Fast Food Hacks to Save Money and Ignite Your Taste Buds

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:34:08 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: JJBers/Flickr

Fast food sometimes gets a lot of negative hype, but it’s an essential food choice for broke college students and anyone with no time to spare or the late-night munchies. Not all fast food joints are created equal when it comes to getting the best flavors or the most bang for your buck.

When you want to eat cheap but still enjoy every bite, you need to know where to go. Check out these fast food hacks that could help you save money while giving your taste buds a little treat.

Starbucks: Larger-Sized Cup

Depending on what you order at Starbucks, the whipped cream, caramel drizzle and other top-of-the-drink-goodness often takes up a lot of space in your cup. If you’ve never noticed some of your delicious drink getting washed down the drain when your barista makes your delicious Frappuccino, rest assured that it’s probably happening. What a waste!

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Photo Courtesy: JESHOOTS-com/Pixabay

Tip: Ask your barista to put your beverage of choice in the next larger size cup. Then, when the barista makes the portion allotted for your drink, none of it goes to waste due to them leaving room in the cup for the goodies that go on top.

Taco Bell: Double-Grilled Quesadilla

The quesadilla is a Taco Bell go-to for anybody with a hankering for some Mexican deliciousness. Whether you're a steak quesadilla person, a chicken quesadilla buff or you prefer to go cheese-only, you really can't go wrong with this cheesy grilled tortilla.

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Photo Courtesy: Sony Ilce-7m3/Pixabay

Tip: When you decide to dig into a quesadilla from Taco Bell, order it extra crispy by simply asking the cashier to double grill your quesadilla. Countless satisfied Taco Bell enthusiasts have raved over the flavor of the extra-crispy quesadilla.

Chipotle: Extra Rice

Chipotle is yet another Mexican-inspired staple in many fast foodie's diet. Whether you’re a burrito fan or you prefer to go a bit healthier with a bowl, you should know that you're always allowed to ask for extra rice at no cost. That’s right — free!

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Photo Courtesy: Christine Chau/Flickr

Tip: You can throw extra rice in your burrito or bowl to add some additional sustenance to your one-time meal, or the added rice could even help you stretch the burrito into two meals. All the hungry, broke college students out there better be paying attention!

McDonald's: Steamed Bun

Most people roll through the McDonald’s drive-thru or stroll up to the counter and place their orders without giving it much thought. This is a critical error if you normally eat burgers at the fast food giant.

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Photo Courtesy: hslo/Flickr

Tip: McDonald's Filet-O-Fish comes with a steamed bun that taste testers around the world have determined to be fresher and superior tasting versus the assortment of other bun offerings at the house that Ronald McDonald built. Although it’s not clear why steaming would make it better, it’s definitely a better bun. Ask to swap in the steamed bun on your burger and see for yourself.

Starbucks: Your Own Mug/Cup

Plenty of Starbucks loyalists stop by the renowned coffee joint several times a week (or even once a day). The delicious offerings keep them going through work, workouts, errands, kids' errands — you name it. Ever noticed how Starbucks walls are lined with tempting take-home cup options? People buy them in droves while completely overlooking one very significant benefit.

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Photo Courtesy: Pablo Viojo/Flickr

Tip: Instead of paying full price each time you stop in for a frap or black coffee, take your own mug or cup to save $0.10 on each order. Who cares about saving ten cents, you ask? Well, it doesn't take an MIT-graduate-level mathematician to understand just how quickly that adds up if you’re a daily Starbucks drinker.

McDonald's: The Rule of Four Nuggets

Are you a McDonald’s chicken nuggets fan? Some very clever enthusiasts have discovered over the years that nuggets should be ordered in specific quantities. This isn’t a bit of promotional propaganda. It’s a value-based hack that can save you money over time.

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Photo Courtesy: John/Flickr

Tip: Simple arithmetic proves that ordering nuggets in quantities of four is cheaper than ordering larger quantities. In addition, the more orders of nuggets you place, the more dipping sauces you are allotted without paying extra. Next time you have a hankering for McDonald's nuggets, abide by the rule of four.

Burger King: The Quad Stacker

The Quad Stacker isn’t an ironically named menu items. It’s a staple of BK's off-the-menu offerings that’s listed here not because it’s a "secret" item, but because it’s delicious and a great value.

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Photo Courtesy: Mychal Stanley/Flickr

Tip: Secret items don’t last forever — and the trend for healthier options like the plant-based Impossible Whopper is taking over — so try this burger before it goes extinct. It consists of four burger patties, four slices of cheese, bacon and a hefty dose of BK's special sauce. It’s certainly not for health nuts!

