Fast Food the Frugal Way

by Shaunna Privratsky

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A true dollar stretcher wouldn't be caught dead in a fast food restaurant, right? We all know that cooking at home is cheaper and healthier. Cooking extra and freezing the remainder is just as convenient as pulling through the drive through. However, there are times when it is tempting.

Perhaps you are running really late. Maybe your children deserve a special treat. Or maybe you are craving the ease of someone else preparing a meal. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself pulling into Burger King or Wendy's, don't throw your budget out the window. You can save money in the fast food lane.

You have three choices: drive through, carry out and eat in. Whatever you decide, here are some strategies to maximize your money and get the most for your meal.

Let's begin with the drive through. Nothing beats the convenience and speed. A major drawback is that you don't have long to compare prices and portion sizes. If you know what everyone wants ahead of time, you can take a moment to check prices.

When you drive through, you can skip drinks, desserts and possibly side orders, which can all be had at home. Don't give in to the invitation to "upgrade" or "super size" your order. You're only super sizing your bill and your waistline.

If you go in to order, you can study the menu at your leisure. Look for a value menu or kiddie menu. The portions are smaller, but so are the prices. It is often cheaper to order two $1 sandwiches than one super large double-decker.

When ordering, think smaller. Many fast food places no longer offer small. They start at medium and go up to mega - price, that is. It is not a value meal if you are paying more than you want. You are only getting unnecessary calories, fat and cholesterol for your dough.

Don't load up on sides. Does each person really need his or her own order of fries? Share and you will save money and you won't have to buy a bigger size of jeans. You could also share larger entrees like the taco salad at Taco Johns. If you'd rather not, save the other half for a meal the next day.

If you want to eat in, there are more ways to save. Order ice water [free] to drink. If your kids or spouse complains, order the smallest size, even a kid size cup. The reason is that McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Johns and most other fast food places offer unlimited free refills. Paying more for a larger cup is a blatant waste of money. Younger kids can even split milkshakes as long as they agree on the flavor. I ended up with one vanilla lover and one who will only order chocolate.

If the restaurant has a play area, you can eat and relax while your children run off some energy. It is free entertainment for them and saves your sanity. While they are busy, you can read the paper, catch up on letters or simply chill with another cup of ice water. You might even join them for some free exercise and fun.

McDonald's offers free tiny ice cream cones for dessert. Take advantage of it because most kids won't eat a full size (and full priced) cone anyway. You can even treat yourself for just a few calories.

You're not quite through being frugal yet! The Styrofoam containers that burgers and entrees are packaged in make excellent pet dishes. Just wipe out and take home. I simply cut the top and bottom apart for two dishes for our cats. I rinse them out a few times, then toss them when the edges get too worn.

Eating at fast food restaurants shouldn't become a habit, but once in awhile doesn't have to break your budget. An occasional visit is more of a treat to your children and you instantly turn into Super Mom or Super Dad because you actually took them out to eat and play!

The next time you are tempted to visit a fast food restaurant, remember these money-saving tips and you'll be eating fast food the frugal way. Bon appetite!

Shaunna Privratsky became an expert in personal finance out of necessity. Between writing, reading and gardening, she is always on the lookout for bargains. Please sign up for the free newsletters at The Discount Diva. You can also visit Shaunna on Google+.

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