Starbucks Gaming and the Art of Optimization

For Basic Nerds


No, not BASIC nerds – that’s a different thing. I’m talking basic nerdish parents, who drink Starbucks and babywear at Target.

So I’ll be straight up that I’m a sucker for Starbucks promos. I spend way too much cash at Starbucks year round. I’ve written many of these blog posts there. (Not this one, ironically.) I drink “coffee” there that is actually like a full day’s calories in sugar and dairy. But the games are where they really get me.

Optimization Addict

There’s just something so satisfying to me about optimization projects. I love packing for a trip to figure out how I can get the most stuff into the smallest space – consequently I’m terrible at packing for a move because my boxes near black-hole-level density. We’re starting the house-hunting process and my favorite part so far is mapping out open houses based on the most efficient route between neighborhoods. Even that will soon become secondary if I figure out how to design some kind of algorithm to compare weighted pros and cons for each house – in fact that exact process is how we ended up in this city for Dr. Nerd’s residency. He made a pros and cons list and I said “That’s cool, but let’s make it a whole lot more complicated…”

Starbucks capitalizes on this so well with their annual Bingo and Hopscotch games. (Less so with the games that utilize random chance, but I’m sure those appeal to their own crowd.) They incentivize specific purchases by offering extra “bonus stars” beyond what you would normally earn. But because the challenges can stack, it adds an interesting optimization element to my excessive sugar and caffeine consumption.

Starbucks Rewards

Starbucks Rewards is a free program that anyone who goes to Starbucks with any regularity already knows about, but I’m still always surprised to see customers there not using it. It’s more annoying than most loyalty programs because it requires you to use a funded Starbucks gift card rather than just swiping your card and paying with cash or a credit card – though you could, in theory, just ask them to reload your card each time with the exact amount of your purchase. The most hands-off option is to just set it up with a card that will auto-reload any time that you drop below a certain threshold. I’m in the middle and make sure I’m completely aware each time I add on another $10.

The rewards program offers a birthday treat, free refills, and 2 points (called stars) on each dollar you spend. They recently changed up the redemption rates, making it more complicated, but for 150 stars you can get a free drink, made however ridiculously you want. Though maybe don’t order a drink with 33 shots of espresso at your regular store.

Photo courtesy of Rafel AL Saadi from Pexels

Star Dash/Double Star Days

In addition to your 2 stars per dollar, Starbucks regularly has double star days when – you guessed it – you get 4 stars per dollar spent instead of 2

They also have “star dash” promotions that are focused, limited-time campaigns dependent on your purchase history (what, when, and how often you buy from Starbucks). Lately I’ve been getting a lot of offers for extra stars when I make a certain number of purchases, or visit a certain number of days in a row. I also get a lot of challenges involving buying frappuccinos – a sucker’s deal, except I was going to buy them anyway.

Bonus Star Bingo

One thing I actually find interesting is the apparent level of optimization Starbucks themselves must do in order to personalize these challenges to their advantage. The Bingo card, like the Star Dashes, are customized with our purchase histories taken into account.

People who don’t visit Starbucks that often won’t really make the most out of the game. They’re likely to have “easy” challenges compared with others, but it’s not worth it to them to play since they rarely go to Starbucks. Daily customers get the short end of the stick, as they’re encouraged to visit outside their usual hours and buy outside their regular preferences. It’s almost as if Starbucks’ main goal is to get people in-store, making more purchases, and not to reward us for money we would have spent anyway.

Customers like me who visit regularly, but also go days and sometimes weeks without making purchases seem to be right in the sweet spot. We can go often enough to make the game worth it, while visiting infrequently enough that they still feel the need to lure us in. Here’s my board as of this minute:

  1. Order on the Way

Use the app to place an order, two times.
This one is unreasonably easy and I’d probably get it done accidentally.

  1. Great Morning

Purchase a breakfast sandwich or sous vide egg bites.
Their breakfast foods are good, but pricey. This is one I may skip, especially as it opposes Lunch Break. This is where you start to weigh the costs vs. benefits.

  1. All Day

Make a purchase before and after noon, in a single day.
This is one I sometimes struggle with, but one day I found myself at Starbucks with the kids right around 11, working on blog posts. Around 11:45 MGF started telling me she was hungry so I asked her to wait. Done in a single visit. (Too bad she didn’t want a sandwich!)

  1. Coffee with Friends

Buy 3 handcrafted drinks in a single purchase.
Because Dr. Nerd really doesn’t like anything from Starbucks, this one can be hard. My current plan is two kids’ hot cocoas and an espresso. MGF gets a hot chocolate and I can have a DIY mini-mocha.

  1. Monday Funday

Make a purchase after 2 PM on a Monday
I didn’t read the fine print here and thought I was going to get it this week.

  1. Week-ender

Make a purchase on two separate weekend days

  1. Lunch Break

Purchase any lunch item after 11AM

  1. On a Roll

Make a purchase two days in a row.

For me it’s not about figuring out the exact bare minimum that I can spend. It’s not a bargain if it’s not something that I actually want.

Free Refills

This isn’t a matter of optimization quite so much (although there are ways to game the system and I do like to try to take Starbucks trips when I can stay long enough to drink two refills) but it is a tip that a lot of people don’t know about. Including baristas, but they tend to honor it either way.

For members of their rewards program, Starbucks offers free “refills” on iced or hot coffee, iced or hot tea, and cold brew. The important thing to note is that they spell out explicitly that your refill drink is without regard to what your original drink was.

For me that usually means following up a frappuccino with a half green/half passion tango unsweetened iced tea since by then I’m ready to chill it on the caffeine a bit (that’s my last Starbucks tip because it’s delicious), but technically it can also mean buying a drip coffee and then getting unlimited refills of cold brew.

The Plan

I made one more trip yesterday (Saturday) to work on my star dashes.

I’m a totally digital person, usually, but sometimes when I am working on something with different pieces like this I need to write them down. Here’s my thoughts (from before yesterday’s visit).

(scanned from my Rocketbook – a post for another day)

Following today’s trip, which filled in the entire left column, I have only 3 purchases to go.

I could do only Monday Funday, which would earn 5 points for the square and 30 for the row and column. But between the bingo bonus stars and the two current star dashes (both of which require I go to Starbucks again tomorrow) I can earn almost two whole drinks of my choosing by making those purchases. For me, that math works out.

To earn all the stars on the table, all I need is to visit tomorrow for a frappuccino and breakfast sandwich, then again on Monday afternoon for a lunch offering. By then everything will be completed except Monday Funday and lunch break.

Your thoughts?

Let me know if you have any of your own Starbucks tricks or if you’ve got your own Starbucks Bingo board you need some assistance with optimizing. Hit us up in the comments on on Discord!

All that Nerdish

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