Perpetually on a strict budget and perpetually craving caffeinated concoctions, I ask myself variations of these questions often. Starbucks isn’t cheap. Even a tall coffee, costs a minimum of $1.95 in the U.S. But no matter how I reason with myself about how I could be better spending or investing my money, I end up forking over bucks at SBUX at few times a week.
Someday, perhaps, I’ll kick my habit for specialty brews and pumpkin spice lattes, but for now, I’d rather find a way to enjoy the indulgence without the financial guilt. So, I consulted a number of Starbucks fanatics and deals experts to compile a list of the ultimate hacks to save money at America’s (if not the world’s) favorite coffeehouse chain. I’ve been patronizing Starbucks for well over a decade and I was pretty surprised by just how few of these I knew.
Always use the app to pay — as little as 25 points gets you a free customization
According to eMarketer, the Starbucks Rewards app is the most used proximity mobile payment app, used by over 23.4 million consumers ages 14 and up at least once every six months. Its popularity eclipses both Apple Pay and Google Pay. Certainly, Starbucks has succeeded in selling patrons on the app, but folks could use a refresher on just how important it is to use it every single time you buy something from Starbucks, because every purchase made with the app yields you stars or points which can eventually be redeemed for freebies.
“It’s absolutely amazing how so many people who patronize Starbucks on a daily basis don't utilize the app,” Joy Hearn, the founder of the consumer savings-oriented Facebook page Cards and Clips. “Within the app are hidden treasures so it's important to scan the app with every purchase you make. For instance, most people have no idea that for as little as 25 points you can add a free customization to your beverage order, or that on many occasions Starbucks will double the points on your purchases to make it quicker for you to redeem them for free food and beverages.”
Starbucks also touts games on the app that enable you the chance to win more goodies with your purchases.
“Their most recent Summer Game just ended,” notes Romy Taormina, a California resident and Starbucks regular. “I earned more than 600 points during the latest game, which is the equivalent of about $25 worth of free drinks.”
Free coffee and tea refills, too, with the app
When you use the Starbucks Rewards app, you can come back for free refills of not only hot coffee, but cold brew as well as hot and iced tea, as long as you're in the same cafe.
“You can order a cup of brewed tea, like Earl Grey, and as long as you use your registered Starbucks Card or the mobile app to pay, you can then present that same card or app and receive free refills,” says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst at DealNews. “And if you like your tea in latte form, you can just top off your brewed tea at the milk station.”
This is an especially helpful tip if you’re planning to hang at Starbucks for hours of work or study.
“Just get a tall coffee,” says savings blogger Caroline Vencil, who worked as a barista at Starbucks for four years. “You can get as many refills as you want while you’re there.”
Get the Starbucks holiday mug — ideally at Target — for January freebies
“Get the Starbucks holiday refillable/reusable mug, [which] is usually a grande,” says Taormina. “It usually retails for $40. If you purchase it at a Target Starbucks, you can use your Target Visa and save 5 percent off the purchase. Using this mug, you can get one free cup of coffee or tea (hot or cold) daily during the entire month of January. That is a value of approximately $2.50/day x 31 days during January = $77.50. Plus, you can use this (or any personal mug) to qualify for their personal cup discount of $.10.”
There's no guarantee Starbucks will offer this promotion again this year, but keep your eyes peeled for announcement closer to December.
Ask for ‘light ice’ or ‘no water’
One of my favorite beverages at Starbucks is an iced green tea matcha latte with coconut milk, but I scarcely permit myself the splurge because the pricey drink disappears within five gulps, and I’m left with a packed cup of cloudy ice.
“Ask for ‘light ice’ or ‘less ice’,” says Ramhold. “It’s a good way to get more of your drink.”
You can also get a stronger iced tea by asking for the drink sans water.
“Whatever iced tea you order, ask for no water,” Ramhold says. “The teas are made stronger in the pitchers then watered down for each order, so if you order no water, you'll get a stronger tasting tea.”
