Starbucks seems like the last place you’d want to go to save money and I definitely wouldn’t suggest people take up a daily latte habit if they don’t want to drink all their money away!
However, the fact remains that Starbucks is an immensely popular spot and people flock there in droves – maybe not quite as much as Tim Hortons here in Canada, but Starbucks sure isn’t suffering either. Profit margins on coffee and beverages are INSANE, so it’s definitely a good business to be in.
It only gets really expensive once you start ordering the specialty drinks, which I do a few times a year as a nice treat...
Sure, you can make them yourself if you want, but I like the convenience and experience of picking one up on the go.
How the rewards program works
The Starbucks Rewards program is primarily based around gift cards. You need to have a gift card to join the program and, once you use that to sign up, the best thing to do is to load that gift card and any future gift cards into the Starbucks app. You can then use your phone to both pay for your purchases as well as earn and track your rewards. It’s pretty convenient in that sense.
There is another way to join and that is by purchasing a qualifying Starbucks item in a grocery store that has a star code located inside the packaging. Once you have purchased the item, go online and register the stars found in the packaging to create a Starbucks Rewards account.
A third, but less common way to activate a Starbucks Reward membership is through a special promotion. In the past, Starbucks has run a promotion where new members can join through one of the two methods above, but are then automatically made Gold members once they make a purchase. This is pretty significant since it generally takes 300 stars before hitting gold.
Related: Aeroplan Miles: Earn Rewards Fast
The program is based on stars. You earn two stars for every dollar you spend at Starbucks before taxes – Starbucks employees earn three stars for every dollar spent. Then once you’ve accumulated enough stars, you start reaping the rewards.
Green reward level
Once you join, you immediately gain access to the green reward level which comes with a few perks:
- A free birthday drink or treat. To qualify for the birthday reward, you’ll need to have joined Starbucks Rewards at least seven days before your birthday and made at least one Star-earning purchase with your Starbucks card or app.
- Promotional offers by email (if you’re opted in). This includes special bonus stars on qualifying purchases.
- Free refills on hot or iced brewed coffee or tea during the same visit.
For people that like to lounge a little in Starbucks, that last perk is pretty significant. You pay for the one drink and can refill as much as you like while you relax and take it easy reading a book. I can dig it – no free refills at Tims!
Order the smallest possible size and keep refilling to save a little more.
Related: The New Chapters-Indigo Plum Rewards
Gold level (300 or more stars)
Now we’re getting serious. You have to work a little harder to get gold because it requires earning 300 stars within twelve months and, if you want to maintain gold status, you need to get at least 300 stars once every 12 months.
You get all the green level perks plus:
- A free food or drink item after each 125 stars earned. No, you don’t actually get a free item at 300 stars, it’s technically 425 stars (which is kind of a ripoff).
- Monthly double star days. Each month there is a day where your entire Starbucks purchase can count for double the amount of stars. If you typically buy coffee beans from Starbucks, purchase them on this day.
- A personalized gold card. You can use this in place of the mobile app if you want. You can keep topping up your card and earning stars that way. Unfortunately, it isn’t made of real gold – bummer, I know!
Getting to gold can be a real pain, but once you get there it isn’t so bad. A free drink every 125 stars isn’t going to win any accolades for the best rewards program ever, but combined with the other perks, it isn’t bad either. And if you take advantage of the special bonuses for members, only then can you get free drinks quickly.
Maximize your earning potential
Now, the good stuff! Getting a few stars per visit to Starbucks is nice, but you’ll definitely want to amp up those earnings to reach your next reward quicker. Here’s how:
Get more stars per purchase
There are many bonuses that Starbucks Reward members can qualify for. I was awarded 200 stars for making seven different purchases.
On one of those days, I purchased two items, a drink for myself and my wife. Instead of doing it all under one transaction, I ordered them separately which counted as two purchases in my total of seven. If you can maximize your rewards, the barista won’t mind doing separate transactions for you.
Get the app
Getting the app makes earning and tracking your rewards much easier.
When you’re visiting another country, you can also use your app to pay. However, don’t expect to earn stars for cross-country visits, as not all Starbucks Rewards programs are the same.
The order-in-advance function is a nice feature of the app. This let's you order your to-go beverage or food item from home and pick it up from your closest Starbucks minutes later. Once you arrive, your order is waiting for you to grab and go in their mobile pick-up section in-store.