Shake Shack: Peanut Butter Bacon Burger

The Peanut Butter and Bacon ShackBurger was once a regular menu item at Shake Shacks all around the world, but it was discontinued due to liability issues related to those with peanut allergies. That doesn’t have to stop you from channeling your inner MacGyver to enjoy it anyway.

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Photo Courtesy: Laura Supalla Glichrist/Flickr

Tip: Order the Bacon Burger (or Bacon Cheeseburger) as well as a side of peanut sauce. Simply put the peanut sauce on your burger or dip it in the sauce as you eat it. For all intents and purposes, the Shake Shack Peanut Butter Bacon Burger remains an everyday menu item.

Chipotle: Chicken and Steak Combo

You should always feel free to ask for what you want, regardless of where you’re eating. Unless you’re a vegetarian, it’s unlikely you want less meat in your Chipotle burrito. This hack is dedicated to everyone out there on a budget who needs to make the most out of every meal.

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Photo Courtesy: Jazz Guy/Flickr

Tip: When it comes to maximizing the value of your Chipotle burrito, consider asking for an equal amount of chicken and steak. Diners have found that this almost always results in larger overall meat in your burrito. Get that meat!

Jamba Juice: Substitute Away

At Jamba Juice, employees have to honor your requests for item substitutions. That basically gives you a license to customize your smoothie any way you like without paying extra — assuming you are clever enough. The possibilities are endless, but it's not always easy to come out ahead.

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Photo Courtesy: theimpulsivebuy/Flickr

Tip: To get it right, you have to figure out which ingredients you want to keep in the smoothie and which one to swap to create the smoothie of your dreams. The alternative is to pay extra to add other ingredients. Play with this option to see which ultimate combos you can create that are custom made for your taste buds.

Burger King: Crown Card

Burger King offers what is essentially a rewards program, but you'd never know it if you simply go through the drive-thru or order your meal off the menu inside. That makes the Crown Card Club as exclusive as any secret society or local country club. (Okay, not really, but you get the idea.)

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Photo Courtesy: Ted Murphy/Flickr

Tip: Ask to sign up for the Crown Card. Once you do, you will find your points rapidly stacking up if you’re a frequent visitor to Burger King. Of course, it’s only for those who are interested in free Whoppers, milkshakes and fries. Yum!

Subway: Foot-Long Sandwich

If you and a friend or family member are both craving the same tasty Subway sandwich, you could both individually order your Spicy Italian or your Meatball Marinara. There’s nothing wrong with that — except you’re missing out on some big savings.

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Photo Courtesy: Nachoman-au/Wikimedia Commons

Tip: If you both plan to eat a 6-inch sub, don't order individually. Buy one foot-long sandwich and split it between you. This will always be cheaper for every sandwich on the menu, but it’s particularly true for sandwiches on the special $5 foot-long menu. You also reduce the plastic bagging, which helps you save the environment as well. Win-Win.

Domino's: Pizza Profile

Domino's is winning the large American pizza chain competition when it comes to perks and rewards, and their customer Pizza Profiles are at the heart of their winning strategy. Many rewards programs are a sham, offering little in return for your purchases, but that’s not the case with Domino’s.

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Photo Courtesy: Ryan Abel/Flickr

Tip: Set up your own Pizza Profile, and make sure you sign in to your profile every time you order. Your purchases quickly add up to free food, and that food isn’t cheap side items either — we're talking entire pizzas, free of charge. If you're going to order Domino's, creating and using a customer profile is critical.

Arby's: Roast Beef Sandwiches

Arby's might not be the most popular fast food chain in America, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of the roast beef sandwich that made them a household name. Next time you want to pick up a classic roast beef at Arby's, there’s something you need to know to get your money’s worth.

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Photo Courtesy: Lenin and McCarthy/Wikimedia Commons

Tip: Instead of ordering the Classic Roast Beef Sandwich, order two Junior Roast Beef Sandwiches. This gives you much more roast beef for the price you pay. If you’re a regular Arby’s fan, this can add up to big savings in a year.

Chipotle: Tortillas on the Side

You could order the massive burrito at Chipotle for your monster appetite, but what happens if you don’t actually finish it? Yep, it turns into a much less appealing (possibly even a soggy mess) for reheating. We have an alternative option if you don’t mind a do-it-yourself method.

