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According to Reference.com, the average American spends $1,200 annually on fast food, and we eat it about twice per week. Seven percent of Americans eat fast food daily.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fortunately you now have some healthy fast foods at most of the major chains.
And fast food is, well, fast. Who doesn’t like the convenience of pulling up to a drive-through window and driving away a couple minutes later with a meal?
Finally, fast food is generally less expensive than a meal in a sit-down restaurant — at least if you buy it the right way. Here are some tips to help you do exactly that.
You’ll want to read the general strategies further below. Many of those will help you pay less wherever you happen to eat. But first, here are some specific ways to save money at six popular fast food restaurants.
This is my personal favorite when it comes to fast food. What I like best is the healthy menu choices, but the low cost is nice too. Here’s how to make it even lower…
Use Coupons From Mailers
Every week my wife and I get sale flyers and coupons in the mail for local businesses. At least once every two months they include coupons for Subway. We use the “Buy One, Get One Free” (BOGO) coupons to get two veggie subs and a drink (required) for about $6 — not bad for a healthy meal.
Get Coupons Sent to Your Phone
Sign up to receive text messages from Subway and you’ll get some kind of coupon offer at least once weekly.
Split a Footlong
My wife and I often get a footlong sub and split it. Half of a large Subway sandwich really is a meal if you load it with all the veggies. And they don’t mind putting jalapenos on just my side.
Use Discounted Gift Cards
You can buy subway gift cards on Raise and other gift card websites for a discount of 3% to 5%. Watch for offers at local retailers to save even more. I’ve purchased $20 gift cards for $15 on sale at Family Dollar, for example.
Do That Online Survey
Most of the time your Subway receipt offers you a chance to complete a survey online, for which you’ll get a coupon code good for a free cookie.
Stack Your Savings Strategies
If you get a $20 gift card for $15, and use it to pay for a BOGO coupon offer, and then do the survey for the free cookie, you can get two 6-inch subs, a drink, and a cookie, for a total of about $4.50.
Because their restaurants are everywhere, it’s particularly useful to know how to save money when eating at McDonald’s. Here’s how…
Buy From the Value Menu
Items come and go from McDonald’s value menu, but for the amount of food you get most things cost much less than regular menu items.
For example, one price list shows a value menu McChicken costs $1.29. If you order two of them and ask for extra lettuce (most McDonald’s don’t charge for this), you’ll pay $2.58 versus $4.39 for one regular chicken sandwich, and you’ll have more food.
Use Their App
If you get the McDonald’s App you’ll be notified of deals and get a bonus for signing up. At the moment the signup bonus is a free medium sundae, fries, or frappe with any purchase when you download the app.
Create Your Own Big Mac
Order a McDouble, ask them to leave off the ketchup and mustard, and ask them to add lettuce and special sauce. This is basically a big mac, for about $2 less.
I like the Burger King breakfast sandwiches better than those from McDonalds (for starters, a croissant is better than a biscuit), so fortunately I can…
Burger King has been doing coupon promotions a lot lately (almost every month in our area). You can find these deals in newspapers and mailers. The best ones (in my opinion) are for the breakfast items.
For example, one recent coupon was for 2 egg sandwiches, hash browns, and coffee for $4 total. Since my wife and I often split a cup of coffee, and don’t eat too heavily in the morning, this feeds us both.
Get Their App
Like many restaurant chains, BK has an app, and they say you’ll get $30 in coupons when you download it, as well as texts offering special deals.
Use Discounted Gift Cards
BK gift cards on Raise are currently discounted 11%. Use a 2% cash back credit card to buy one and you’ll get 13% off when paying your bill. Combine that with a coupon price for a really cheap meal.
This is my second favorite fast food restaurant after Subway, again because they have such healthy food. My wife and I ate there two hours ago for a total of $7.06 including tax, and we’re still full, because we…
Split a Meal
You get big portions at Chipotle, so it’s easy to split a meal, especially if you use the next strategy…
Get the Bowl Instead of the Burrito
More food fits in the bowls than in the burrito tortilla wraps, especially if you use the following strategy…
Ask for Two Meats
If you ask for a half-portion of two different meats the price is the same, but you’ll usually get more meat because servers err on the side of generous portions.
Go With No Meat
We get the veggie bowl, which costs less than the meals with meat. It also comes with free guacamole, which costs extra with the other meals.
Load it Up
Extra rice is usually free, as are most of the other items. If you enjoy all of it, when asked what you want added, answer as I do: “Everything that doesn’t cost extra.”
