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My Starbucks Gift Card

By Karen Austin

Photo by mmmm_Starbucks via Creative Commons

During the madness that is December, I left a yoga class at the YMCA and found an envelope under my windshield wiper.  It had “For you” written on the outside.  On the inside was a Starbucks gift card.

Most likely, it was a Christmas-themed random act of kindness.   After all, who would by a Mormon gal a gift card to a coffee shop?  It couldn’t be anyone who knew me very well.

What to do with the card? I’ve had business meetings at Starbucks before, so I knew that I could order hot chocolate or steamed milk.   I put the card in my purse, wondering, “What if someone sees me walking around with a Starbucks cup? Will they think I’ve had a change of heart about my religious affiliation?”

Who’s going to know? Who’s going to care? It only matters that I know what’s in my Starbuck’s cup.

But just in case, I used the gift card at the fourth-closest Starbucks from my house.

The barista was completely confused at my wanting to order just milk, vanilla and nutmeg without coffee as the base.  In his defense, he was new. His trainer had to tell him that steamed milk was on the menu.

As green barista prepared my non-coffee drink, I admit to myself that I am no purist. I’ve eaten coffee ice cream.  “It’s not a hot drink but a cold dessert” I explained to my Mountain-Dew-guzzling husband. He scolded me every time I ate that ice cream during our first year of marriage, sometimes admonishing me, “Live your religion, woman.”  I gave up coffee ice cream while pregnant and nursing, and I haven’t been back for 16 years.   I won’t drink decaf coffee out of principle, but I’ll drink decaffeinated green tea.

When the university has socials at local restaurants and bars, I order milk as a clear signal that my beverage is non-alcoholic.  I’ve lamented that I could never be a contestant on Top Chef because alcohol is so imbedded in chef culture.  But I’ve eaten foods cooked with wine, and I’ve eaten rum balls at office Christmas parties.  I’ll buy candies that are rum flavored for my kids. It’s just flavoring and not actual alcohol, right?

I’ve wondered how much vanilla added to my steamed milk crosses over into the realm of “that has alcohol in it, dear”?  How much raw chocolate chip cookie dough equals the amount of alcohol in a rum ball? How many raw cookies would cause the uncooked vanilla to register on a Breathalyzer test?

Much to the disappointment of my beef-raising relatives, I don’t eat much red meat.  I was also called out for this at a banquet held at the university here in Wichita, a place formerly called Cow Town and a stop on the Chisholm Trail. Lou, the head of dining services, came over to my seat and asked why I had only eaten a small portion of my “big-as-my-hand” cut of steak.

All eyes were on me. So much peer pressure to eat large slabs of beef. I wanted to quote, “Eating meat sparingly” to him. But the banquet was held at the local Catholic university, so D&C 89 isn’t a known text.  I shrugged, and Lou finally left.  I consoled myself about being called out while eating my mocha-chocolate cheesecake.

I might eat meat sparingly, but do I eat enough herbs and fruits in their season? True, I don’t always get the World Health Organization’s “5 a Day” guideline for a healthy amount of produce.  And do I eat too much sugar and other forms of glucose? I didn’t drink booze as a college student, but I did eat candy bars for breakfast and binge on dry brownie mix straight out of the box while working late on research papers.  Now I have hypoglycemia.   In my family, diabetes runs rampant.  I have to ask, “Is my broken metabolism a result of nature or nurture?”  I definitely feel more faint and weary if I indulge on quick carbs.

I was looking longingly at the bakery selection when I hear the barista call my name.  After I got my cup, I left the store to walk to my van.

Midpoint between the door and my van, I heard a voice, “Hey, Karen. Are you drinking coffee?”

The voice came from a car waiting in line at the drive thru. The occupant was Erin, the art teacher from my children’s elementary school.  My daughter socializes with her daughter, so Erin knows that I don’t drink coffee.  She, however, loves coffee so much that it was the theme for her bridal shower, which my daughter and I attended this past summer.  We were the only guests drinking ice water.

I walked over to her car and took the lid off my cup, “Erin, See? It’s steamed milk.”  She laughed. We talked a bit about her new blended family—his three kids and her one all under the same roof with the honeymooners.   Then I turn and start heading towards my van.

