drinks are all 25 cents per cup.


A monthly price of 4 dollars.

Unless otherwise marked, all items in the refrigerator are not for sale.

Thank you for supporting this refreshment area.

All deposited funds are used to stock this refreshment area and maintain the appliances.

What can I do to encourage more people to pay? I realize there are some people who simply view the coffee fund as their source for freebies, and will never pay unless strong-armed into it. I'm hoping there is a way to appeal to those who simply have gotten out of the habit of paying because nobody is actively pursuing them.

One idea I'm considering is change the deposit area from the opaque coffee cup into a clear container so that it is clearly visible that the money should be in there.
posted by JigSawMan to Work & Money (44 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Our coffee and snacky bits are funded from petty cash because of the "HAY FREE COFFEE" attitude.
posted by boo_radley at 8:20 AM on January 29, 2007

You need a photo of some eyes near that sign.
posted by jwells at 8:21 AM on January 29, 2007 [4 favorites]

The solution seems simple to me. If you're short and haven't raised enough money to pay for it for the next week/month, don't make any refreshments available. During the resulting hue and cry, simply point out the obvious -- that expenses outpaced revenues, and that the gravy train is on hold until the till has replenished itself to the extent that buying more is possible.

Or just send out an email to everyone that uses it, gently reminding them to pay their share (and perhaps hinting at consequences if that doesn't happen). That's probably a little less passive-aggressive.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 8:22 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Change the sign to read 'If donations fall behind 80% of use, this program will be cancelled.' Send some emails reminding people of this.

Honestly, 4 dollars a month? Cant you get your company to just pay for this?
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:25 AM on January 29, 2007

Here is the system we've worked out (non-profit):

$10 monthly subscription fee. One person has been assigned to collect monthly dues, and keep a list up of who has signed up, and has/hasn't paid. In addition, all the people signed up for monthly coffee are assigned, on a rotating basis, the role of re-stocking the milk, cream, sugar, etc. So if nobody was signed up for the monthly payment, there would be no coffee supplies. This is the incentive for getting people to sign up.

I think the list may also serve to shame people who are constantly drinking coffee and aren't on the monthly list.

Otherwise, coffee is 50 cents a cup. I don't know the economics involved, though I'm pretty sure that if only the "monthly drinkers" were drinking the coffee, they'd have a small surplus, but the extra is there to cover the leachers.

Bring it up in the next departmental meeting. I think the trick is to get other people actively involved in coffee management -- give them ownership of it. It may also be that our system works because this office is a bunch of doe-eyed do-gooders.
posted by one_bean at 8:27 AM on January 29, 2007

Yeah, $4/month seems really low, but I don't drink coffee so maybe that is reasonable.

What if you had your student worker hold on to all the cups; each person would have to see the student worker and pay to get a cup?
posted by MeetMegan at 8:28 AM on January 29, 2007

I've never worked anywhere with such a system, but if I did I have a feeling I would probably not remember where my 30 days of "paid coffee time" began and ended. Perhaps you can change the sign the first week of every month to a big green or pink one saying it's time to pay up and leaving a coin collecting basket. People must look past the existing sign completely at this point.
Or just send a reminder email once a month. If I were your coworker, I wouldn't mind that at all.
Third suggestion - let them pay fifty bucks for the whole year. Then nobody needs to remember, you or your coworkers.
posted by jamesonandwater at 8:30 AM on January 29, 2007

I would post a cool graphical interpretation of the Prisoner's Dilemma, to illustrate the free-rider problem. I don't know if it would work, but I've always wanted to try it.
posted by ontic at 8:41 AM on January 29, 2007

Get a monthly amount from work to cover some of it (say about (60% of the usual monthly amount if donations usually cover about 40%)but don't tell anyone ('cept the higher ups of course). Continue asking for donations. When donations fall, cut back on coffee, so people see the actual effect of not donating. Or just get work to pay for the whole thing.


Get your own private coffee pot and put it in your office. Enjoy having one less hassle at work.

Don't play coffee enforcer. College staff environments are notorious poltical battlegrounds and you'll get all sorts of passive/aggressive drama you don't need.

