7 Guilt-Free Fast-Food Menu Hacks That Work at Any Drive-Thru

Cheap fast food
Ronald McDonald waves to the crowd during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015, in New York. AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

Have you ever rolled up to the McDonald’s drive-thru window and ordered a double cheeseburger, minus the ketchup and mustard — but with added special sauce and lettuce?

You’d wind up with what’s essentially a Big Mac, although its bun would lack those classic sesame seeds and the piece of bread splitting the two beef patties. It would also cost you $2.58 less, according to this website’s estimate of Florida fast-food menu prices.

You could also order a $1.29 Sausage McMuffin with an a la carte fresh-made egg instead of a $3.19 Sausage McMuffin With Egg. Boom: Some shuffled syntax just saved you 61 cents.

And maybe you’ve heard how easy it is to save money at Starbucks by not mentioning your favorite iced latte by name.

Instead, order however much espresso you can handle over ice, then add milk at the bar. Voila — a caffeine buzz by another name and a couple more bucks for your pocket. (Or the tip jar.)

Listen, I get it. As a Penny Hoarder, I’m not above these tactics.

But I also know that when I’m hitting the drive-thru, it’s usually in a last-ditch effort to fill my belly without spending too much time. Which means I’m in no position to carefully examine every menu item and figure out how to cobble together a cheaper version by performing mathematical acrobatics.

Plus, as cool as these fast-food menu hacks can be, franchise prices vary by market, as do menu items. There’s no way to create a definitive list of these tricks.

To say nothing of the fact that — let’s be real — they’re a little sneaky.

Sure, the restaurant set it up so that certain button presses on the register add up to a lower price for the same meal, but do you really feel great about trying to hack the system to save a few cents?

OK, maybe you do. But either way, it’s not gonna be feasible every single time.

These seven tips, however, will work no matter what fast-food joint you frequent — and they aren’t even a little bit nefarious.

7 Fast-Food Menu Hacks to Save You Money at Any Speedy Eatery

Whether you’re standing in line at Chipotle or at the drive-thru of your local McDonald’s, these surefire tips will save you money every single time.

1. Take Advantage of Kid-Size Portions and the Dollar Menu.

OK, so the kids’ menu thing will only work if you don’t have a particularly voracious appetite.

But you might be surprised how much food you get: Chick-fil-A’s got a six-piece chicken nugget option, and it comes with a side and drink. Besides, who doesn’t want a toy with dinner?

And who doesn’t want to build their own quesadilla at Chipotle?

If it’s just not gonna cut it, that’s cool — but the dollar menu’s hard to argue with. It’s like the dollar store of the fast-food world: You know exactly what everything costs and can add up items in any combination.

Most combo meals cost over $5, and you only get a sandwich, an order of fries and a drink. Why not double up on your favorite of those elements and add in a dessert to boot for that same fiver?

2. But Beware That “Extra Value” Meal.

This just in: Marketing is crappy sometimes.

That’s why this man sued a Chicago-area McDonald’s franchisee for false advertising when he discovered his “extra value” meal would actually be cheaper if he’d ordered its items individually.

If a combo is your go-to, it’s pretty quick and simple to compare its price to the a la carte menu right beside it on the billboard. And besides, do you really need two cheeseburgers? Or maybe you don’t actually want fries today, but you’ll eat them if they’re there.

Making sure your combo is actually a value could save you money and help you make healthier choices.

3. And the “Secret Menu”? Totally Not a Thing.

I’m not saying you can’t have a cotton candy butterbeer frappuccino.

I’m saying the person behind the counter likely doesn’t actually have that item on their register, which means you’re going to have to order it with the specific substitutions and changes it requires — and which you’ll need to memorize yourself or annoyingly pull up on your cell phone in line.

By the way? All those extra button presses might mean lots and lots of upcharges for you. Most fast-food joints have a totally adequate number of options. Sticking to what’s in front of you will earn you thanks from your wallet, the cashier and the line of folks queued up behind you.

4. Skip the Soda — or at Least Go for a Small.

Most places will give you a free cup for water if you ask for it.

And if you must go in for a fountain drink, get the small, unless you’re leaving right away.

When you can get free refills, even a tiny cup is bottomless.

5. Get the App.

Just like literally everything else in our lives, for most fast-food brands, there’s an app for that. And it’s usually tied in with a rewards or loyalty program that can save you money over time if you visit a certain chain often.

You might want to hide the icon back a ways in your app drawer or cloister it in an obscure folder, however.

There’s nothing like having a visible shortcut to your Dunkin Donuts membership to raise some concerned family members’ eyebrows.

I can stop anytime I want to, OK?

6. Follow Your Favorite Chains on Social Media.

And not just because many fast-food joints hire hilarious people to manage their Twitter accounts.

Following your favorite guilty pleasure joint on Facebook and Instagram can alert you to cool promotions.

Chick-fil-A in particular is great at these. Franchisees serve up freebies on the restaurant’s famous Cow Appreciation Day — or tempt customers to get off their cell phones and into conversations by way of free ice cream.

Other brands release annual deals that can save you money all year long… if you get them in time. (Psst: You’re probably not too late for this year’s Krispy Kreme calendar or the Wendy’s Frosty key tag!)

If you’re connected to these brands on your social channels, you’ll be in the know — and first in line.

7. Be Nice.

Obviously, this one should go without saying.

But if you need an extra reason to be kind to whoever’s behind the counter, don’t forget what your mom always told you: You get more free stuff with honey than vinegar.

Or something like that.

Bon appetite, Penny Hoarders!

Your Turn: What are your best tips for saving money on fast food?

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured in the Ms. Magazine blog, The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.