Free Coffee Rewards: A Review of Starbucks, McDonald’s McCafe and Tim Hortons Loyalty Programs

Free Coffee Rewards: A Review of Starbucks, McDonald’s McCafe and Tim Hortons Loyalty Programs

Getting free stuff can be a high for some of us, especially when it comes to food and drink.

Because who can resist getting a tall, skinny, non-fat mocha with extra whip – all for free?

And to get the most free coffee, let’s do a comparison of the top 3 food and drinks rewards in Canada:

Three different fast food reward programs...But which gives you the most cuppa?

The Skinny on Starbucks Rewards

You might say, “how can I possibly save money at Starbucks?”...

True, it’s not a place you go to ‘save money’, but it’s a place that if you’re going anyway – you might as well get some rewards, right? That’s where Starbucks Rewards comes in. Here are the goods:

  • When you sign up, you immediately start working towards free food and drinks.
  • You get 2 stars for every dollar you spend (unless you’re an employee, they earn 3 stars for every dollar spent).
  • You actually get free refills (on brewed coffee and tea available in store during same visit).
  • Stars expire 6 months after they are earned, so if you don’t use them, they will go away.

Related: Canadian Rewards Programs: Are You Loyal?

Starbucks Bonus Stars

As you’re building up your stars, you’ll notice in the mobile app (available on iOS and Android) that you can get “challenges” to complete that give you bonus stars. This will accelerate you on your way to being a gold member, but it will also normally constitute you visiting more.

That said, using a strategy like buying a lower cost item to help you offset a higher frequency can be one way to tackle things.

At 300+ stars (as long as they are earned within 12 months), you become a gold member. While you get sent a nice looking gold card, chances are (if you’re like me) – you’ll just keep using the app on your phone. Easier that way.

When you’re a gold member, you’ll enjoy the following in addition to the previous benefits:

  • monthly double star days (where you earn 4 stars for every $1 spent), and...
  • a reward every 125 stars.

In addition to buying items in store, you can earn stars online and in grocery stores.

Reading the Fine Print

Here’s probably the most important paragraphs from the terms and conditions. In short, you have to continue to spend around $150 per year at Starbucks if you want to keep your gold rewards:

To maintain all benefits of the Green Level, you must earn at least one (1) new Star during each consecutive 12-month period following your enrollment date. If you do not earn at least one (1) new Star in each 12-month period, your Star balance will automatically reset to zero (0) and you may no longer be eligible to receive Starbucks Rewards benefits. If you do not earn at least three hundred (300) new Stars in each consecutive 12- month period, your Stars will expire and your Star balance will automatically reset to zero (0), unless otherwise required by law. To maintain the Gold Level, you must earn at least three hundred (300) new Stars during each consecutive 12-month period following the date you reached the Gold Level. If you do not earn 300 new Stars in 12 months, you will be placed at the Green Level of Starbucks Rewards and your Star balance will automatically reset to zero (0). If you fail to requalify for the Gold Level, and you have between 125 and 299 Stars in your account, Starbucks will add one (1) free food or drink Reward onto your account (subject to the Gold Level exclusions and restrictions described below).

$150?! That’s quite an investment in caffeine but not that hard to do if you’re a regular and if you take advantage of bonus star promotions.

Related: How To Read Coupon Fine Print And Increase Your Savings

And here’s a table

So, where does the rubber hit the road?

Here are some working numbers for your consideration (assuming no bonuses or star challenges are completed and no extra offers are given):

Reward Level Required Spend Rewards Achieved
0 - 300 stars for green level $1 to $150
  • Free refills on hot or iced coffee/teas in-restaurant (subject to limitations).
  • Birthday reward. A free item just before or on your birthday (this does expire). The app will notify you.
300 stars for gold level $150+
  • A reward (anything on the menu) every $62.50 spent (125 stars).

The Verdict

Now, you might be thinking, “that’s not worth it!”...