One thing neat about the wife's work place is that they buy snacks in bulk amounts and sell them to the employees. All the money for this goes into an account to buy more snacks AND (this is the important part) to monthly parties where they all get free pizza or sandwiches or whatever. So employees ONLY buy from those snacks and ignore the actual snack machines in the office, knowig they'll get regular free food for supporting the internal snacks. In short, the thing is pretty much a profit center, but just for "FREE STUFF!" for the staff.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:44 AM on January 29, 2007

Post the list of who has paid for the month next to the coffee.
posted by cushie at 8:45 AM on January 29, 2007

jwells' link above isn't working so here's a related article.

A Newcastle University team monitored how much money people put in a canteen "honesty box" when buying a drink.

They found people put nearly three times as much in when a poster of a pair of eyes was put above the box than when the poster showed flowers.

posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:45 AM on January 29, 2007

we have a similar system here - it's 50c/cup for coffee. We used a K-Cup coffee machine (each little cup has enough for 1 12-oz. cup of coffee) and the only way people can get it is to pay the 50c. The machine has a slot for quarters and it won't work unless you ante up.

Would something like that work for your office?
posted by sutel at 8:45 AM on January 29, 2007

We have a sign showing who has paid (ours is $5/month) prominently displayed by the coffee pot. I think the idea is that you don't want to be caught taking coffee next to a sign that says you haven't paid for it. I think it works pretty effectively.
posted by amro at 8:53 AM on January 29, 2007

The solution seems simple to me: only use what you are given to provide the coffee etc (obviously you'd need an initial float). Make it clear of the connection between what they put in and what they get out. Right now they get coffee whether they donate or not, so why bother to donate? In fact it makes the people who do pay mugs for paying for something that everyone else is getting for free!

So, maybe each week you get X in donations, so you spend X on coffee. If you get zero you get no coffee, people get the shakes and maybe realise they need to donate. If they don't; who cares... their loss.

Alternatively, get your work to pay for it :)
posted by jon4009 at 8:53 AM on January 29, 2007

Honestly, 4 dollars a month? Cant you get your company to just pay for this?

He works at a university. He probably has to pay for his own copies, much less coffee.

I'd say the only way to get compliance is to make this part of the student worker's duties: have her send a department email reminder the day before the first payday of each month telling people she'll be collecting the money tomorrow, so bring $4 to her if you want coffee for the month. Leaving petty cash out in the open is a bad idea. Have you have considered the possibility that people have been contributing but then the money's pilfered? By someone who then makes himself a nice cup of coffee and walks away whistling, the bastard?

So: ask the student employee to collect up front and in person and on payday. If someone wants the occasional cup, they can drop off a quarter with the student or wait and settle up. As you said, you're going to have some people who just never pay (they'll be drinking Sanka in hell though, don't worry) but if you get enough prepaid compliance you should be able to absorb such minor losses.
posted by melissa may at 8:54 AM on January 29, 2007

I've been in an office where there was also a list of names and you could put a check beside your name each time you took something. This was good because you may not have change on you at the time so you could pay the total at the end of the month.

Your question made me thing of this article from Freakonomics about a man who ran a business selling bagels in offices using the honor system. He tracked all his stats really closely and came up with some interesting findings.

They also have fake security cams that are quite funny.
posted by dripdripdrop at 9:00 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I Nth the idea that when the funds dry up, so does the coffee supply. This will royally piss off the $4/mo contributors, so you might want to change it to a pay-as-you-go only situation.

If you DO like the monthly subscription, then I agree with the folks above who suggested posting a list of who that month's "coffee club" members are: tape a plastic sheet sleeve to the cabinet above the coffee maker, and make a new list every month that gets dropped in the sleeve. Whenever someone pays you* the $4, you go write the name on the list; the plastic sleeve will be enough to keep most people from writing in their own names on the list. Posting the monthly lists means that people will know when it's time to "renew"; be sure to use different paper or font and have the month in bold letters so it's obvious when the paper changes. Also, I suggest you go to $5; it'll be easier to make change.

