Balancing the Books (or, I Love Starbucks)

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I love Starbucks. I can’t get enough of it. I have it maybe twice a week and, if the budget would bear it, I’d probably have it twice a day. And a few months ago, when people were losing their minds over which drinks were “recommended” and “not recommended” from a kashrus standpoint, my roasted-bean lifestyle remained unperturbed as I am strictly an Americano drinker.

Before we go any further, in the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that I work for the Orthodox Union and OU Kosher certifies many (but not all) Starbucks products. Starbucks stores are not certified and many items are overtly non-kosher; customers must invest due diligence. This article is intended only to reflect some personal experiences and implies no kashrus endorsement of any kind. That having been said, let us proceed.

As much as I love Starbucks, I recently had kind of a love-hate relationship with my local store. Anyone can make the occasional mistake but this past summer, they were making mistakes with some regularity. This was not my experience with the chain in other locations. Maybe they were breaking in trainees? Who knows?

Regardless, this past summer, my wife was making a coffee run for me and I happened to have a promo code for a free tea. (My wife is not a coffee drinker. This is something I don’t understand at all. Her hot beverage of choice is tea. For me, despite being a major Anglophile, tea is best consumed when one is ill. But to each their own!) I wrote the promo code down for the missus and gave her my Starbucks card. “Don’t let them charge you for the tea,” I told her. “If they have any trouble with the code, call me.”

The good Rebbetzin Abramowitz had not yet returned when my app dinged. $8.62. They had charged her for the tea. So I called her up and asked what happened. As usual, the cashier didn’t know what to do with the promo code. Why didn’t she call me, you ask? The missus is non-confrontational about such things. She’s not a talk-to-the-manager kind of gal.

Well, I had had it. I am a talk-to-the-manager kind of guy, so I called up and talked to the manager. I told him all the various errors I had encountered over the preceding few weeks. He was very understanding and he said that he was going to give us four $4 gift cards for our trouble. That’s the functional equivalent of four drinks, which is fine by me because, as previously noted, I would drink more Starbucks if the budget would bear the luxury.

The next day, Mrs. A. picked up the gift cards. She tried to give them to me but I told her to hold on to them because she was making the coffee runs. She never did use them so, a few weeks later, I asked for them back.

“I gave them to you,” she said. I reminded her that I told her to hang onto them. She said, “Oh, yeah” and looked in her purse. Then she emptied out her purse. Then she checked her nightstand. Then she gave up. The cards were nowhere to be found.

Initially, I was miffed. After all, that’s four fewer cups of that sweet, brown Starbucks nectar for me to enjoy. But I quickly got over it. First of all, happily, $16 isn’t the end of the world for most of us. Aside from that, how much free coffee does Starbucks already give me? Between their general rewards program, plus “double star days,” “star dashes,” “happy hours,” “barista picks,” etc., I’m regularly being comped plenty of coffee I would otherwise pay for.

Starbucks can be a pricey habit and four free drinks would be nice, so the loss of those gift cards was initially irksome. Upon a moment’s reflection, however, it just seemed greedy to lament the loss of that particular windfall given all the free coffees I’m already earning, or just being given.

That’s what life is: a series of windfalls and losses. Easy come, easy go.[1] This was a lesson I learned long ago and it’s the subject of one of my favorite “rebbe stories.”

The Chofetz Chaim was trying to convince a local Jew to close his business on Shabbos. The shopkeeper protested on the basis that he needed the income that he earns on Shabbos. The Chofetz Chaim answered him with the following story (A story within a story! What a bargain!):

“There once was a man who owned a keg of beer. When he opened the spigot, the beer poured out. Seeing this, the man affixed a second spigot. Opening both spigots, the beer flowed at twice the previous rate. ‘Look!’ the man exclaimed, ‘I have doubled the volume of my beer!’”

Of course this was fallacious, the Chofetz Chaim concluded. Clearly the man was just blowing through his keg’s capacity at an accelerated rate. Similarly, all of our livelihoods are determined each year on Rosh Hashana. One could work on Shabbos, cheat in business, or in other ways do what he shouldn’t, justifying that he needs the additional income his misdeeds generate. In truth, one can’t make more money than he’s been allotted for the year. All our actions can do is redistribute the rate at which we use up that which has been allocated us.

This understanding has informed my outlook on windfalls and losses, both small and large. Nobody likes having to pay for automotive repairs or to replace major appliances but your disposition will differ if you look at it as a personal loss or if you consider it God’s means of “balancing the books.”

This can be true in all kinds of financial dealings. Sometimes we lose a $20 bill, sometimes we find a $20 bill. Stocks go up and stocks go down. Sometimes someone gifts us a washing machine/refrigerator/dining room table/car, though usually we have to buy those things. Some people drop thousands of dollars on charity raffles and Chinese auctions, never to win a thing, while others win with surprising regularity. It’s all God’s way of balancing the books.

He gives us so much, it would be ungrateful for us to complain about the things He has chosen not to give us.

To paraphrase the Chovos HaLevavos in Shaar HaBitachon, we get exactly what God has determined for us. No one can keep from us that which He has apportioned and no power we can exert will ever enable us to exceed His allocations.[2] This may not be the most aggressive investment advice that one may ever receive but such an outlook can provide important perspective when riding the financial roller coasters of our lives.

1. One may wonder why I don’t apply the famous verse from the book of Job, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.” Job lost his fortune, his health and his family. To invoke this phrase in lamenting the loss of free coffee would be beyond petty.

2. The fact that we cannot change that which God has budgeted for us does not mean that we should sit back and wait for the money to roll in. We’re expected to do our part and invest human effort. Read more about the interplay of bitachon (faith) and hishtadlus (human effort) here.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.