Hacking Starbucks: Cheap, and free.

There are very few people that spend as much time in a Starbucks as I do – somewhere between 20 and 40 hours a week. There are lots of reasons I choose to spend that much time in a Starbucks, and I'll cover those in another post. This post is about saving money while there.

The Gold Card
Last year, Starbucks started a preferred customer program called the Gold Card. It's a simple proposition: buy the Gold Card for $25 per year, and get 10% off of every purchase. The math is easy… if you spend $250 per year at Starbucks, you'll at least break even. For me, this would be a simple decision, I spend that in no time at all. (Truth be told, I was invited in to the program, so my Gold Card was free. 😉

The Gift Card
Starbucks also started a rewards program with the standard Starbucks cards last year. If you register your gift card online, you get several benefits. The important ones for this post are 1) free refills and add-ins, and 2) Two hours of free WIFI per day as long as there's activity on the card. Oddly the Gold Card doesn't offer free refills, so you need both to really gain.

Starbucks, by policy refills americanos with drip coffee only. If you make friends with the baristas, you can often have them “refill” an americano because it's easier.

Here's the trick
I use the gold card to make the initial purchase to save the 10%, and the Starbucks card for free refills. I have my gold card set to refill when a minimum balance is reached, and use it to pay for everything. That includes my initial coffee, and any food items I buy. This also makes tracking my coffee/Starbucks purchases really easy.

My preferred drink is a decaf americano, but this works for drip coffee too. I used to get a venti (the largest size), roughly twice a day. That's $5.54 per day, and the drip refills are free. Since refills are free, I decided to drop down to the smallest size, the “tall” size, which is $2ish before the 10% discount ($1.80 after). That means I'm saving $1.94 or 35% on my coffee drinks total per day all told.

Of course my savings are larger since I usually buy a food item in the morning. (FYI, the lowest calorie decent item on the menu is the Oatmeal, and it's $1.65)

Decaf refills in the afternoon
Starbucks recently changed to decaf drip on-demand in the afternoons. This sounds like a pain as you would have to wait for drip coffee to brew for your refill. In fact, it's a good thing, since making an americano is easier on the barista than getting a fresh pot of decaf going. Nine times out of 10, I'll get the refilled americano if I just ask for it.

The rule with a registered Starbucks gift card is that you get two hours of free wifi. The funny thing is that the limits aren't enforced as far as I can tell. So, for $5 one time on a gift card, and as long as you use the card (free refills count!) you get wifi at Starbucks.

AT&T WIFI service
Unlimited monthly service on the AT&T wifi network is $20/mo. That is a GREAT price if you spend anywhere as much time as I do in a Starbucks. Generally speaking, the reliability of the internet at a Starbucks on the AT&T network is incredible, and fast. This is the main reason I go to Starbucks so often… my business is the web, so it needs to be reliable. Indie shops, as much as I love them, come nowhere close.

I recently found a service called Boingo. It gives you access to all of the same locations as the $20/mo AT&T plan, for $9.95/mo. Why wouldn't you spend $10/mo for unlimited access at 75,000 locations? You would, go do that now.

Starbucks is in business to make money, I understand that, and these tips will not break them. There are plenty of people buying $5 drinks to more than make up for it.

If you have any other tips or suggestions for saving money at Starbucks, I'd LOVE to hear them. Leave a comment below!

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Husband, father, epic adventurer, perpetually curious, rule breaker, startup guy, innovator, maker.

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