*Many places have issues with having student workers handling cash; better to have a full-time person handling it.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 9:12 AM on January 29, 2007

Stop providing coffee on Thursdays. Post a message at the coffee mess that due to reduced contributions, you have to make some cutbacks, and that if there is enough participation, coffee will return on Thursdays, but if not you might have to take away another day.
posted by leapfrog at 9:13 AM on January 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

$4 seems really low. We charge .75 a cup or $20 a month. Amro's suggestion sounds great to me.
posted by special-k at 9:13 AM on January 29, 2007

At my work, the Coffee Club has a similar setup; members buy-in at a monthly rate, and non-members pay per cup. As far as I know, there have been no problems. But we have an Enforcer - our secretary who sends out email reminders of payments due, and keeps an eagle eye on the pot. And will snap you in two if you don't toe the line. Or she doesn't like you.

Thanks for the Freakanomics link. I had heard the story, but hadn't read it.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:18 AM on January 29, 2007

Instead of donating cash, in our office, each member of the coffee club buys a canister of coffee on their designated month. There's a sign by the coffee pot that says it is Sally's turn to buy coffee in January, Fred's turn in February, etc. I have no idea if it works because I'm a coffee snob and wouldn't use Folgers to degrease an engine block. But that's the system they use and it seems to work.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 9:29 AM on January 29, 2007

Just stop doing it and let everyone fend for themselves. Coffee socialism doesn't work alot of the times.


Sorry, but nobody is going to pay unless it's watched closely.

You are talking about professionals here who can't be bothered to drop a quarter in...they just don't care.
posted by evilelvis at 9:34 AM on January 29, 2007

Buy a cheap webcam and tack it to the wall in an obvious place. Doesn't have to be on or even connected to anything. Put the coffee sign under it.
posted by poppo at 9:42 AM on January 29, 2007

Thanks for the suggestions so far. A new sign is definitely needed (with eyes! :) Putting in a pay dispenser for the cups is a neat idea, but most people use their own mugs already, so I don't think it will work.

melissa: I don't think anyone is stealing. What money coming in does stay in the payment cup (emptied every day) just not much coming in. I thought of this as well, but the amount in the cup does not seem to drop during the day.
posted by JigSawMan at 9:42 AM on January 29, 2007

I've found that there really is no way to get people to pay. Some people will also take coffee with plans to pay, but never do, some just don't care, etc.

One thing that might work, though, is to stop calling it donations and say "It's not free!"
posted by owl at 9:45 AM on January 29, 2007

I put a sign up saying "WE CAN DO BETTER! HELP US GET GOOD COFFEE" It worked at first then it all tapered off. Then I found a little pot shaped like a cat and I wrote a sign saying "FEELING FRISKY? PAY INTO THE KITTY" and giving has gone back up again.
posted by parmanparman at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2007

Where I work (all-female office), people are very willing to contribute, but nobody thinks to carry a quarter with them every time they go fetch a cup. Then we're too lazy to go back to our desks to get the money. It's works better just to go around the office and say, "I'm buying a bag of coffee and some half & half for the office tonight, any contributions?" Sure there end up being a few freeloaders that way, but at least you don't end up paying for everything yourself.

Another alternative: Have a signup sheet, every x number of weeks a new person is responsible for bringing in the coffee/milk/sugar/whatever else. No good if you work with a bunch of flakes though.
posted by kmel at 10:07 AM on January 29, 2007

If people fail to pay, hire armed guards. Pay for the armed guards by raising coffee prices.
posted by !Jim at 10:14 AM on January 29, 2007

I work at a Big Ten university in an admin department, and there are at least four departments on our floor (making dept. emails impossible). One kind woman runs the coffee club and charges $0.50/cup or $6/month. There are a lot of anal people around here who watch who's taking coffee and who's on the list and that seems to work. We also have a sign up stating all coffee and supplies are paid by the club members and individuals who pay per cup and there is a sweet plea to play nice. Doesn't seem to be a problem around here.

I quit the club after my first installment ran out because the coffee was the worst of the worst office variety. Now I bring a thermos full of hippy dippy fair trade organic stuff. I've offered to pay more for better coffee but no one else seems interested.
posted by look busy at 10:18 AM on January 29, 2007

As another datapoint, at my old University department (2 years ago), it was also $4/month so your prices aren't that absurd, assuming you just offer Folgers or something ($20/month?! special-k, I hope you get some very nice coffee, or have people who drink a pot a day each). Compliance was very high. One woman put out a sign-up sheet with the names of everyone in the club (around 10-15 people) and whether they had payed her for that month or not.