The only complaint I have is that I wish I could set the time I would like my order to be ready since my drink and sandwich are sometimes ready several minutes before I arrive. If you like your food and drinks piping hot or freezing cold, then this function is probably not one you will use often.
Overall, the app offers a lot of useful benefits:
- Track your account balance, reward level and current number of stars
- Top up your account balance if you’re running low
- Configure your account to auto-reload so your balance never runs dry
- Add the value of an existing gift card to your account balance
- See your transaction history to find out exactly when and how many stars you’ve earned, your purchase amounts and your top up history
- Order through the app
Buy cheap stuff to earn stars
You can get creative when earning stars because you always get two stars no matter what the item costs. For instance, those little instant brew VIA packs cost about $1 each. Some people go so far as to buy single flavour shots over ice, which is much cheaper than an iced latte, and then add the milk themselves at the milk bar.
Drinks are apparently much cheaper this way, although I’ve never tried it myself (and is frowned upon by some).
Bonus star offers
Starbucks has regular promotions that are often targeted to individuals who are subscribed to their promotional emails. Just remember that you need to opt in to these promotions each time in order to get the bonus stars. You can opt in via e-mail or with the app. Also, pay attention to the dates as there is a limited time period the bonuses are valid for.
Credit card discounts for topping up
It can be tempting to choose to have your account automatically topped up when your account balance is running low. However, there is a better option: buy your Starbucks gift cards at a store with a gift card mall that also gives a bonus on your credit card for shopping there.
For instance, if you get bonus cash back on your credit card at the gas station, buy your Starbucks card at that gas station and that bonus will now apply to all your coffee purchases as well.
The Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite is particularly good for this.
Buy discounted gift cards
Even better than using your credit card for a gift card discount, you can sometimes buy discounted gift cards directly.
Specially marked products
Some products, like specially marked bags of coffee beans, will sometimes come with a bonus code that can be redeemed online for a free star. If you buy Starbucks products anyway, keep your eye out for these bonus codes to pad your star balance.
Choose the perfect reward
Creativity is key when finding ways to maximize the value of your free reward. You get to choose any drink or food reward with very few restrictions (restrictions include alcoholic beverages and multi-serve food and beverage items). So that means any standard Starbucks size (the biggest of course), any type, any add-ins or extras. You name it, you can get it!
Straight from the horse’s mouth:
Can I get any drink or food item I want when I redeem my free reward? What’s included?
With a few exceptions, yes! Your free reward can be redeemed for any handcrafted beverage – any size, any flavour and with whatever add-ons you’d like. Or you can redeem the coupon for any food item, with the exception of whole bakery loaves, trays, multipacks and alcohol.
Free shot of espresso
Many people like to add a shot of espresso to their free drink to pump up the caffeine content and give it some punch.
Why one though? Why not 173? That’s what these people did after all!
While Starbucks encourages patrons to get creative with their free drinks, they discouraged most of these people from actually consuming these overly caffeinated beverages.
Free flavour shot
Yep! You can get flavour shots added for free as well, further increasing the value of your reward.
Just ask your local barista what they have available for add-ons in your favourite drink and pick as many as you think would actually taste good and go to town! 173 espresso shots is excessive, but adding a couple makes sense along with some interesting topping and flavour combinations.
Ask your barista what their favorite drink is that isn’t on the menu. You might be pleasantly surprised to have discovered this "secret" drink.
6 months to redeem
Don’t forget, once you get enough stars for a free reward you have six months to redeem before your stars expire. This is a pretty short time frame if you rarely drink at Starbucks, but considering the frequency with which most people drink coffee, it shouldn’t be a problem for most!
Ultra cheap office space
Starbucks used be a great place (it's still good) to get work done for the home office worker.
With free WiFi and power, an inviting environment and unlimited caffeine at your disposal, it makes an attractive alternative to the home office on days when you just need a change.
Once you’re a Starbucks Rewards member, refills are free so you can actually just sit there all day long, drink as much as you want and only ever pay for one cup of joe. $2 for an entire day has got to be the best deal on office space around. If you did this every day, it would only cost $60 a month. Now that’s a cheap lease!
I wouldn’t recommend everyone flock to Starbucks and bum around there all day, everyday or else they’ll have to start kicking people out and change the rules...but it’s certainly nice for the odd change of scenery.
What’s your favourite drink at Starbucks?
Share your favourite drink in the comments to inspire us all for our next visit!