Frugal Fast Food

by Andy Hough on April 9, 2012

It’s been a long day. You’re headed home, and you’re exhausted. A lighted sign casts a warm glow across the highway — the Golden Arches or Subway’s green/yellow sign. Yum – but you’re on a budget. Should you stop?

The happy truth is that healthy, affordable fast food can indeed be an enjoyable part of your life. Given, that is, you’re willing to keep it within limits.


How often can you afford to go? Figure it out. Set aside a specific amount that you know you can afford to use — it can be slotted as ‘entertainment’ or ‘food.’ Keep that amount in cash — or put it on a gift card for your favorite spot. When the money’s gone, it’s gone, until the next paycheck. Go home and have a peanut-butter sandwich.

Stretch your ‘go-to’ money. Coupons, especially BOGOs, will let you go twice as often. Choose the sale items: Subway’s monthly specials often let you choose a foot-long sub for $5 — or less! Many restaurants, including McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and even Kentucky Fried Chicken, offer a ‘dollar menu.’ Most of those items are now more than a buck — but not much more.

Investopedia’s collected the five best value meal dealsMoney Talks News has their take on the same subject. (Interestingly, most of the restaurants mentioned are the same.)

Choose carefully — and share.  Order large fries for the family, instead of a small packet per person. Or set half your meal aside for tomorrow’s lunch. (Put it in a box, out of sight.) Two kids’ meals can feed 3 or 4 children. A large sandwich can feed two adults. Drink water — and you save not only on calories, but price. (You’ll find eight fast food meals under 500 calories here.)

Healthy fast food is out there! Do what calls “undressing” your food: skip the mayo or sour cream (substitute mustard, salsa or ketchup), or eat your sandwich open-face. Taco Bell offers a ‘fresco’ menu that automatically gives you healthier choices, as part of their “drive-thru diet.”

Choose whole-grain bread, lower-calorie cheeses like Swiss or mozzarella, and load your pizza or sub with veggies, to ramp up the food value even more. Look for the words “grilled” instead of “fried;” skip “breaded” and “super–.” And don’t assume a salad means low-calorie, unless you’re willing to minimize ingredients like bacon or fatty salad dressing. Kids’ meals have gotten healthier, too. Burger King now offers apple juice, fat-free milk and apple slices on its children’s menu…and other chains have followed suit.

Go less, dine more elegantly. Prices for fast food restaurants have gone up — meal deals at many places, including drink, fries and sandwich, cost from $5.95 – 7.95. That’s close to a budget entree at a sit-down restaurant! Would you rather wait, and make it more of an occasion next time?

Don’t waste a thing. Extra napkins come in handy tucked in the glove compartment, along with that ‘spork’ you didn’t use. Add some zip to chicken noodle soup with a couple of salsa packets, or use your dipping sauce as a marinade for chicken or pork. (They’re great in stir-fries, too.) In their book The Phony Gourmet, Pam Young and Peggy Jones wrap leftover burgers in pastry, and serve these ‘pot pies,’ crunchy and bubbling, with special sauce!

Add to your profits by checking your receipt on the way out — many restaurants have a short survey. A few minutes of your time earns free food for the next visit, or a chance to win prizes or cash.

We all have our favorites. Our oldest daughter loves Subway’s chicken and bacon ranch melt; her sister would rather have KFC’s bowls any day. (KFC’s Aussie-style chicken potpie is only $3, at the time of this writing.) Husband is partial to Little Caesar’s pizza or a hot stick of Crazy bread, and I could go for Wendy’s chili or a Chargrilled Chicken Club from Chick-Fil-A. Maybe we’ll just wait for Colorado’s Rockies or Nuggets sports teams to win — then Taco Bell offers 4 tacos for a buck, as long as we get a drink, too. Make your choices wisely, and fast food can be a guilt-free item on your menu, too.

This post is by staff writer Cindy Brick.  You can visit her blog at or visit her personal blog.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daisy @ Add Vodka April 9, 2012 at 10:06 am

I think there are definitely ways to save on fast food, as you mentioned. My boyfriend always looks for coupons in the mail – there are a few fast food restaurants that always send them.

2 ShortRoadTo April 9, 2012 at 3:07 pm

I like McDonalds coffee. Whenever I go there, I will grab a handful of napkins and a few straws. I haven’t bought straws or napkins in years. You can’t go wrong with the dollar menu at these fast food joints.

3 Frugal Joe April 13, 2012 at 4:58 pm

McDonalds coffee refills are unlimited free as long as you bring back the cup. Ive been known to stop at three or four McDonalds on the way home from work. I pour the coffee into a thermos for the next work day. Now thats frugal.

4 Andy Hough April 15, 2012 at 4:26 pm

I do use the coupons on occasion but I usually just take advantage of the dollar menu or any special deals that are currently being offered.

5 Andy Hough April 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm

I think grabbing extra napkins and straws is probably crossing the line.

6 Andy Hough April 15, 2012 at 4:28 pm

I think the refills are only supposed to be at the restaurant you purchased the coffee at and stopping at several locations would be abusing the refill system.

7 DeniseGabbard@WriteandGetPaid April 17, 2012 at 11:49 am

We have a Subway closeby, and I love to grab one of those $5 footlongs– they are big enough for a couple of meals, dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow, and you can build it pretty healthy, unlike some of the other fast food places.

8 Andy Hough April 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Stretching out your meal to a couple of meals does help save money and they are big enough that you’re still getting enough calories in each meal.

9 John April 25, 2012 at 4:24 pm

I like that you added how to make fast food healthier . . . that’s helpful! Also I like the idea to buy food in bulk and share, that will save people a lot of money.

10 Andy Hough April 25, 2012 at 5:22 pm

They are good tips. I need to use them more often myself.

11 Pat Monahan May 6, 2012 at 10:38 am

Asking for extra napkins is perfectly acceptable. The employee will always give you extras. But, if you don’t plan on using it, tell them to keep it. No sense, throwing an unopened straw in the trash. I’ll even go as far as taking my food off the tray at the counter, so that I don’t waste the tray liner.

Arby’s is known for giving a free sandwich, if you call the 800 number on the back of your receipt.

12 "Tom" May 22, 2012 at 5:42 am

Out an out encouraging piece of writing. It actually works as a motivating, inspiring factor when you try to incorporate it into your personal life. Costly restaurant means wastage of money unnecessarily. Rather we can bring our favorite healthy and tasty dishes at home and can dine altogether from home itself. Low calorie cheeses, baked bread, salads, etc cost low but are highly delicious. Even if you want to go for non veg items, grilled chicken is one of the best options out there.

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