Yet, if you are already consuming coffee, tea or buying a sandwich elsewhere, it may not be astronomically different after you calculate the costs. Also as Stephen pointed out in this article, if you’re using Starbucks in lieu of an office, spending $6-$10 a day for the free WiFi and to have an office might be considerably cheaper than holding court in a proper office.

McDonald's McCafe Rewards

McDonald’s launched McCafe Rewards back in late 2013 as a way to entice customers to try their then new line of coffee (and likely to lure customers away from the once-dominant Tim Hortons).

Customers can now enjoy a medium McCafe hot beverage when you buy any 7 hot beverages using stickers you get that are attached to each hot beverage you purchase. Dollar for dollar, that’s quite competitive when looking at both Starbucks and Tim Hortons.

Ultimately what this means is that one out of every 8 drinks you buy is free. Which is like a savings of 12.5%. But, if you collect stickers on cheaper drinks (say $2 each) and redeem for more expensive beverages as a treat (say $5 each), then your savings go up to 26% if you would have purchased one $5 drink out of every 8 purchased anyway

Another way of looking at it is return in rewards based on spending. Buying 7 drinks at $2 each means you’re spending $14. If you redeem for a $2 drink, your return on spending is 14.3%. If you redeem for a $5 drink, your return on spending is 36%.

While there are some exclusions to the program (single espresso and double espresso drinks are excluded from the purchase, but are available for the redemption), the terms and conditions on this are actually pretty simple.

McDonald’s also recently launched its own app (Android, iOS), and while not explicitly a rewards app, you can receive offers for your mobile order, so there may be some savings opportunities there. It’ll be interesting to see how (if at all) they combine their mobile app and rewards in the future.

Related: 31 Money Apps, Products, and Tools You Should Be Using

Tim Hortons

So, back in 2014, Tim Hortons launched a partner no-fee credit card with CIBC aimed at helping you earn Tim Hortons rewards fast. While years ago, Tim Hortons only accepted cash and then, for a period of time, only accepted Mastercard, things have been evolving:

The card offers:

  • A $20 Tim Cash Welcome Bonus (after you spend $200);
  • 1% Tim Cash on all purchases which can be instantly redeemed at Tim Hortons locations; and,
  • Free treats for being a cardholder on the weekends.

There are also 3 additional cards available at no charge, with an interest rate of 19.99% and 22.99% for cash. To be eligible, you have to have a minimum of $15,000 annual household income.

On its site, Tims offers a handy-dandy calculator to give you an indication of what you can expect as a result of using the card. So, a couple of use cases:

  • If you spend $300 a month on your credit card, you’ll earn $3.00 in Tim Cash per month. With your $20 welcome cash, that’ll net you $56 in Tim Cash for the year, or approximately 28 large coffees.
  • If you spend $1,000 on your credit card each month, you can expect $140 in first year cash (with your $20 bonus and your earnings of $10/month).

So, as you can see, this gives you a cash-back reward of 1% for usage, but only on Tims. Yet, if you go there frequently, this is not a bad deal, especially since it is all spending and you don’t have to wait until once a year to get your money as you do with some cash-back credit cards. There are no maximums, either, so you can see a lot of coffee and donuts back from this card, if you spend a lot.

Related: Best Cash Back Credit Cards in Canada 2018

Now, it does get a little tricky at times as Tims has a number of reward items (more on that in a moment). A review of the terms and conditions for both the Classic TimCard (A.K.A. a “gift card”), and the CIBC Double Double card discussed above shows that it’s actually pretty straightforward to use.

You can use features like automatic reload to reload a Classic TimCard (perhaps a way to solve, “Mom, where’s my lunch money!?”), by linking an approved credit card to your TimCard. If you want to do that, see this link for more details. Be warned, as it is treated like cash, owners are responsible for all transactions, including unauthorized transactions.

Tim Hortons Gets an App

Tim Hortons launched a mobile app back in 2017, which was mired in controversy as franchise owners wanted to block the app from coming.

The app, available for both Android and iOS, allows you to order and pay, all from the app. While it did offer free coffee for usage at one time in late 2017, it now appears to have no rewards built in at this time. Yet, the company is “constantly updating the app with new features”, according to the FAQ. As a consolation, you can, however, use this in lieu of toting around a gift card.

