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Young people splurging more as “little treat” internet trend booms

A barista at 108 Vine in Gainesville, Florida pours an espresso shot over an ube latte. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)
A barista at 108 Vine in Gainesville, Florida pours an espresso shot over an ube latte. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)

In a brightly lit Gainesville cafe filled with local art and trinkets, Jamie Heron bought a latte. She got herself a “little coffee treat” as a reward for studying for the NCLEX nursing exam.

“I saw they had ube lattes, and that sounded really yummy, so I wanted to switch it up from the usual,” Heron said.

And she’s not the only young person doing this; social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok are full of young people buying “little treats.”

People have been splurging on items and experiences for as long as humans have had commerce. Sales of lipstick increase during times of economic hardship, and popular TV show characters from “Parks and Recreation” proudly encouraged viewers to “Treat Yo’ Self.” But the latest iteration of treats among Gen Z has taken a unique turn.

Lupine Skelly is a research leader at Deloitte, a large international accounting firm. She and her team studied spending habits around the world, surveying thousands of participants across multiple countries.

They found younger generations treat themselves more than older generations. Men on average spend more per treat purchase than women do, and Gen Z men’s spending on treats increased by 25%in 2024 versus the previous year.

“Across the board, all generations, their number one justification for these small splurges is that it's comforting,” Skelly said. “We thought originally that this was about escaping reality. But what we found is that it's really about people seeking out a purchase that brings them comfort.”

Geoff Tomaino agrees. He is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Florida studying consumer judgment and decision-making. Tomaino said consumers engage in something called “signaling” when they make a treat purchase.

The first type of signaling is external, or as Tomaino explained, spending money just to prove to others that you can. But the second type is called self-signaling.

“We'll engage in similar types of consumption to show and tell ourselves certain things,” he said. “People being able to say, OK, well, things are tough. But I'm doing OK, I'm doing a good job, and somebody who's doing a good job surely can indulge in Starbucks.’”

When it comes to generational differences in signaling, Tomaino said younger people like Gen Z value authenticity more than older generations.

“I think when they engage in these types of purchases, it's a lot more about ‘what am I telling myself,’ rather than ‘what am I telling the world,’” he said.

Skelly’s data support this. When surveying younger generations for their decisions behind treat spending, Skelly said they list more reasons than older generations.

“They cite more drivers and they're more likely to cite something that fits in with their personal passion or hobby,” she said. “And they're also more likely to cite that it will last them a long time.”

A barista at 108 Vine in Gainesville, Florida grinds coffee beans and pours a shot of espresso. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)
A barista at 108 Vine in Gainesville, Florida grinds coffee beans and pours a shot of espresso. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)

Benjamin Johnson is an associate professor of advertising at UF. He studies the psychological processes behind persuasive messaging. To him, it makes sense why the trend became so popular.

“I think this one has particular resonance because it does speak to people's personal needs, their desires to feel like they have some autonomy in their lives, that they can do something positive for themselves or others,” he said.

Part of its popularity lies in its versatility. According to Johnson, people use the trend in different ways, either as a positive reinforcement for doing a good job, or as a comfort when feeling down. A subset of videos also use the phrase “little treat” ironically, or for something essential, such as healthcare or a legally required break from work.

“It could also be a critique of workplace conditions or economic, social stress that people feel,” Johnson said.

Tomaino said social media plays a big role in normalizing treat purchases. Many of the videos participating in the trend, he said, tell viewers small indulgences are OK.

“Even if you feel like you're broke, it's okay to still spend money on these types of things because your mental health and your feeling of just doing well can take priority over your bank account,” he said.

But Jorge Ruiz-Menjivar, an assistant professor of family and consumer economics at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said that’s not always good logic for making financial decisions.

Barista Seraphina Floyd drizzles ube syrup into a latte cup full of milk at 108 Vine in Gainesville, Florida. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)
Barista Seraphina Floyd drizzles ube syrup into a latte cup full of milk at 108 Vine in Gainesville, Florida. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)

Menjivar said people who are future-oriented in their financial planning – that is, keeping the future in mind when making decisions – tend to be more likely to reach their financial goals.

“They're thinking about what they want to accomplish in the future and what will be the potential reward and they're willing to delay gratification…because they know that there will be that reward in the future,” he said.

He said young people tend to be more present-oriented when it comes to financial planning — spending money now because the future isn’t guaranteed.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both mindsets, Menjivar said, and the key is to fall somewhere in the middle“where you can really have that paradigm of present orientation, enjoying those rewards that you sure need to celebrate on a daily basis.

“But also have future goals,” he said, “and have that paradigm of future orientation where you are intentional and deliberate about what you want to accomplish long-term.”

According to Menjivar, present orientation skyrocketed just after the COVID-19 pandemic, when people spent more money on bigger splurges like international travel or concert tickets. But he said COVID also put a greater emphasis on community.

“People started being more mindful about what were those community capital, community assets around them and how they could really utilize them to experience resilience during a shock,” he said.

Menjivar said treats and rewards are important to maintaining happiness, but it’s also important to budget for them.

“I think we can be very intentional and mindful about the idea of celebrating without necessarily tying that to consuming a product or a service,” he said.

A coffee and a bagel sit on the table of 108 Vine in Gainesville, Florida. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)
A coffee and a bagel sit on the table of 108 Vine in Gainesville, Florida. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)

Back at the coffee shop earlier this month, Jamie Heron enjoyed her latte. While Heron said she doesn’t budget for her treats, she also thinks occasionally treating herself isn’t a bad thing.

“I think it’s nice to reward yourself once in a while,” she said.

And while she does think treats are worth it and do bring her happiness, she concedes she probably shouldn’t do it every day.

Kristin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.