Thirsty for Points – Maximizing Starbucks

Thirsty for Points – Maximizing Starbucks

Once upon a time, lower Manhattan had three Starbucks stores at the same street intersection.  People made fun of the ridiculousness having so many of them within stone’s throw, but that was merely a reflection of a simple fact: America drinks Starbucks.  Lots and lots of it.

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Here you go. That’s $37.

I love Starbucks.  More precisely, I love the Starbucks Rewards program.  To quote my friend Dr. J, “I go there just to watch those stars fall on my phone.”  It’s designed well to entice brand loyalty.  More importantly, the program works quite similarly to frequent traveler programs – you earn stars, achieve elite statuses, and get free drinks.  As a newly minted points enthusiast, I became excited about playing with a new rewards program and figuring out how to get the most out of it.  I started drinking coffee and, a year later, now have two Gold cards.

The Starbucks Rewards program (officially “My Starbucks Rewards”), in a nutshell, works as follows:

  • Registering for an account wins you a new member drink
  • By having an account, each year you are entitled to a free birthday drink
  • Each purchase (using the app or registered gift card) earns you one star
  • Gold status is achieved after 30 stars (within one year)
  • Every 12 stars earned while having gold status converts to a free drink

Additionally, the special offers targeted to Gold members are a very important feature in the world of Starbucks.  They come in the form of discounts, package deals (i.e. buy-3-get-1 free), and bonus stars.  The bonus star offers are the most common, and the acceleration of stars accrual makes a big difference in the value you can get out of this program.  The timing, frequency, and terms of these offers usually vary by member.  Two examples below:

Four stars per purchase is as good as it gets, but Gingerbread Tea Latte?  No thanks…

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Three stars per purchase with no limits was the best offer I have seen:

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As is true with the airline and hotel programs, once you are familiar with the rules, you can come out ahead of other customers.  I’ve generally been able to get my coffee ~20% below the retail cash price.  This article discusses such strategies.

 

BASIC STRATEGY

Know what to order.  Familiarize yourself with tips like these.  Those fancy Italian names can be intimidating, but it’s worth knowing what’s in your drink.

Do use your registered card or Starbucks app for each purchase.  If you read this blog, you aren’t someone to board a flight without a frequent flyer number.  So don’t make the mistake of forfeiting valuable stars when buying coffee.

Do not combine multiple items in an order.  With what feels like a programming mistake, stars are earned per transaction instead of per item purchased.  When you buy coffee for a friend or get a pastry to go with your drink, ask to pay as separate orders.

Do not load money directly onto your Starbucks app.  Turn off that auto reload.  With few exceptions, loading directly onto the Starbucks app earns you at most 1-2 points per dollar. Chances are, on any day of the year, one of your credit cards earns 5x at grocery stores, department stores, office supply stores, online stores, or gas stations.  Go there instead, buy yourself a Starbucks gift card, and load it to your account.

5 Chase UR points per dollar, valued at ~10% cash back equivalent by most travel hackers, is the minimum I aim for when funding my Starbucks purchases.  These days, every other merchant under the sun sells Starbucks gift cards, so it is possible to get an even larger discount by leveraging Amex offers, payment vehicle promotions (i.e. VISA Checkout), coupons, shopping portals, etc.

 

A SIMPLE VALUATION

The value of a Starbucks star highly depends on your redemption preference.  I usually get a venti Frappuccino with an extra shot as my reward.  My wife’s pick is the venti dirty soy chai latte.  Both of those cost well over $5.  If your favorite drink is the drip coffee and you can never finish a tall cup, the math would look slightly different.  For me:

  • The cheapest reward drink I’ve ever requested costs $4.65
  • Assuming a 10% cash back equivalent on my Starbucks gift card, the $4.65 drink is worth $4.19
  • Each reward drink costs 13 stars (12 redeemed stars and 1 opportunity star not earned)

As such, I value each star at $4.19/13 = 32 cents.

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Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle

 

MULTIPLE GOLD CARDS

The key to maximizing Starbucks lies in properly leveraging the Gold member special offers.  Earning bonus stars gets you to the next free drink faster.  If you can manage to visit Starbucks only during the best promotions, you can achieve 3+ stars per purchase.  The difference is huge between getting every 13th drink free and getting every 5th drink free!  In reality, though, you might mix in some non-bonused visits and end up averaging 1.5-2 stars per purchase.  That’s $0.48-$0.64 by my valuation, which is another 10%+ return.

How do you get more special offers to take advantage of?  Open more accounts.