Additionally, as of January 2018, Josh Kobza has taken over as chief technology and development officer for Restaurant Brands International Inc. (the parent company of Tims), so time will tell what the future holds.

Fast food Loyalty Comparison Table

Program Pros Cons
Starbucks Rewards
  • Free coffee and tea refills when you join.
  • Can redeem free reward for very expensive drinks or food items.
  • App is easy to use. You can have it automatically reload by charging your credit card.
  • Without bonuses, it takes $150 of spending to get to gold level.
  • $62.50 in ongoing spend to get a free reward.
  • Complex orders via app may be difficult.
  • The card does work internationally but does convert into CAD equivalent.
McDonald's McCafe Rewards
  • Very simple and low amount of spend require to get rewarded.
  • What about the food and other menu items? If you don’t like coffee, you’re currently out in the cold.
  • With the new app being rolled out, will rewards become a larger part of the offer? Time will tell!
Tim Hortons CIBC Double Double Card
  • You accumulate Tim's Cash on all spending.
  • Redeemable right away in-store.
  • Nothing overly apparent, so long as you like Tim Hortons.
  • With the announcement of Josh Kobza taking over the tech development, will rewards become a higher priority?

For my own purposes, the only program above that I currently use is the Starbucks app. It’s a place I go anyway ‒ and sure, I recognize I’m probably incentivized to spend more than I normally would without it…But, for now, I’m making a conscious decision.

As a non-coffee drinker, McDonald’s program doesn’t really interest me a lot, but perhaps if they make rewards broader in the future I will be swayed.

Back to You

So, what do you think of all this? Any surprises for you?

Or, should we all just stick to drinking?

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Disclosure: Some links in this article may be affiliate links. We're letting you know because it's the right thing to do. Here’s a more detailed disclosure on how HTS makes money.

Editorial Disclaimer: The content here reflects the author's opinion alone, and is not endorsed or sponsored by a bank, credit card issuer, rewards program or other entity.

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Becky's picture

Second Cup also has a rewards system. For each pre-tax dollar, rounded to the nearest $0.10, you spend at a participating Second Cup you’ll earn 10 Points. Once you've reached 500 points, you can get a free drink. When you reach a total of 1,000 points, you are eligible to receive one pre-packaged bag of whole bean coffee, up to 340 g size.

April 17, 2018 @ 12:37 pm
nora's picture

Thanks Becky: I'm so done with sending my money south. Support Canadian, so your children will have jobs.

April 24, 2018 @ 8:20 pm
Darin's picture

I always do the McD's coffee card... and especially this month with $1 any size coffee, you can quickly collect stickers. If you're use to spending $2 daily on a large, you can either save the dollar or instead buy two small coffees to double your stickers. Either way, it doubles the return on spending that Stephen mentioned above. I didn't, however, realize you could redeem for something else instead of the medium coffee. I'm going to review the terms and conditions.

April 17, 2018 @ 12:55 pm
Ame's picture

I've been buying these for ages, and I buy coffees for the stickers and get mochas as treats for my purchases. I've NEVER had any issues getting specialty drinks. Remember, you receive a free McCafe drink, which is all the specialty drinks.

April 17, 2018 @ 1:30 pm
Bill's picture

Buying coffee at any of these businesses is no way to save money.

April 17, 2018 @ 12:59 pm
Charlene's picture


So TRUE! Better to buy a 1KG can of coffee on sale at $6.99 and if drink 2 cups a day will last you about 2 months...

April 17, 2018 @ 3:44 pm
Marni's picture

I have the Starbucks gold card and go ONLY when they have really good bonus offers; I generally get a tea because their plain teas are unadulterated. I did research on the ingredients in their drinks and it's very scary. Like unbelievable amounts of chemicals, preservatives, sugars, etc.

