I Got a Political and Economic Wake Up Call — From Starbucks

Until last week, I was your typical, “basic” (to put it not so delicately) millennial.
Publish date:
March 7, 2016
economics, Starbucks, middle class

At 2:17 p.m. last Monday afternoon, I became embarrassingly and acutely aware of economic inequalities in American society thanks to an email from Starbucks. No, the endorsed political messages and finely-penned journalism apparently hadn’t grabbed my attention enough to the point of understanding in recent years, but a Starbucks Reward Program Update sure as hell did the trick.

You see, up until last week, I was your typical, “basic” (to put it not so delicately) millennial. I don’t come close to making the median household income for Denver county, but I manage to pay my rent and credit card bills, and I worship at the temple of Starbucks to keep me caffeinated so that I can subsidize a social life with freelance writing. I’ll be the first to admit that the 2016 election has more or less been on the back burner so far for me, because at 24 years old and a one-person household, I never really thought much applied to me yet when it came to politics — the naivety strikes me now.

When I got my first job at 14, my mother told me half of every paycheck had to go into savings. I kept up this habit until I graduated college, and I was able to pay Sallie Mae back before I started my first big girl job at 21, a feat that still astounds me to this day. I don’t have any kids, but I’m grateful for the Planned Parenthood and the doctor that handed me a Capris Sun after implanting my IUD. I’m appreciative that I’m on my parents’ health insurance because I’m inching closer and closer to my 26th birthday. Of course I knew that I belonged to the “99%,” but it wasn’t until recently that I truly understood how much harder I’m working economically to be a part of this class.

Starbucks offers a rewards program, of which I have been a proud card-carrying member since 2013. After acquiring 30 stars, a sparkly gold card with my name on it was mailed to my 346 sq. foot studio apartment. Each visit, regardless of amount spent, earned me one star, and after 12 stars I earned a reward, which I got to use on a pastry or a “frufru” drink like an iced mocha (my drink of choice is usually an Americano) if I was feeling fancy.

But on Monday my world shifted a bit.

According to Starbucks’ new Rewards Program, as of April every $1 now earns you two stars, but it will take 125 stars for a free reward. I happened to be reading this email with my boss, whose average Starbucks order totals a whopping $5.18 for a venti nonfat Caramel Macchiato, occasionally twice a day, but my usual tall Americano comes out to $2.45. In no way do I visit Starbucks on a daily basis, but for some reason this sent me through the roof.

People will now need to spend $62.50 to see their free reward, something that really should not even matter, let alone get my blood boiling, but this was the first time economics has truly mattered to me in my adult life. I will never see that free reward in a month’s time, and probably not even two, but my boss will see it within two weeks’ time, and within one if he sends me on more than one coffee run a day. The Rewards Program is apparently an answer to the “number one request” Starbucks had from its members, but it has a negative impact on its customers spending less than $5 per order, namely those who usually get a $2 drip coffee.

Embarrassingly and admittedly, Starbucks made me do my homework for the first time since graduating in 2013. Yeah, I heard Bernie Sanders say “income inequality” and “greatest moral issue of our time” over and over again every time I turned on the television, but last night I sat down at my desk and I dug through website after website, I made lists and I used highlighters like an actual student. If you had asked me a few weeks ago if I had planned on caucusing I would’ve shrugged and kept sipping my coffee. But there really are a lot of issues that affect millennials and will affect me, even if they might not right now.

So, there you have it. Starbucks gave me by political wake-up call, and I’ll live with that shame that it didn’t come from some great speech or long form. Meanwhile, I’ll suck down another Americano and get busy for tax season.