For many, fast food is synonymous with cheap. In fact, an estimated 58% of respondents in a Consumer Reports study reported that affordable pricing was one their main reasons for choosing a fast food restaurant. But feeding a family of four from your nearest drive-thru isn’t just unhealthy; it can also be more expensive than you think.
You may think shopping the fast food dollar menu is a wise financial decision, but a lot of those foods come in smaller portions. Therefore, you need to purchase more, which can really add up if you’re feeding several people.
The bottom line is that you should make fast food an occasional indulgence – not a mainstay of your diet. If you do choose to indulge, get the most bang out of your buck by avoiding the biggest ripoffs on the fast food menu.
1. Fountain soda
There’s a reason why fast food restaurants often offer free drink refills. Penny for penny, there’s no worse deal on the menu than fountain soda. These drinks cost your local fast food joint anywhere from 5 to 20 cents to serve, but they charge upwards of $2 to their customers. In fact, the cups cost more than the soda itself, which is why some places will charge you a small fee even if you just want water.
2. Flame-grilled burgers from Burger King
The tasty-looking flame-grilled burger may look tempting – but it’s a total sham.
Fast-food restaurants want you to think that your burger was kissed by flames, and they charge extra for the illusion. In reality, those marks were most likely applied at the meat factory with dyes and then supplemented with smoke flavoring for authenticity.
3. Guacamole at Chipotle
Everyone knows the guac is extra. But if you can live without it, you’re much better off. Most Mexican fast-food restaurants mark up their guacamole by 285% — so you’re essentially paying $2 for something that cost your burrito joint a measly 53 cents. Always opt for the included toppings if you want to get the best bang for your buck.
Salads are certainly healthier than burgers, but they also cost four times as much.
Fast food salads are a far cry from the fresh versions you could make yourself at home, and they’re often skimpy on protein-based ingredients like meat. Plus, that little dressing packet adds a whole lot of calories to your seemingly healthful meal.
For the $6 you’d spend, you’re much better off ordering a meat entrée that will at least fill you up.
5. Medium-sized drinks
If you are going to order the soda, skip the medium-sized one.
Researchers at Duke University discovered that most people subconsciously gravitate toward the medium sized one, which naturally encourages fast food retailers to make all the sizes bigger – and to upcharge for them.
Try ordering a small instead, or if you’re smart, stick with plain old water.
6. Combo meals at Arby’s
Arby’s has the unofficial reputation of being a more expensive fast food option, but you arguably get a lot for the money — unless you decide to get the combo meal.
A regular roast beef sandwich will cost you $4 to $5 – not too bad considering how much meat they include. Adding fries and a drink, however, might set you back anywhere from $7-$10. Try settling for just the sandwich instead.
7. Anything they try to upsell you
There’s a reason why the drive-thru employee always asks if you want fries with that or would like to try an apple pie for $1 – because you’re likely to say yes. An Eastern Illinois University study found fast-food patrons order 85% more when offered it. These items are usually the ones a restaurant wants to move, and therefore they have a higher profit margin and less value for you.
So don’t be fooled. Place your order and stick to it, no matter what tempting treats they offer.
8. The Baconator at Wendy’s
Premium, fully-loaded burgers at most fast-food chains typically cost right around $5, but this calorie and bacon-laden monstrosity at Wendy’s comes in at a full $2 more. Ordering one for just yourself will set you back almost $7, and that’s without the full meal that you know you’ll probably order anyway.
If you truly need your bacon fix at Wendy’s, try a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger from the $1 menu, or opt for the cheaper, smaller Son of Baconator instead.
9. Pasta at Panera
Did you know that pasta started out as peasant food? That’s because it was cheap — and it still is. If you’ve ever purchased pasta at the grocery store, you know that an entire box can cost right around $1. So stop overpaying for minuscule portions at fast food restaurants. Pasta dishes at Panera range from $8-$11, representing a gigantic markup on a relatively cheap food item.
10. Fish platters at Long John Silver’s
Seafood is more expensive any way you slice it, which is why fast food chains don’t typically offer many fish options. Long John Silver’s offers platters and individual meals of fish, shrimp, and chicken that cost anywhere from $8 to $12 – a little pricey for what’s supposed to be a cheap fast food meal.
When you’re there, try a combo meal with a drink and a side of their famous hush puppies. You can get six pieces of shrimp plus sides and a beverage for just $9. It’s still more expensive than average, but it’s worth it if you’re craving quick seafood.
11. Bottled water
You could pay an exorbitant amount for bottled water – or you could get a free cup of water from the fountain instead. Even if you get stuck with a nominal “cup fee,” like some fast-food places have, it’s still better than the 280,000% markup on bottled water.
Fast food pizza is a little greasy, and it’s also wildly overpriced. In general, pizza is a cheap food for restaurants to make. They make the dough with inexpensive yeast, flour, and water, and tomatoes and cheese aren’t very pricey either. Where they really get you, however, is the insane upcharge on toppings. One study found that restaurant pizzas had as high as a 636% markup. Yikes.
McDonald’s sells 75 hamburgers every second, but hold the cheese if you’re looking to get the best value out of your order. They can mark up a measly slice of cheese for that burger by 417%, making it one of the biggest ripoffs in the fast food world.
14. Scrambled eggs
Eggs are cheap. Ordering a side of scrambled eggs from your local McDonald’s breakfast menu may seem like a protein-rich choice, but if you’re trying to get the most bang for your buck, it’s probably not the best option. If you do have a hankering for eggs, consider a McMuffin with meat, bread, and cheese instead.
Soup may seem like the healthier option, but it’s not always the wisest choice for the money. Made in large batches and ladled out, soups are often water-based and made with dehydrated rather than fresh ingredients. So if you’re looking to get more for the money, skip the soup.