Tired of whipping up dinner every night and brewing coffee at home every morning? Why not treat yourself to a meal or coffee out on occasion -- without blowing your budget?
Eating at a restaurant might seem like an indulgence, but what if you were rewarded every time you ate at your favorite dinner spot or grabbed a cup of coffee at your local Starbucks? Chain restaurants around the country offer loyalty programs as a way of saying thanks to their most die-hard fans, and the more you indulge your cravings, the more money you save.
Loyalty programs are commonplace at many chains, but some rewards are definitely more lucrative than others. We've rounded up the best programs out there so you can eat for free, asap. It's time to make those Frappuccinos start working for you!
No time to save money by making coffee at home? You might as well make the most out of buying your brew with My Starbucks Rewards (available at both Starbucks and Teavana).
Consumers earn "Stars" by paying with a Starbucks Card or mobile app, or by entering "Star codes" from packaged coffee from the grocery store. The more Stars you earn, the more items you get for free!
Enrolling in the program gives you access to special discounts and a 15%-off, online-only coupon on your birthday and five Stars earns you free refills. Reaching 30 Stars gets you a free drink or food item for every additional 12 Stars you collect, a flashy, personalized gold card, and exclusive access to discount coupons, such as one dollar off your daily breakfast sandwich, free syrups or free soy milk.
What could be better than free donuts? Answer: nothing. Luckily, the folks at Dunkin' are serving up a DD Perks Rewards Program, where loyal customers earn five points per $1 spent using their pre-loaded DD Card.
Once you hit 200 points, you'll get a free medium drink coupon to redeem at participating Dunkin' stores! You also get 200 points just for joining, plus a free drink on your birthday. (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!)
If Starbucks isn't your cup of tea (er, coffee) and you're looking to earn rewards, you might want to open a Caribou Perks account. Caribou likes to surprise consumers with rewards ranging from size upgrades or free baked goods to drinks on the house. You'll never know when you might earn a freebie, but the more you use your card, the more you'll earn!
The downside? Once you’ve earned a perk, it’s only good for seven days -- so get it while it’s hot.
Not a coffee person? David's Tea is the place to be. By becoming a Frequent Steeper, you earn points toward free tea every time you make a purchase in-store or online. Earn one point for each dollar you spend, and enjoy 2 ounces of free bagged tea once you reach 100 points.
Points are converted into tea rewards every three months and you have exactly 60 days to make your purchase. However, leftover points will roll over into the next three-month period -- just be sure you redeem them before the end of the year when they expire. And yes, you’ll get a free cup of tea for signing up, and another on your birthday.
Lucky enough to live in a state with Tasti D Lite? Now you can enjoy this low-calorie ice cream for free with the TreatCard, which earns one point for every $1 spent on qualified products. Once you accumulate 50 points (read: spend $50) you get a free medium cup or cone!
You’ll also get free ice cream on your birthday, plus extra points for registering your card online and connecting your account to Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare when you make a purchase.
If you prefer your ice cream with a few extra toppings, check out 16 Handles' rewards program. Earn 25 points right off the bat when you open a Rewards Card, and an additional one point per $1 spent on creamy goodness. Once you hit 50 points, you'll get a $5 reward to put toward your next cup or cone.
Even better? You'll have access to email and text message offers for free items, discounts and double points.
Frozen-yogurt eatery Pinkberry keeps things simple by nixing the points system entirely. Instead, they give loyal, PinkCard-holding customers a free yogurt after every tenth purchase! And fear not, you most definitely get a free yogurt on your birthday.
Looking to indulge your sweet tooth with something healthy? Check out the Jamba Insider rewards system. Just enter your phone number before making a purchase, and you'll earn one point for every dollar you spend. A mere 35 points later, you'll get a $3 reward offer to use toward any purchase within 60 days.
Customers can also expect "surprise" awards, like a free small smoothie on your birthday, as well as discounts on juices, food and merchandise. Plus, you'll get $3 off just for joining!
Rita's Ice knows what's up when it comes to making customers happy. Their loyalty program is dynamic, exciting and easy to navigate. Simply sign up for a virtual loyalty punch card and you'll earn a free regular-sized Italian Ice on your 8th visit. You earn virtual punches on your card every time you visit, so it doesn't matter how much money you spend as long as you hit the minimum purchase (a regular-sized Italian Ice).
You'll also get a free punch if you sign up using Facebook, and you can always play Rita's addictive game, "Rita's Italian Ice Factory," on your phone to earn even more punches.
CPK's reward system is obviously called Pizza Dough. How could it not be?
Earning said dough is easy. For every $100 spent with your rewards card, you get $5 in Pizza Dough, which you can redeem at your next visit. You'll also get a "small plate" for registering, special member benefits (like discounts!) along the way, and a complimentary dessert during your birthday month. Make sure to use Pizza Dough 90 days after you earn it or it'll expire!
Signing up with the BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse Premier Rewards system gives you access to all kinds of treats: not only do you get one point per $1 spent eating at BJ's or buying BJ's gear, your points earn a variety of prizes. 75 points earns you $5 off, 100 points gets you a free "Pizookie" (delish!), 150 points means $10 off, and 350 points is worth $25 off.
Meanwhile, you'll make extra points for linking your account to Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare to the tune of one point per social network.
If you're as obsessed with burgers as we are, check out The Counter's loyalty program (aka "The List"). Earn 10 Dining Points for every $1 spent, 200 Dining Points just for registering your card, and 300 Referral Points when you successfully refer a friend.
If you earn 600 Dining Points you'll get get $5 in rewards, and if you earn 1200 Referral Points you'll have $10 in rewards. Plus, you can expect a birthday shake -- not to mention free fries when you register, and surprise bonuses throughout the year.
MyPanera Rewards are designed to be as simple as possible, which means you don't have to keep track of points or rewards. Just swipe your MyPanera card every time you make a purchase, and you'll be rewarded with surprises like free food, recipe books, invitations to events and baking tips.
But let's concentrate on the whole "free food" thing. Panera likes to keep its rewards secretive, but users say the most frequent deals come in the form of on-the-house drinks, pastries, bowls of soup or salads.
Who wouldn't want to eat in a rainforest for free? By becoming a Select Club member at Rainforest Cafe, you'll be treated to a $25 coupon as a welcome reward, an additional $25 for every $250 spent, another $25 as a birthday treat, 10% off retail purchases and priority seating.
TGI Friday's has perhaps the most dynamic loyalty program on our list. Like other rewards programs, Give Me More Stripes lets customers earn one "stripe" per $1. The difference? You choose when you want to cash in. Redeem 50 stripes for a free dessert, 80 for a free sandwich or burger, 100 for an $8 coupon or seafood/chicken entree, and 150 for a steak or ribs entree. The choice is yours!
You'll also get a "jump-the-line pass" and a free appetizer or dessert just for joining, as well as a free birthday dessert, the occasional surprise treat and an additional "jump-the-line pass" after every third visit.
Your Turn: What’s your favorite restaurant, dessert or coffee loyalty program?
Mehera Bonner is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She's obsessed with reality television, pizza, and finding new ways for her family of four to save money.