June 20, 2014 at 1:14 PM ET
Even if you’re a die-hard penny pincher, your daily Starbucks routine may be a habit you’re just not willing to kick. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of Starbucks addicts online, sharing tips for how to shave cents or even dollars off each cup. We tested eight of the hacks they brag about the most, to see which ones actually work and which ones will waste your time — or turn the barista into your sworn enemy. Here’s what we found:
Hack 1: Pay half price for an iced latte.
Did it work? Sort of. We jerry-rigged our own iced latte by ordering three espresso shots over ice in a venti cup, then we added the milk ourselves at the bar. The total cost at our neighborhood Starbucks ran us $2.45 instead of nearly $5: a huge savings. But we asked ourselves this: Is it OK to fill up a 24-ounce iced venti cup with lots of milk that we didn’t explicitly pay for? Somehow we haven’t gotten raised eyebrows from baristas when we’ve tested this hack, but maybe we’ve just been lucky.
Hack 2: Order a tall coffee in a grande cup to avoid dumping coffee when you add milk.
Did it work? Yes. We’ve even tried it with a two-size differential (a tall coffee in a grande and a venti cup) without any dirty looks or confusion. The savings? Modest but not negligible. If a grande coffee costs $2.65, but you spill out one sixth of it each time, that’s about $3 a week (or $150 a year) that you’re literally pouring down the drain. Plus a bigger cup makes it less likely that you’ll spill coffee while speed-walking.
Hack 3: Order cheaper chai tea instead of a chai tea latte.
Did it work? It worked for us. Instead of paying roughly $3.95 for a grande chai latte, we bought a cup of hot water with a Tazo chai tea bag for $2.15 — nearly half the price — and added our own milk. We didn’t miss the pre-mixed latte, plus our version had fewer calories and less sugar. If you really crave the frothiness of a chai latte, you can ask for steamed milk with your tea. As one barista told us on a recent visit, up to one and a half inches of milk added to any drink is free. Two inches in the cup or more, and the extra fee will depend on the specifics of your beverage order. (Who knew?) But if you really want a chai tea latte — no compromises — get one. You deserve it.
Hack 4: Pay half for coffee by ordering a French press.
Did it work? Yes. We went in with a couple of friends and asked for the French press, and our local Starbucks barista cheerfully accommodated our order. But she had to check on the details, since that store rarely does French press coffee anymore now that it has a Clover, a fancy single-cup brewing machine. That said, the French press we ordered cost $3.50 for around 32 ounces — about half the price of the per-cup cost if everyone ordered separately.
Hack 5: Save a few bucks on two Frappucinos by splitting a venti.
Did it work? Yes. A venti Frappuccino is 24 ounces, and tall cups are 12 ounces each. But the larger size costs only marginally more than a tall — so instead of around $8 for the two tall drinks, you’ll pay just about $5 for one venti. But here’s a tip: Ask for the venti along with two empty tall cups, instead of having the barista split it for you. Our barista offered the extra cups with zero attitude, but said she’d have to charge for the two talls if she were to split the drink herself.
Hack 6: Order the secret (cheaper!) "short" size.
Did it work? Yup, the short size (8 ounces) really does exist. And it’s not so secret after all — it's even listed on Starbucks’ online menus, just not in most stores. Price? $1.65 for a short drip coffee and $2.85 for a short latte at our neighborhood Starbucks. (But keep in mind that for all drinks, prices can vary regionally.)
Hack 7: Order drip coffee when the supply runs out and get a free cup.
Did it work? Our attempts to test this failed miserably. The claim is that if you happen to order coffee right when they've run out — and they have to make you wait while they brew more — they'll compensate you with a freebie. But this hack is hard to pull off unless you have unlimited time to watch ever-so-carefully for the right moment to pounce — then manage to be next in line to order. (Then again, college students looking for any excuse to procrastinate, we have the perfect project for you.) We can verify that Starbucks does offer vouchers when something goes wrong. When our recent breakfast order was delayed, our barista handed us a free-drink coupon as compensation. So we know those prefab make-good vouchers do exist behind the counter. If you're ever kept waiting too long for an order, ask and you just might receive.
Hack 8: Score free coffee by asking the right questions.
Did it work? No. We'd heard that you can get a free sample of Starbucks VIA instant coffee (sold at around $10 for a 12-pack of the water- or milk-soluble packets) if you sound interested and ask lots of questions about it. But when we expressed a faux curiosity about the product, we didn’t get any freebies. On the other hand, if you’re willing to skip your daily Starbucks visit and make their instant coffee at home, you can drink much more cheaply this way — or save even more by brewing a less-pricey brand. But if Starbucks is more about the ritual than the drink for you, this approach obviously won’t cut it.
If you test out these hacks at your local branch and manage to befriend the baristas in the process — instead of just getting eye-rolls — maybe they’ll even start spelling your name right on the cup. Now that’s a hack we can get excited about.