On the hunt for the cheapest cuppa joe in town

I'm a coffee snob. The other kind of coffee snob.

I'm over Starbucks. It's-a-Grind costs too much, Don't care for the Coffee bean and Tea Leaf, and Peet's puts hair on my chest while making me feel like I've spent the night in a meth-lab.

No, when it comes to coffee, I like it diner-style. Unadorned. Un-roasted. Down-market. Good old American Joe in porcelain or a plain paper cup.

Most articles listing ways of slashing monthly expenses admonish you to "Cut out your morning cup of Starbucks." Solid advice, sure. But like most people, I resisted that advice for a long time, feeling that if I had to get out of bed and get to work, the least the universe could do for me was to allow me my big cafe latte in the morning. Then I looked at my coffee bill. Four dollar cups of coffee twice a day add up. Fast.

Finances are about to get a lot tighter for everyone in the coming days. So I switched from my traditional latte ($3.95 at It's-a-Grind) to a single cup of plain coffee. The Southern California-based chain recently raised its prices, so that a small cup of house coffee still tickles the $2 mark. Too rich for my tastes.

I can make my coffee at home, of course, but let's just admit it: That's no fun. And if you're self-employed, it means you'll never get out of the house. So I started hunting for the cheap stuff at more traditional (yet often overlooked by coffee snobs) outlets. To wit:

Fast Food Coffee

McDonald's - Damn good coffee. And HOT! For a buck and change. Although this, tragically, will probably change since Micky D's has announced its intentions to give Starbucks a run for its money.

Jack-in-the-Box - In my 'hood, Jack was a real contender, until it too went upscale and replaced its regular coffee with "French Roast." It raised the price from 95 cents to $1.29 too. Next!

Arby's - Still under a dollar, but not that good. Even I require a modicum of coffee taste. Arby's, at least in my neighborhood, makes coffee that tastes like coffee-nip-flavored water. I wonder if this chain will do something about gussying up its coffee offerings. In this case, it might be worth it.

Convenience Store Coffee

7-11 - You can get a pretty darn good cup of Joe at 7-11, but it's hit-or-miss in terms of consistency. One store can vary wildly from the other. The prices are inching up as well, with the cost of a medium cup of coffee at my local stores now up to about $1.25. One upshot: since 7-11's are known for its coffee, they keep the fresh pots coming. The best way to look for freshness is to look for the one with the most condensation on the plastic rim. That's hot, fresh coffee, and the best bang for your buck.

AM/PM Mini-Marts - Varies wildly depending on location. Your best bet for a cheap and good cup of coffee is to hit the stores along the open highway, which cater heavily to travelers. Prices usually hover around a dollar.

Diner Coffee

Denny's - the gold standard in cheap, drinkable coffee. So reliable, if you find yourself with a stale cup, just ask them to put on a fresh pot. Depending on your location, this will run you 90 cents and up. The beauty of Denny's is that it operates like a traditional diner -- you can nurse a cup of coffee all night long. Get friendly with your waitress and she'll overlook how many free refills you get.

Donut Shop Coffee

Donut shops feature the best regular coffee for the cheapest prices. Like a holdout from another era, donut shops have resisted the urge to go upscale at the risk of alienating their clientele of old men, bums, and freelance writers.

The donut place down the street from me, run by a Vietnamese family, offers a medium cup of very drinkable coffee for 85 cents. If I buy that and a donut I can walk out of there having only spent $1.15 (and they usually throw in a second donut for free.

Perhaps I am not alone in my relentless pursuit of cheap coffee. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back and I am at the forefront of a trend. Indeed,Starbucks is said to be testing $1 cups of coffee, to try and jumpstart sales. Maybe cheap, regular coffee is the wave of the future.

No matter. The folks at the donut shop will always have my business before the glitzy chain will. I simply drink too much coffee for it to be otherwise.
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