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Photo Courtesy: gmasonbrown/Pixabay

Tip: Order the burrito bowl with all your favorite ingredients, and then ask for tortillas on the side. This allows you to use the ingredients to make smaller burritos that never involve soggy tortillas. In most locations, the tortillas are available free of charge, so you could end up saving some money and have some leftovers that are actually edible.

Taco Bell: Nachos

If you’re looking for your own customized version of nachos — like maybe some tomato thrown on for kicks — then don't simply order the chips and cheese and start adding toppings.

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Photo Courtesy: Steven Depolo/Flickr

Tip: You will get way more bang for your buck at Taco Bell if you order the Triple Layer Nachos — beans, red sauce and cheese — and customize from there. Whether you want to remove everything but the cheese and add tomatoes and sour cream or eat it exactly as served, the combinations are all in your hands. Ordering the Triple Layer nachos gives you more chips and a better bang for your buck.

Domino's: Hawaiian, Anyone?

Domino's does pizza right, and sometimes that means a delicious pizza pie with ham and pineapple on it. If you're feeling tropical and decide it's a Hawaiian kind of day (or night), think twice before automatically pulling up a Hawaiian pizza in your app and ordering it.

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Photo Courtesy: Elsie Hui/Flickr

Tip: If your idea of Hawaiian is simply ham and pineapple, it may sound crazy, but it’s cheaper to build a pizza with ham and pineapple rather than order a menu specialty Hawaiian pizza (which may also include other toppings). Next time you order your Domino's Hawaiian, see if adding the toppings yourself saves you a few bucks.

Dunkin’ Donuts: Snickers Coffee

Snickers is one of the most beloved candy bars on the planet for good reason. Some clever flavor enthusiasts at Dunkin’ Donuts discovered that Snickers-flavored iced coffee is pretty darn good too. You can try it yourself by making a couple of simple requests when you order.

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Photo Courtesy: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Tip: Order a Dunkin’ iced coffee and ask the barista to add one swirl of hazelnut flavoring and another swirl of salted caramel. The result will taste like you’re drinking a Snickers bar while you’re getting the caffeine boost you desperately need.

Sonic: Purple Sprite

If you’re a fan of the rapper, Future, you may be thinking of a different sort of Purple Sprite. This one is talking about Sonic, one of the most underrated fast food joints in the land, partially due to its specialty crushed ice that could make any simple drink taste magical.

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Photo Courtesy: Jeff/Flickr

Tip: To try the delicious Sonic Purple Sprite, ask them to mix Powerade, cranberry juice and Sprite. Of course, you can make the concoction anywhere, but, somehow, it just tastes better when you order it from Sonic (probably the magic ice). Give it a try and see what you think.

Taco Bell: Guacamole

The burritos at Taco Bell tend to revolve around similar recipes featuring meat, beans, cheese and rice as primary ingredients. You may find these burritos to be boring and uninspiring, but there are ways to pump up the flavor.

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Photo Courtesy: rick/Flickr

Tip: Order a burrito with guacamole substituted in place of rice. After all, guacamole is delicious, and it’s great when you’re craving a burrito but need to cut as many carbs as possible without sacrificing the tortilla. Many people don't even realize that substituting guacamole in their tacos and burritos is an option. You’re welcome.

Arby's: The Meat Mountain

Arby's slogan is "We Have the Meats," so it’s only fitting that we bring your attention to a monstrous, off-the-menu Arby's offering known as the Meat Mountain. Like real mountains, it’s massive — in the fast food sandwich world — and will certainly fill you up.

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Photo Courtesy: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Tip: Order the Meat Mountain — consisting of two chicken tenders, roasted turkey, pepper bacon, pit-smoked ham, smoked brisket, corned beef, Angus steak and roast beef — and share it with a friend to cut your cost or take half home for later to cover two meals. Like Arby's says, they have the meats, and they piled them all on this sandwich.

In-N-Out: Flying Dutchman

The world is very carb conscious these days. That means when you're chowing down on a delicious burger, the biggest tinge of guilt comes from the bun. The carbs are hidden in the bread, so if you cut down on the bun (or eliminate it), then you can put your conscience to rest. The West Coast staple known as In-N-Out is ready to help you solve this problem.

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Photo Courtesy: Mel C./Yelp

Tip: To enjoy all the juicy goodness of an In-N-Out burger while watching your carb count, ask for the Flying Dutchman. It consists of two patties grilled to perfection with a slice of cheese in the middle and — you guessed it — no bun.

Jack in the Box: Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers

If you're a fan of the Jack in the Box Double Bacon Cheeseburger — and a fan of saving money, rather than wasting it — we have the perfect hack for you. Math-minded fast foodies have figured out a cost-saving shortcut that is sure to drive Jack in the Box executives crazy.