After three steps, I walked back to Erin’s car. “Here. Take my Starbucks card. It’s just too complicated.”

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

23 thoughts on “My Starbucks Gift Card”

  1. this post makes me sad. do I think HF's point in giving us health guidelines is to worry about the amount of alcohol in our extract or what others may see us eat/buy? Are we counting the steps on the Sabbath like the Jews of old? I understand the mixed feelings, but wish it could be different. If it were me I would give a big ol smile and say "ah, steamed milk (or herbal tea!)". FWIW I've loved and used every starbucks GC I've ever received :-).

  2. This makes me sad also. Why is what we do or do not eat and drink anyone else's business? I love starbucks and several other locally owned coffee shops here where I live and will continue to patronize them. The word of wisdom is a principle with a promise. It is not a blunt tool with which we hammer/judge others, but I am afraid that it is being used to ostracize and condemn. It was never intended for us to start to worry about adding vanilla extract to our cookie dough. What is inside your starbucks cup is YOUR business, and not anyone else's.

  3. Thanks, Karen. Loved the post. My wife is an elementary school teacher and as a result get lots of Starbucks cards over time. My wife thinks their hot chocolate is too rich and I do not drink sugared drinks. So the kids get the hot chocolate. On my current diet, coffee with cream would work, but it does not work for my Mormonism. So I stick with Diet Coke. 🙂

    Oh, I do count carbs like a Jew counting steps on the Sabbath. Please, please, let this make me a pharisee.

  4. I used to think everyone was watching and learning or making assumptions from what I did or didn't eat or drink, probably left over from my choosing to be a teetotaler in high school, a time of life where everyone thinks everyone is watching you and judging and is probably at least partially right about that. It made my word of wisdom living into something I felt needed to be clear to everyone. And I'd bother my poor mother about her love of Coke.

    And in college I'd get into big discussions about vegetarianism and stewardship and sugar, and alternate between dinners of soda pop and chinese pork buns and analyzing the nutrition and sustainability of every mouthful I took.

    Now I just live the law of health as I understand it, tweaking it as my understanding changes, and smile. I've found that most people aren't paying any attention to what I eat or drink. I live in beef country too and I compliment the chef on his cooking and take a bite and smile and leave the rest. And I laugh over the bottles of wine we are occasionally gifted at Christmas and put them, empty, along with the beer cans we find alongside the road in the recycle bin in front of our house and briefly wonder what the neighbors will think and then realize that they probably don't care. And I smile and decline and say I don't drink coffee, but thanks anyway, when a house guest offers me some of his instant coffee.

    People who know me and wonder about my health code, like your friend Erin, ask me questions. Everyone else doesn't really care what I eat or drink, except maybe the chef, who really just wants to know that I'm not unhappy with her cooking. Which I'm happy to reassure her about and brighten her day.

    This change took some time. Interestingly, I find that people who care to know still know where I stand on what I eat and drink. And it's a much happier place to operate from and our conversations about where I stand are much more cheerful and enjoyable for both of us. Which cheerfulness it sounds like you had bit of in your conversation with Erin. Am I right?

  5. I am a new convert and it took me awhile to understand the Word of Wisdom. The Lord has shown me that it is not only alcohol, coffee or drugs we are not to put into our bodies, which are His gift to us. But any other substances that will alter our decisions and poison our bodies. I believe sugar such as chocolate and candy were meant to fall right under the same category along with coffee, alcohol and drugs. Soda and chocolate have just as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. Do I still consume sugar? Yes, but very sparingly. We are to only put healthy things into our bodies that were given to us as a gift from God. Use the 'junk' sparingly. Work out and be as healthy as you can. And, no, do not judge others. That is for the Lord to do.

  6. One of my favorite verses concerning the attributes of God, is that in Him there is "no shadow of turning" and that "He walks not in crooked paths". For me, in striving to be worthy of "taking on the name of Christ", I struggle with the "appearance" of sin, versus the actual participation in the sin. What is sin anyway, a turning, even a gradual turning away from the One we love, more than life itself and going against the truth to accept the lie. It's so heavy to bear.

