Starbucks Rewards: A Journey to the Stars

  • For fans of the chain, Starbucks Rewards is worth joining
  • The program redemption “equation” has changed, for the better (mostly)
  • Use Drop to refill your Starbucks card/app, if possible

I read somewhere that Starbucks has the most-used digital currency in the world. They claim over 16M app users, so it’s not hard to believe. You should be one of them, if you’re even a casual fan.

Starbucks is without question the most sophisticated player of the loyalty game I’ve seen. I imagine a huge digital control center where all your purchases – and, though I choose not to think too hard about it, all the rest of your personal info – is fed into a huge computer (let’s call him “Howard”). Then boom! Out pops a continuous stream of offers designed to a) get you to purchase something you likely already like, but haven’t bought recently enough, and b) stop you from cashing in your rewards points, by heading you off at the pass with a can’t-resist offer.

I like to think I’m immune to the tricks of the loyalty trade, but who am I kidding. These guys are masters.

Bottom line: if you’re a regular coffee (or whatever a “Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino” is) drinker, there’s some savings to be had. I’ll avoid the debate about the quality of Starbucks coffee, which rages elsewhere and constantly.

Before diving into Starbucks Rewards, it pays to read this classic from one of my favorite sites, Lifehacker, that goes into detail on how to “hack” Starbucks for more bang for your buck. It involves some heavy lifting, but if you’re a devotee – or just find extreme saving amusing, as I do – it’s worthwhile.

The Starbucks reward program awards “stars” for purchases using the app or your pre-loaded loyalty card, at the rate of 2 stars per dollar spent. The chain runs occasional “double star” days and other promos so you can build a war chest more easily. And of course they make it astonishingly easy to add to your app/card cash balance, so you’re never left under-caffeinated. You’re frequently invited to use the somewhat new Starbucks Visa Card, with the promise of vast star payoffs in the offing.

But beware: if you step up to the counter and use cash, no stars for you!

Stars can be redeemed for food and merchandise in-store or online. The “exchange rate” used to be simple: 125 stars got you anything on the menu. So of course the game was to buy cheap stuff and redeem for expensive stuff. A series of $2 coffee purchases and the odd promo would allow you to redeem for the highest calorie, artery-clogging concoction you’d never seriously consider buying otherwise. This may or may not have been a good thing, but it was a thing.

But now they’ve gotten wise to this game and modified the program so that menu items are available for varying star totals.

In many ways, this is an improvement. I like a cup without the trimmings, and now I can get one for a reasonable star total. It also helps me stifle the urge to order one of their most egregious crimes against arterial health just because it made star economy sense.

Pro tip: use your Drop account to refill your account balance in the app or card, and you’re getting jittery for much less. Drop pays off in gift cards, and Starbucks is generally the one I choose, although there are other options.

If only Peets had such a program. Now that’s a cup of coffee.

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