There was even some surplus money, so we got a choice between an upgrade in coffee quality or a free month. Being poor, we took our $4.
posted by twoporedomain at 10:22 AM on January 29, 2007

Make a new sign every month - the sign should be a photo and it should be looking at the user. Try the image generator.
posted by theora55 at 10:26 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

The *eyes* have it.
posted by hortense at 10:35 AM on January 29, 2007

I agree with Amro, put a namelist up on the wall. Many people have probably forgotten that they havent paid you that month, so if you refresh the list every month (and collect the money yourself) things should turn around. Just send out a pleasant email explaining the new system, and the reason for changing (people are forgetting to pay, not getting enough money to cover costs, don't be accusatory or negative).
posted by Joh at 11:11 AM on January 29, 2007

Student workers are cheap. Pick one or two random days and have a student do their homework in the office. While "taking notes", they can surreptitiously make a list of who takes the coffee and who doesn't. Post the list conspicuously. I have the feeling that one or two such "outings" will make your return rate go up significantly.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:17 AM on January 29, 2007

*rather, who pays for the coffee they take and who doesn't.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:18 AM on January 29, 2007

What we did in our office is this: Several of us who really cannot do without coffee, simply took it upon ourselves to provide the coffee. We simply made it free for everyone else. When someone asks what the catch is, we say there is no catch, unless they want to voluntarily contribute- then bring a can of coffee and whatever creamers, sugar, etc., that one personally likes.

The result is that maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the coffee drinkers regularly contribute; those of use who really need our coffee just kind of decided that was good enough and we let it go at that.

For the most part it seems the burden is acceptably (if not equitably) shared. If we who cannot do without coffee feel we are contributing more than we think we should, we simply ask the rest of the office to bring some coffee, etc., in. Letting the coffee run out once in a while reinforces this. But for the most part, this voluntary system is working for us.

Those of us who cannot do without coffee simply see this as a bit of a gift to the rest of the office and leave it at that. (Fortunately, there is a group of mostly different people who cannot do without their sweets and snacks, and there is a decent give-and-take between the two groups.)

I guess you can say we work on the public radio model...
posted by Doohickie at 11:40 AM on January 29, 2007

I spend roughly $40/mo on coffee (we get it shipped in from a local roaster). The 4 heavy drinkers we have in the office get charged $10/mo. Our office is pretty small though so it doesn't matter much to me if I collect (I usually forget).
posted by mrg at 12:14 PM on January 29, 2007

Terry Tate - Office Linebacker
posted by ampersand2001 at 12:18 PM on January 29, 2007


That was great! Although possibly NSFW because of the profanity. Very funny, thanks for the link.
posted by JigSawMan at 12:39 PM on January 29, 2007

My dad made a fake video camera from cardboard, along with a jokey sign, and it seemed to benefit coffee collections at his work place.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:42 PM on January 29, 2007

What cushie (and Amro, and others) said: Post the list of who has paid for the month next to the coffee.
posted by Alt F4 at 1:01 PM on January 29, 2007

Here's a suggestion, or rather an extension of a previous suggestion. People will donate more than they would pay for low cost goods, as noted. I suggest first that you put up a sign like this: "Half of this month's coffee donations goes to Doctor's Without Borders." Do exactly what the sign says and give half to DWB. Next month, pick a new charity.

Adding eyes or security cameras or pulling the supplies is a negative (stick) approach which is petty for low cost goods and makes it more dramatic than it needs to be. Taking a positive approach with donations and a charity cut (carrot) will get you better results.
posted by chairface at 1:34 PM on January 29, 2007

Switch to using a Tassimo a only hand out the coffee-pods to those people who have paid up.
posted by matty at 2:20 PM on January 29, 2007

My department does it like dripdripdrip's. A sign with everyone's name in the department, with space for you to put a hash mark next to your name for every cup you drink. Pencil on string taped up next to the sign. It used to be 25 cents a cup, then we started getting better coffee and now it's 50 cents a cup.

The dept admin collates how much everyone owes at the end of the month and puts a slip of paper in our mailbox saying the number. I think we have pretty good compliance. We avoid the "I forgot my change" or "I forget whether I've paid" problems, and if people see you with coffee, they expect to see a correspondingly large number of hash marks next to your name, so there's an element of public shaming.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:10 PM on January 29, 2007

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