Ordering a venti tea? Experiment with two flavors
One fun tip I was introduced to a while back, is that a venti tea comes with two tea bags. If you’re feeling adventurous, go for two different flavors. This is also a good hack if you want to dial down the caffeine. A green tea plus lemon ginger combo is one my favorites on chilly days.
Syrups and milk splashes can transform a basic drink
“You can order an iced espresso or iced Caffè Americano and then add as many syrups and different milk splashes as you want and it only costs a flat price of $0.50 [with the app],” says Mike Ross, the co-owner of Majesty Coffee and a Starbucks regular based in New Jersey. “If you pre-order a similar flavored pre-made drink in a latte or macchiato [on the app], it's going to cost way more. In the app, you can really understand how the drinks are crafted and make your own cheaper versions.”
Turn a basic espresso into a fancy iced latte
Want the fancy iced coffee drink without the fancy price tag? Just get a large espresso with plenty of room for milk.
“If you want an iced latte, order a triple espresso in a venti cup and leave room for milk,” says Ramhold. “Then add the milk of your choice to get an iced latte that costs less than just ordering a venti iced latte. You'll save yourself at least $2 doing this.”
A Caffè Misto is a lot like a hot latte, but cheaper
“If you prefer a hot latte, try ordering a Caffè Misto instead,” says Ramhold. “It's half coffee, half milk, so you get a similar taste but it tends to cost at least $1 less. Alternatively, order a tall coffee in a grande cup so you can have room for milk and DIY your own latte at the milk station.”
One grande cold brew can make two grande lattes
“Cold brew coffee is inherently strong — so strong, in fact, that one 16. oz [grande] cold brew coffee can actually be transformed into two 16. oz iced lattes,” says Evan Sutherland, co-founder of Budgeting Couple. “Simply pour half of your cold brew over milk, and voila, you’ve cut your Starbucks expense in half.”
Save on a dirty chai
Like a dirty chai but don’t want to splurge? Ramhold suggests ordering a regular latte with chai syrup instead.
“It'll taste the same, but you'll save money by asking for the syrup rather than paying for espresso shots to be added to your chai latte,” says Ramhold.
Switch up the way you order your Caramel Macchiato
Vencil reveals something that may be just a tad devastating to those of us who’ve been shelling out extra money for caramel macchiatos.
“A caramel macchiato is just a vanilla latte with caramel drizzle,” Vencil says. Although they're made slightly differently (according to Starbucks, the macchiato is more espresso-forward), the elements are the same. So, save some cash by ordering the latter instead.
For possible free drinks, go during employee training hours
“Ask an employee what day they typically train new employees,” says Susan Harris, owner of Rooted Mama Health. “Part of the training process is for new employees to practice making drinks which they will then give out for free. At my local Starbucks [in Raleigh, North Carolina], they typically will train new employees around 2:00pm on Wednesdays.”
Take advantage of the secret cup size
“You may go to Starbucks all the time, but did you know that they serve a secret 8 oz cup that is cheaper than all the other sizes?” says Harris. “Next time you just need a small amount of coffee, you can save some money by ordering a ‘short’ size.”
Hit up Starbucks in the late afternoon for ‘Happy Hour’
Happy hours aren’t just for bars, they’re for Starbucks, too.
“Most folks don't even know Starbucks has Happy Hour and it's a shame,” says Hearn. “Depending on the offer, happy hour will offer deals such as BOGO or half-off drinks.”
Whipped cream is always free as is water
Want to snazz up your coffee or chai latte with some added sweetness? Ask for a topping of whipped cream.
“You can ask for whipped cream on any drink order, and it will be added for no extra charge,” says Deals Scoops blogger Stacy Caprio. “This is one of my favorite Starbucks hacks and makes any drink more fun and tasty for the same price.”
Note that tap water is also always free at Starbucks. Just ask for it at the checkout and they’ll serve it to you in a Starbucks cup, ideally with your name bizarrely misspelled.