Literally the cleanest thing I could think of getting for my birthday reward was a big cup of multiple shots of espresso with a banana blended in. I used this as a base for drinks at home for a number of days. The other problem is that apparently many/most coffees have mold and are grown with beaucoup pesticides. So I'm started to buy organic, free trade Kicking Horse coffee beans (packaged and possibly processed in BC) when they're on sale at the grocery store (can get a 454 g package of whole beans for about $11 on sale) and have been making my own coffee at home every day because I know exactly what I'm drinking that way!

Anyway, it's food for thought, isn't it?

April 17, 2018 @ 1:22 pm
Ame's picture

I don't have much to add, but if you have a Costco around, they usually sells big bags of unground coffee for way cheaper than you'd buy at regular grocery stores. I'm usually paying $13.49 for 2 pounds (900g) of organic local fair trade roasted coffee for a reasonable price when it's on sale. Companies like Level Ground Trading Coffee, Saltspring Coffee, and Ethical Bean Coffee are local brands that are on sale here (Generally $16.99 and sometimes with a $3.50 discount). And the coffee savings alone could possibly pay for a Costco membership, so overall I think it's worth it.

April 17, 2018 @ 1:55 pm
Ame's picture

McDonald's coffee card promo has been very useful for me over the years. I generally buy coffees and redeem for specialty McCafe drinks. When $1 coffee days are on (as they are in Eastern Canada atm), the stickers can roll in fast. And when free small coffee days are on, I'll go multiple times to get free coffees with stickers. The kiosks and apps work wonderfully to order multiple free coffees too, and I've seen no staff opposition this way. Local coupon book coupons also can make this better, as a nice 2 for 1 coupon can help one collect even faster. It's also possible to see stickers around on random cups as well for extra free drinks, and as a janitor I collect extra stickers from cups.

Coupon cards are nice to save for special events and during the winter when it's cold. I've taken family out when doing a family event and got mochas for everyone. And if one wants to be altruistic, it's always nice to hand out coffee cards to homeless people during the winter; they always appreciate it!

BTW, It's more like buy 6 drinks and get the 7th free (unless you go the espresso route like said above) because the final drink also comes with a sticker.

April 17, 2018 @ 1:47 pm
Ame's picture

Re: 7-11, The 7-11 app gives free drinks every 7 drinks (hot or cold) as well. 7-11 also offers $.50 hot drink fills if you bring your own cup 7 days a week. And the coffee is still better than Tim Hortons these days, sadly. Plus the app sometimes has free drinks, such as a free San Pellagrino cans and such.

April 17, 2018 @ 2:07 pm
myfreedom59's picture

Yes, avoiding spending at these coffee shops is the better way to save money but sometimes when one is away or somewhere where there are no other options, purchases at these places happen. If points or rewards can be collected, why not? The key is not to make the purchases a regular habit.

I was surprised that Tim Horton's had a rewards program but since it is based on having a specified credit card, this is not something I would utilize. I resent being forced to obtain a specific credit card to get "rewards" and those cards usually have annual fees which I also avoid.

Just a note that Second Cup is also a major vendor and has a rewards program. You get points on everything you buy (drinks, food, etc.) but can only redeem for drinks. I don't drink coffee but they have improved their food and drink offerings and have some good items now. The grilled cheese sandwiches are great, the drinks are being reformulated without the chemical/artificial ingredients and the smoothies have good ingredients.

Emailed them requesting they consider expanding their program to include food rewards (to match their competitor Starbucks). Doesn't hurt to ask and if they get enough requests from customers, they may implement this.

Thanks, Stephen for the information. I very recently discovered your site and find your posts and email newsletters helpful and interesting.

April 17, 2018 @ 2:58 pm
Anil Ramji
Anil Ramji's picture

I prefer Mcdonalds coffee rewards program. Firstly, I love Mcdonalds coffee with its smooth flavor, and the rewards are a bonus. The franchise also has $1.00 coffee specials and free coffee days. Best part is you also get stickers with these offers which is a bonus. Hopefully this program will continue.