    How we obey the Lords commandments is personal to each of us, and I have found that at least for me, the Lord will stick by his promise of "making our burdens light" in the sense that He has not given any commandments that we would not be able to follow through on, if we give it our all. Jesus was criticized for hanging around tax collectors because everyone knew those collectors cheated people, were mean and so on. Guilt by association right? He hung around lepers, and prostitutes etc. But in all this he was tempted and did not sin. He used all of this as a teaching opportunity.

    As a new convert, Starbucks was a hard habit to give up and it died a hard death. But I loved their sandwiches, and their breakfast's, even the hot chocolate. I locked myself out of my car at a gas station once in front of Starbucks. I had to wait for help sitting outside of the Starbucks. I was so paranoid that one of my Church members would see me and ask why I was there. Would they believe my story? Did it really matter?

    I had to ask in prayer, is God hung up on all of the OCD stuff? Is He as hung up on whether we consciously drink a caffeinated soda's but not coffee; or we eat a stack of ribs and not chicken or whatever. Or does he want us to simply trust in Him and then make conscious decisions about guarding those commands he has entrusted us with? We have all sinned and fallen short of the anticipated glory of God. I try my best to apply the principles of the Atonement of the Savior in this area of my life.

  7. I drink Starbucks hot cocoa and steamers all the time and never wondered if anyone was judging me for my cup. It's a coffee shop, but they also sell plenty of other foods as well. I eat mocha ice cream sometimes too.

  8. Karen, I love how you explore the nuances of the Word of Wisdom. I have never been given a Starbucks gift card, but I confess that I have always loved the smell of coffee. Love it. I enter Barnes and Noble and inhale deeply. And I eat coffee-flavored jelly beans. And I have never considered the uncooked alcohol element of raw cookie dough, but it's there. A meaty post :-).

  9. I miss living outsidetah for the grocery trips where I walk down the coffee aisle every time, slowly. I just love the smell. Sometimes I think I'd like to just brew it at home sometimes so I can enjoy it longer. But then there us the whole judgment thing. Total bummer.

  10. I know this was meant to be tongue-in-cheek–I apologize if my earlier comment was dismissive or harsh. The response "I've never worried about it so why should you?" is not the best in this situation.

    I find it interesting the way that Mormons can all live and apply the same principles so differently in their individual lives. I know some who would never set foot in Starbucks or other coffee shops, and others who regularly get together with their visiting teachers there. Some who find large quantities of meat unseemly, and others whose cultural mores produce ward activities are centered around large barbecues and whole roasted animals. My mission president once hosted a steak dinner party as a reward for the entire mission. I've known some who want everyone to know that their drink is nonalcoholic and why they aren't drinking, and others who would rather quietly and unobtrusively sip water in the background (and as I've interacted with people, I've found a number of non-Mormons who don't drink coffee or alcohol for various reasons and don't find non-drinkers weird). So much depends on our personal history and the culture in which we live (which can be very different even in different regions of the United States).

  11. I was a tour guide for a SA Conference once and at one spot went to my favourite coffee shop and grabbed a Hot Chocolate (it was cold). The look on their faces when they saw me holding a coffee cup was priceless. I hadn't even thought of what the cup said as I knew I was keeping the Word of Wisdom (I did explain to the shocked SA).

    I don't know how often I tell people at my work that I don't drink – but they still give me bottles of wine. I now remember who gives me what and re-gift them back later in the year. Some members say this is wrong as it encourages others (non-members) to drink. But I don't have a problem with it – they are getting a gift they like, I have many non-members (who do listen to me) change their schedule and what they stock in their cupboards because of me, I can return the favor by giving them what they want back.

    I eat too much sugar, meat and many other things – but I am trying my hardest.

  12. Having worked at tv stations in Washington, D.C. and a non-profit in Seattle I frequently went to Starbucks with coworkers and friends (granted not daily like they did). I have never once been questioned or judged for doing so. I have never even thought twice about entering a Starbucks. Taking that kind of stance would be similar to not eating at a restaurant that served alcohol. I have gone to parties at pool parlors despite smoke. I have ordered Coke with lime more times than I can recall at friend's celebratory happy hours. I have attended friend's wedding receptions and been the only one drinking a non alcoholic beverage. I do not feel this means I have not been living my religion. In fact I feel this accomplishes the exact opposit. I am living my religion in a way that my friends feel loved and valued and they understand and respect my values.