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Photo Courtesy: RightCowLeftCoast/Wikimedia Commons

Tip: Order two Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers instead of the big burger. These burgers consist of a single patty, bacon and a slice of cheese on a bun. Simply take one burger apart and put the ingredients on the second burger to make your own double for much less money.

Steak ‘n Shake: Frisco Melt

Steak N' Shake is legendary among American fast food lovers, and the Frisco Melt — consisting of thin patties on delicious sourdough — is an absolute staple of the SNS menu. But it's far from one of the cheapest menu items, so we have a hack to make it a bit more affordable for those on a budget.

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Photo Courtesy: Robyn Lee/Flickr

Tip: Order a Double ‘n Cheese Steakburger and request they swap the burger bun for sourdough. Then, simply add Swiss cheese and Frisco sauce. Savvy staff members will know you're re-creating the Frisco Melt for less, but they won’t do anything more than tip their cap at your ingenuity.

All Restaurants: Rush Hour

It may seem counterintuitive to go to any place of business when you know it’s crazy busy, but there are two very good reasons why this hack should be a rule of thumb when you’re seeking a fast food fix. Rush hour times are when you know the food will be fresh and when the best staff members are likely to be working.

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Photo Courtesy: Larry Miller/Flickr

Tip: Forget about getting your food a bit faster during off-hours and hit up your favorite spots at busy times. Otherwise, your food could be cold, carelessly made or missing critical items due to staff apathy. No one has time to be lazy during rush hour!

McDonald's: No Salt

You would be hard pressed to meet someone who doesn't love McDonald's French fries, but fresh fries are dramatically better than those sitting under the heat lamp for too long. Fortunately, there’s a sure-fire way to make sure your fries are fresh every time.

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Photo Courtesy: Shane Ronemus/Flickr

Tip: Ask the cashier for fries without salt. The cooks salt the fries thoroughly when they’re fresh out of the grease to make sure the grains stick. That means asking for unsalted fries guarantees you a serving from a fresh batch. You can always add your own salt when you eat them. Extra Tip: If the salt won’t stick to the fries, add it to the ketchup or other sauce.

McDonald's: Round Eggs

McDonald's has dominated the fast food breakfast game for years, but many customers don’t realize they could make their egg breakfast sandwiches even better. You don’t always get the freshest foods at fast food joints, but you can ensure your breakfast is fresh if you know what to ask.

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Photo Courtesy: Rusty Clark/Flickr

Tip: Most McDonald's breakfast items come with folded scrambled eggs. That allows employees to make them in large batches, meaning they tend to be less fresh. If you want a fresher egg, ask for a round egg on your sandwich. Those eggs are typically made to order.

Starbucks: Less Ice, More Coffee

It's basic logic: The more ice in any drink you order, the less room you have for the liquid that’s actually costing you money. When it comes to properly dosing yourself with caffeine, it’s particularly critical to maximize the amount of coffee in each of your Starbucks orders. Each and every sip could make a major difference in your daily productivity.

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Photo Courtesy: Marco Arment/Flickr

Tip: The next time you order an iced coffee — or any iced beverage — ask the barista to go light on the ice. Less ice means more coffee for you. Your drink will still be plenty cold, and you will get to enjoy it a little longer.

Burger King: Off the Broiler

You might be surprised to learn how many fast food joints will make your food fresh — simply because you know how to ask for it in properly coded language. Burger King isn’t an exception to the rule. If you want to make sure your burger is fresh, there’s a specific way you need to request it.

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Photo Courtesy: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Tip: The code phrase is, "Can I get a Whopper (or double cheeseburger or whatever you prefer) off the broiler, please?" Does that mean you won’t enjoy the trademark flame-broiled deliciousness? Nope. These simple words tell the cashier not to give you a burger that has been sitting under the heat lamps.

McDonald's: Big Mac

It’s really amazing how much you can save by simply ordering the base model of a burger and swapping out some ingredients. The Big Mac is a great burger — but most McDonald's customers pay more to enjoy that greatness. Imagine if they knew they could get it for less.

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Photo Courtesy: R4vi/Flickr

Tip: Order a Double Cheeseburger, which costs substantially less than a Big Mac. Then ask the cashier to replace the ketchup and mustard on your burger with special sauce and add lettuce and pickles. You'll get a Big Mac — minus the missing middle piece of bun that really isn’t necessary — without paying full price. That's pretty sweet.