The timing, frequency, and terms of the special offers vary from member to member – Bob may get a Star Rush offer one week, and Jane gets a better Star Rush offer a week later.  That makes it hard for friends to coordinate caffeine fixes, but it also happens to be a wonderful feature for coffee hackers.  When you have multiple Gold cards, chances are increased that at any given time, one of your accounts is targeted with some sort of offer.  The more Gold cards you have, the more likely you can always buy coffee using an account that will earn you bonus stars.  But how many Gold cards can you maintain?  Note that:

  • For a new account, the first 30 stars go toward qualifying for Gold
  • Once Gold is achieved, the next 30 stars count toward both free drinks and re-qualifying for Gold for an additional year

Assuming that you already have one or more Gold cards, opening a new account and getting it to Gold status has a year-one overhead of 6 stars: you lose the free drink eligibility on its first 30 earned stars, but receive two free drinks (new member welcome gift and birthday gift) in return.  As long as the second Gold card gets you one or two special offers not available on your existing account(s), you should break even.

Keeping the long term in mind, it’s also important to make sure all your accounts get enough uses to re-qualify for Gold before the status expires each year.  This means a minimum of 60 stars (should be attainable with 40-50 purchases) on the new account within the first year, and a minimum of 30 stars (10-20 purchases) in subsequent years.

With these numbers, in the first year, you can in theory maintain 1 Gold account for each purchase that you make on an average week.  In the subsequent years, you should be able to maintain double that number.

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It is impossible, however, to precisely determine the optimal strategy because the pattern for the special offers is unpredictable.  The marginal cost, such as keeping track of all the logins and maintaining a balance on each account, can also outweigh the marginal benefit when you get too close to the maximum number of sustainable accounts.  That is, if you plan to charge exactly 50 purchases to each of your 5 accounts, and yet one of them happens to see a lot more special offers than the others, you’d be faced with the dilemma of either forgoing some offers, or end up not making enough purchases on another account to maintain Gold.  As such, I recommend expecting to make 50-75 purchases per year on each account, before moving on to open a new one.

 

A TON OF STARBUCKS REWARDS ACCOUNTS

Another strategy that I had contemplated with is gaming the reward for new members.  If you buy a lot of $5 gift cards and register each of them as a separate account (you’ll need a lot of email addresses), you will receive many new member drinks and birthday drinks.  That’s a ratio of two free items for every purchase.  Rinse, repeat, and now everything is 67% off!

Starbucks Rewards does not discourage its customers from having multiple accounts (one Q&A even suggests that you may have multiple accounts).  Its terms and conditions also does not prohibit activities beyond “unauthorized, fraudulent or otherwise unlawful”.  Unless I missed something, this strategy is no different than credit card churning and should be perfectly okay.  However, personally I don’t feel too comfortable pulling this stunt, and its effort-to-benefit ratio is much higher than the credit card game.

 

COFFEE RUN

To many people, “coffee run” is a brief break during the work day when one leaves the office to buy coffee.  It often serves a social function as a group of friends go together and hangout.  Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about those two words along the lines of mileage runs and mattress runs – and wondering if it’s possible to walk into a Starbucks, buy a coffee, then toss it out immediately for the sole purpose of earning stars.

Turns out that these opportunities do exist.  Suppose you are targeted for one of these Star Rush promotions (which happen periodically for Gold members):

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For argument’s sake, let’s say you have certain dietary restrictions and can’t get to that 3rd drink.  But that 3rd drink will earn you the 1 base star plus the 10 bonus stars!  By my valuation, 11 stars are worth $3.52.  Since plenty of drinks cost less than that (tall iced tea for $1.75), it makes sense to buy something and earn those valuable stars, whether or not you plan on enjoying the drink.

Another possibility is that (one of) your account’s Gold status is due to expire soon and you are 2-3 stars short of re-qualifying for the next year.  Rather than letting it expire and having to work your way back up, you may want to buy those extra drinks now in order to maintain Gold.

Mobile Order, which only recently became available, makes coffee running easier than ever.  You could, in the comfort of your bedroom or office, place your order for that stars-earning drink and not even walking to the store to pick it up.

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BOTTOM LINE

Starbucks is neither a cost-efficient solution for those who simply need caffeine to function, nor a gourmet cafe that will satisfy the hardcore connoisseurs.  However, if you are among the millions of Americans who spend money there on a regular basis, having a strategy will save you a ton of money over the long run.

Happy Monday Morning!

 

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