    I am sad you drank ice water at a friend's shower. Since high school my friends have always had a beverage on hand that I can drink. At my last job my boss generously and frequently gave out Starbucks gift cards. I LOVED them. My husband and I would save them for special outings in the winter or for when we were traveling and needed a meal in the airport.

    I agree that there is more to the word of wisdom than the "don'ts" however I hope that living our health code can be done in a much broader way allowing us to share the gospel, answer questions and start conversations with our acquaintances.

  13. If others are watching I don't care! Who really has the time or energy to worry about it. AND I don't care or watch what others are doing. People have judged me poorly several times, enough for me to know better than to judge others.

  14. Thanks for the comments, all. I find the diversity of how people interpret and apply the WoW to be extremely fascinating. And over my 52 years, I have adopted a myriad of approaches myself across the spectrum. And I recognize that even my current attitudes and behaviors are riddled with ironies and contradictions. True, Erin was not scolding me but laughing with me. She self-identifies as a super Catholic (her vanity license plate spells Catholic, minus one of the vowels), and my husband is an administrator at the local Catholic university here. So she and I talk about religious identity and religious practices. I see her at the Starbucks that's inside the grocery store half way between my house / her workplace all of the time. When I see her in line, I tease her about her love of coffee (as everyone does, hence the bridal shower theme). So she was just cracking up that I was a patron. Anyway, much love to everyone as we work out our salvation with fear, trembling, and the beverage of our choice.

  15. When I was an elementary teacher in CA I got Starbucks gift cards at every holiday. The only day I worried about what other people thought was when I walked into Starbucks to get my delicious hot chocolate and realized I was wearing a BYU sweatshirt. I happen to live in the coffee addled northwest and I've never thought twice seeing fellow church members at coffee shops, there's one on every corner and they often have great sandwiches 🙂 Our ward bookclub has met multiple times at a local coffee shop. My husband's family, though, is the type that would never be caught dead holding a starbucks cup no matter what was inside, so it's been funny to try to get my husband to be okay with the fact that I like some of their drinks. 🙂 I do think the diversity of experience discussed here is interesting. Location and culture have a huge influence on how we think about these issues.

  16. I'm extremely resistant to caffeine. Essays like this help me understand how it affects normal people. I've thought about including some instant coffee in food storage for the next time we have power outages (we have buried cables so do not get affected by them) so that guests are not without caffeine — ever since we had people over and I asked what they wanted for breakfast and got the response "anything, as long as there is coffee."

    Enjoyed your essay.

  17. That reminds me I have two Starbucks gift cards to use. The closest Starbucks to where I live is in Provo, I think. We used to have one here in town (Payson) but it closed because no one went to it. For awhile the only Starbucks in Utah was at the airport. I thought about using the cards for hot chocolate, but I don't really drink that either. So they sit in my gift card bin, waiting to be swiped. I wish my husbands company had given us Einstein bagel cards instead.

  18. It never occurred to me when I ordered hot chocolate at Starbucks that people who knew me would assume it was coffee. Honestly, I probably wouldn't care if anyone did assume that. Because those people who would assume/judge me wouldn't be the kind of people I'd want to associate with much anyway. This culture within the church is so frustrating. I would like to believe that if I saw a friend of mine I knew to be a member that I would automatically assume it was hot chocolate or the like. I would like to believe that we would give each other the benefit of assuming the best of people.

  19. I'm struck by the fact that the Gospel Doctrine manual is specific about saying that the principles are what we should discuss, not the specific substances (outside of what we know to be specifically outlined). I remember this because when I taught it, we had people sharing their personal ideas about shoulds and shouldn'ts. I was grateful that I could point to what the manual said and keep it focused on the basics.

    To me that is one of the wonders of the Word of Wisdom. We can each engage the basic principles therein and receive revelation and insight that we and only we are then responsible for.


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