With winter weather settling in, it’s really tempting for me to drive down the street to the nearest Starbucks and get a hot, delicious drink. I have a Keurig at home, but it’s just not the same. I’m falling for the marketing gimmick – and come on, I’m a marketer for a living!

My typical Starbucks total is about $5 a visit. A cup of coffee at home is almost free in comparison. So why do I go? For the same reason I buy an iPhone every year – it’s the way the product or company makes me feel. But unlike Apple, Starbucks has an extra-sneaky marketing trick up their sleeve: a super effective loyalty program. I visited Starbucks maybe 3 or 4 times a year prior to joining their loyalty program. Now I go about three times a week or so and I’m determined to reach Gold status – if you couldn’t tell by now it’s certainly not helping me reach my get-out-of-debt-by-25 goal.

Let’s analyze my behavior. The Starbucks loyalty program is a horrible return on investment. A free drink every 12 transactions? A free item on your birthday? An extra hour of buy-one get-one specials? A special sneak-peek period for a new drink? The benefits of Gold status are pretty sad! But, it’s the process of getting to Gold status and the way a transaction is completed via the mobile app that keep me coming back. Why? A clever marketing strategy, that’s why.

To highlight another loyalty program example, I recently persuaded my significant other to cut up her Kohl’s Charge Card. Her credit limit that she was approved for back in college was a paltry $300, which made it easy to pay off each month even if she wanted to spend the whole credit line, so that wasn’t the big deal. The big deal was the loyalty program that came with it. An ad came in the mail every month and always offered about 20-30% off, and the in-store discounts and cash-back rewards never ended. Isn’t it funny how we, as rational human beings, find it really hard to pass up a ‘deal’ but we find it much harder to see the idiocy that’s in that rationale, and perhaps even harder to escape the rat wheel once we’re on it?

If I wasn’t trying to get out of debt, I’d probably find it easier to justify my use of the Starbucks loyalty program. But, I’ve got tens of thousands of dollars of debt to eliminate in a short timeframe, and dropping $20 or so per week on something I could get for close to $0 at home makes no financial sense. The bottom line is that I (and you, and we) need to cut up loyalty cards, delete the loyalty apps, and forego the false pleasure that a ‘free drink’ or ‘30% off’ or getting ‘one star closer to Gold’ brings. It’s tough to fight the marketing noise coming from these huge companies, so the best thing we can do is eliminate ties with them, cut expenses, and keep chipping away at debt or building wealth.

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