April 17, 2018 @ 3:09 pm
Nat's picture

Bonus stars can also be obtained from Starbucks surveys. Even though I am a Gold card Starbucks member, I only go on Double Star Days. Reason: I buy an ~$18 bag of espresso and have them grind it for my stove top espresso maker. When I run out of Starbucks, I supplement with local indie coffee house blends.

Java U also has a rewards program with birthday perks.

April 17, 2018 @ 3:43 pm
Susan's picture

I am not a big coffee drinker, however, have enjoyed getting the McDonald's stickers to use for a free beverage. They don't seem to expire (as long as you don't lose the stickers!)

April 17, 2018 @ 3:49 pm
Norm's picture

For me it is more about preferred taste, so rewards programs attached to coffee purchases is far down my list of importancies. If my fav cup
had NO rewards and cost more than the others I would still make the purchase

April 17, 2018 @ 4:53 pm
francis's picture

i am not a coffee drinker. however, i like the cibc tim hortons double double visa card.
i only have to use the card once a month and i get a weekend freebie every month. sometimes,
they also give you extras. like this month, i got a coupon for a free turkey melt sandwich.
for me, this is the best deal for using a credit card.

April 17, 2018 @ 5:57 pm
Marpy's picture

I generally do not buy a lot of coffe out but when I do, its McDonalds - simple program, I like the coffee and you can upgrade to a speciaqlty coffee on the free one. One dollar coffee promotions are also great and free coffee promotions even better. I used to go to Hortons but no longer like the taste of their coffee and also, they are no Longer Canadian. I know, neither is McDonalds but I like their coffee better and America has always been our neighbor.

April 17, 2018 @ 7:52 pm
Miriam's picture

I have the best deal ever. My son is a Starbucks regular but also a bore when it comes to coffee so he never wastes his reward points on reg coffee. Instead he gives them to me when I visit the city. And I enjoy an expensive coffee I would never have bought.

April 18, 2018 @ 10:58 am
Ronni's picture

McDonald's coffee is only $1.00 any size when you buy with the mobile app. Not tea, only coffee. This plus the stickers makes it a great deal.

April 18, 2018 @ 11:07 am
Cheapskate's picture

Has nobody mentioned that McD offers FREE refills! Don't think Tims or the Rich persons place do that.

April 18, 2018 @ 7:49 pm
moneyhelp's picture

It is my understanding the Starbucks rewards points no longer expire since the new law passed and I confirmed this with Starbucks because I had noticed after an iOS Starbucks app update, in the history section, the expire date disappeared and I was worried I would forget the dates and lose my rewards.

In fact after sending several emails to Starbucks, as originally everyone said that it was still in the app (although it wasn't) I don't Starbucks was aware of the new Canadian law that passed; then finally a Starbucks rep said that they abide by all local laws and that the rewards will not expire.


April 19, 2018 @ 4:54 am
Fast Eddie
Fast Eddie's picture

Just some input on the Tim Hortons APP. There were problems in the beginning with the app itself and definitely with the logistics of delivering the product. The app offered free coffee when 3 were bought via the app. This program has ended. The problem still remains a terrible experience with delivering the product to the customer. Out of 7 attempts in a week they get it right 4 times. A little over 50% of the time it is available and accurate. I suggest customers deserve better than that. I wonder if the franchise owner really care. I have tested this for 3 weeks in a row.

April 24, 2018 @ 10:05 pm

McDonald's has the best deal. By making use of their peel off stickers from each coffee purchase (regardess of the coffee size purchased) : 8th MEDIUM coffee is free. PLUS McDonald's gives a free refill all the time. Nobody gives a free refill. Not only their coffee tastes so good it is the best deal. For the last promotions they did any size coffee was $ 1.00. Nobody can beat that deal.

April 25, 2018 @ 11:36 am
Gary's picture

I typically go to Tim Hortons. That said, the Tim Horton’s analysis should not have included the 1% for the CIBC credit card. There are other cash back credit cards that give 1% (or even more) that can be used at McD or Starbucks. Thxs.

October 07, 2018 @ 11:11 am

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