While this is not one of my favorite places to eat, it is pretty cheap. Here are two ways to make it even cheaper…
Eat Bean Burritos
If all you need is a cheap way to fill up, there are few things as cheap and filling as Taco Bell bean burritos. In fact, I recently discovered that this is the only way I can fill up for under $3 in an airport (2 burritos at $1.39 each)..
Give Them Your Email
Sign up for a Taco Bell Offers Account to get exclusive online offers.
Good pizza can be expensive even at Domino’s, but we never pay more than half-price (and we love their pizza). Here’s what we do…
Check the Website
Domino’s website usually has the best offers on the homepage, but you can click the “coupons” tab to see what other deals they’re offering. For months now they’ve promoted a 3-item large pizza (pick-up) for $7.99 — less than half the regular price.
The offer has even been there while ads in newspapers promoted the same thing “on sale” for $11.99!
Use Gift Cards
Domino’s gift cards go on sale regularly at retailers, or you you can buy the discounted cards on Cardpool for about 10% off.
Create a Pizza Profile
If you create a profile on the website you get points every time you spend more than $10. You can redeem points for free pizza.
General Strategies to Save Money on Fast Food
Calculate the Price-Per-Quantity
Sometimes larger sizes are more expensive per-piece or per-pound than smaller ones, even though you might think it would be the opposite.
For example, it can often be cheaper to buy four 5-McNugget boxes at McDonald’s than to buy a single box of 20. Another example: At many restaurants two value fries cost less and give you more than one regular-priced order of fries.
Use a Rewards Credit Card
Some rewards credit cards have rotating bonus categories, so you can use them when restaurants are on the list. Others let you choose your bonus cash back categories. For example, my US Bank Cash+ Visa, recently had fast food restaurants as a 5% cash back choice.
Buy Fast Food Restaurant Gift Cards With 5% Cash-Back Credit Cards
When “home improvement stores” show up on my Discover card 5% categories, I buy Dominos or Subway gift cards at Home Depot. When it’s “grocery stores” I buy the gift cards at Safeway. You can do the same with other cards that have special category cash-back bonus rates.
Walk to the Nearest Fast Food
Anytime you leave the car home you save gas money, but walking also means you get some exercise to help burn off those burgers.
Use Amex Offers
If you have an American Express card check your account online to find “Amex Offers” for fast food restaurants, then click “Activate.” For example, I currently can get $5 cash back if I spend $20 at any Five Guys restaurant. You can also check the Amex Offers Facebook and Twitter pages if you’ve connected your card to those social media accounts.
Take Advantage of Freebies
Some fast food restaurants have free condiments and other foods you can use to fill up cheaply. For example, when we go to Los Betos we order one small taco, and then fill up on free tortilla chips and veggies from the salsa bar.
Eat on Your Birthday
If your birthday is coming soon, check a list of birthday freebies. They usually include a few fast food restaurants, although you may have to agree to get emails. For example, when you join the Del Taco Raving Fan Club you get a free premium shake on your birthday.
Check Your Receipts
I mentioned that Subway receipts offer a free cookie for completing a survey online. Other fast food restaurants put coupons or survey offers on their receipts as well, so take a look before you toss it out.
Reconsider the Soda
Fast food soda is expensive, except at McDonald’s, where they’ve been promoting their “any size for $1” drinks for a while now. My wife and I usually drink water, but another strategy we use is to split a large soda that we buy at a Circle-K convenience store ($0.89 any size) before we get something to eat. That saves a couple bucks.
Just Get Fries
Sometimes you just need something tasty to hold you over until you get home. In that case, do what we do; order fries from the value menu of a fast food restaurant. They’ll take the edge off your hunger. Then eat something healthy and cheap when you get home.
Eat at a Sit-Down Restaurant
If you eat fast food just to save money, watch for deals at sit-down restaurants. Unlike fast food places, they often have buy-one-get-one-free coupons and other offers that can make them cheaper, even after tipping the server (see the example in my post on 52 ways to eat out for less money; $10.98 included a margarita and a beer).
Stack Your Savings
I’ve written about deal stacking before. It’s basically just applying more than one savings strategy to the same purchase, and it works as well for fast food as it does in other areas.
For example, if you walk to a restaurant to save gas, use a coupon, and pay using a gift card you bought on sale using a cash-back credit card, you have a “quadruple stack.” I’ve gotten $17 worth of pizza down to about $6 using this approach.
If you know more ways to save money on fast food, tell us about them below… and keep on frugaling!