I admit, I started with doubt. My wife came home with what Starbucks calls the January refill travel mug. For $30, it was a relatively inexpensive Christmas gift to each other. The concept of the January mug is pretty simple: you buy the mug, and during the month of January, Starbucks will fill it an unlimited amount of times. Once January 31st says hello to February 1st, you own a travel mug, and you can continue to get 10cents off the price of a cup of coffee anytime in the future.
Whenever I hear the words “unlimited refills” it perks me up.
And yet I doubted. $30 is steep. We really don’t need another travel mug. But most of all I questioned, is this actually a good deal?
I definitely reveled in a fantasy sometimes when I handed my mug over to the various baristas. “I’ll have blonde roast this time.” They fill it up no questions asked, no money exchanges hands. I muse to myself that the people in line behind me are staring wide-eyed thinking, “How did he do that? What is this magical free refill mug in his hands?” Free refills feels good.
That satisfaction evaporated when I did cost-benefit analysis.
If I purchased the most expensive coffee allowable in the refill mug, which is a grande coffee with a double shot of espresso for $3.45 (specialties like lattes or mochas are not included in the promotion), it wouldn’t take long to see how this could be a good deal. 10 of those guys would do it. But to avoid my head exploding from caffeine overdose, I usually got a combination of regular and decaf. Even then, I would only need to buy about 15-20 cups. But who goes to Starbucks that many times in a month? Maybe those of you for whom Starbucks is your second office. For me, wanting to make this purchase worth it, I endeavored to fill the January mug 2-3 times every day. The mug itself says free refills are limited to one per day, but none of the Starbucks employees batted an eye when I kept coming back. Actually, at my very first fill-up, I asked “How does this work?” The barista responded that it was truly unlimited, so I went for it. Over and over again. My goal was 100 refills for the month.
As I drank all that Starbucks coffee, what I realized I needed to do with the cost-benefit analysis was not compare the January mug with regular purchases at Starbucks. Instead I needed to compare it with brewing at home. We normally drink enough coffee at home to necessitate the purchase of two 2lb bags of coffee every month. Costco sells Kirkland-brand fair trade coffee roasted by Starbucks. One bag of decaf and one regular costs a total of $25, and it sometimes lasts us a whole month drinking a pot or two each day. Admittedly, this is not a scientific analysis. But for $5 less than the cost of the refill mug, home brewing averages about one extra mug per day. We also save time and money by not driving to Starbucks. Because we have well-water, a permanent coffee filter, and equipment purchased long ago, our incidental cost of brewing at home is minimal, just a tiny amount of electricity, cream and sugar. The cost-benefit analysis result is clear: it is cheaper to brew at home.
There is also another hidden cost that is hard to quantify, easy to ignore, but just may be the most important of all: Starbucks coffee hardly ever uses fair trade coffee, so I just went a whole month likely supporting slave-made coffee. That’s more than enough reason we never should have gotten the January mug in the first place and should seriously consider boycotting Starbucks altogether.
On the positive side, there is something I have not mentioned, and it too is hard to place a value on: the interaction I had with the employees at Starbucks. Did we become friends? No. But if I would continue going through the drive-thru each morning, I think friendship could follow. Both the morning guy and the afternoon guy were very interesting and engaging, traits that were obvious even from only a few minutes of face-time each day. Who can put a price on that? I think Starbucks should continue the free refills for another month so I can make new friends!
In the last few days as February neared, the guys asked what I was going to do when January was over. I told them about my cost-benefit analysis, and even gave them a spreadsheet version I made. Sadly, I said, I would stop coming to Starbucks. They were disappointed, whether due to company loyalty or our talks each morning, I don’t know.
The afternoon guy had a wonderful idea. He suggested I make the last day a marathon coffee-drinking session. He even said that I could bring an urn, and keeping driving round and round the drive-thru, gradually filling it up, like Joshua and the battle of Jericho mounting a major circular offensive on the final day. I asked if I could invite all my friends to Starbucks and use my mug to fill up theirs too? He said, sure, why not? If my schedule would have allowed it, I would have tried it. Party at Starbucks! Free Coffee all afternoon!
Then I thought, what if we turn it into a fundraiser? For every free cup of coffee people receive on that last day, we would encourage them to make a donation to the local Food Bank. We just might have to try, that is, if Starbucks runs the promotion again next year!
Unless I decide to drive out to Starbucks one more time tonight, I just drank my last sip from the last refill on the last day. It’s been fun!