This is a guest post from Kalyn Brooke of

As much as we may try, all the meal planning in the world can’t compete with the unexpected.

You might have an incredibly busy day at work, or a tiring afternoon chasing kiddos around the house. Or maybe you’re out running errands and have a sporting event or church activity right around 6pm. It’s exhausting to even think about dinner at that point, let alone prepare it!

Common sense tells us that fast food isn’t ideal for a tight budget (or your waistline), but let’s be honest — it can also be a life saver in the middle of the most energy-draining moments. It sure beats an expensive sit-down meal at a fancy restaurant, plus you don’t have to hassle with bulky coolers, hungry kids, or making sure nobody spills their juice in the car when you try and pack your own.

That still doesn’t mean you throw caution to the wind whenever you pull into your favorite drive-thru lane. It pays to be smart, and these 7 tips are essential to making the most of your meal. They’ll also save you a few bucks along the way!

Enjoy a refreshing glass of ice water with a few slices of lemon for flavor.

1. Order Water

Water might be boring, but it’s also free–not to mention SO much better for you than soda! That makes it the perfect beverage option whether you’re struggling to make ends meet or not. Eating fast food can be unhealthy enough as it is–there’s no need to make it even worse by adding hundreds of completely empty calories to the meal. Besides, when you realize how much of a markup soda is at these restaurants, it makes you even more disgusted at the thought of paying for it. If you just can’t do plain water, ask for a lemon to give you extra flavor, or split a big drink with your spouse and family.

(As an FYI, splitting drinks and then getting free refills is frowned upon in any establishment, and can get you into some pretty big trouble. Refills should be per person only.)

Make your kids happy by enjoying a delicious free cheeseburger!

2. Know Where Kids Eat Free

It’s really surprising how many restaurants offer free or almost free meals for kids. Whether it’s a certain day of the week or a certain time of day, you’re bound to find at least one fast food joint that will cut you a deal.

For the most extensive list, be sure to check out Money Saving Mom’s roundup. And remember that each offer varies by state and region, so always call ahead to your local chain to find out. You definitely don’t want to arrive with a van full of hungry kiddos only to find out that one franchise is the exception!

3. Check Receipts for Surveys

How often do you throw away your receipts along with the tray and leftover food wrappers? I used to do this all the time! Now I always make sure to take a peek at the bottom of the receipt before tossing. Sometimes there is a survey offer that will give you a free soda, burger, or a Buy One Get One deal just for taking 5 minutes to answer a few questions.

The only catch is each coupon code you are given does come with an expiration date, so it may or may not be worth it depending on how often you eat at that particular chain.

Answering a quick survey could get you free french fries at your favorite fast food joint!

4. Split Your Fries

I don’t know about you, but I can never finish an entire box of fries {nor should I with all those fat-inducing calories found in there!} However, if you’re eating with your family, spouse, or significant other, one of you should order the large value meal and then equally split the fries. The large box of fries is usually more than enough, and it’s also much cheaper than everyone getting their own {smaller} meal.

You also might want to consider ordering just a sandwich and fries separately with a water, rather than the whole value meal, but the price comparison and potential discount will differ from restaurant to restaurant.

Keep those extra condiment packets! Pickle relish, mustard and ketchup are great additions to lunchboxes!

5. Don’t Waste Extras

If you have ketchup or sauce packets leftover from your meal, don’t throw them away. These are the perfect size to throw in work lunches, or to extend the life of your condiments at home. I do the same thing with napkins and keep a hefty stash in the glove compartment of my car for emergency spills. And if we have a large enough collection in the car, I’ll add them to our pile of paper napkins at home.

However, this doesn’t mean you “take extra” just for the purpose of bringing them home. That’s considered stealing, and again, you could get in big trouble with the restaurant!

Enjoying a yummy turkey sub at a discount!

6. Get Creative With Sandwich Orders

Just because a specialty sandwich is on the menu, doesn’t mean you have to order it that way. Here are just a few ideas to create your own “sandwich hacks” that save money over big value meals:

  • At Subway, split a footlong sub meal rather than buying two 6-inch ones.
  • At McDonalds, order a McDouble without ketchup and mustard, and ask if they can put on some cheese and Mac sauce. This is a poor-man’s Big Mac, but still tastes the same.
  • At Arby’s, order two Junior roast beef sandwiches rather than a regular classic. You’ll get the same amount of meat for less!

Some restaurants may charge you extra for items like cheese and bacon, but other condiments are generally interchangeable. The idea is to look for dollar menu items that can be substituted for a larger $4-$5 specialty sandwich.

7. Use Coupons

Restaurant coupons are plentiful enough — you just have to know where to look. Check your Sunday paper, comb through ads that look like junk in your mailbox, and sign up for your favorite fast food email lists for coupons each month and free stuff around your birthday. You can even sign up for a City Savings or Entertainment book for more savings.

We personally try to limit our restaurant selections to those we have a coupon for, which decreases the temptation to eat out all the time. The food might not be exactly what we are craving, but it does save us money!

As you try some of these tips at your favorite fast food restaurants, remember that being frugal isn’t always about being miserly or “cheap”. It’s definitely not ethical to cheat companies out of their money by playing the system.

However, as I’ve described above, you can save money in the right and ethical way, and still get a great deal from your local chain. Just make sure you don’t end up visiting them too often. You want to build up that savings account too!

Kalyn Brooke is a life management expert for busy womenKalyn Brooke who crave a simpler and more organized life. Through her recognizable, down-to-earth approach, she provides a daily dose of inspiration and guidance, whether you’re looking for smart money tips, time saving routines, or anything in-between. When she’s not experimenting with ways to do even the most mundane tasks more efficiently, you can find her crafting detailed to-do lists in her bullet journal, or indulging in—yet another—personal development book. Meet Kalyn and learn how stay on top of it all at


Save Money on Fast Food: 7 Smart Ways to Keep the Drive Through from Busting Your Budget

Ruth Soukup

Ruth Soukup - LIVING WELL SPENDING LESS. Practical solutions for everyday overwhelm. Food Made Simple, Life Etc., Home 101, Smart Money. Start organizing your whole life today!


Ever feel like you just can't keep up? Our Living Well Starter Guide will show you how to start streamlining your life in just 3 simple steps. It's a game changer--get it free for a limited time!

If you love this resource, be sure to check out our digital library of helpful tools and resources for cleaning faster, taking control of your budget, organizing your schedule, and getting food on the table easier than ever before.