eat out for cheap
Updated June 08, 2020

8 Best Places to Eat Out for Cheap

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Preparing your own meals is one of the most common pieces of money-saving advice financial experts offer, but the reality is eating out is sometimes more convenient.

While it’s easy to spend a lot of money at restaurants, there are great options available in a wide range of cuisines at any price point. This article will cover some of the best affordable options if you want to eat out on a limited budget.

1. Chipotle

  • Chipotle
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    Chipotle
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    • Get a delicious meal for a good price.
    • Price range:

      $12 – $15

    • Recommended item

      Burrito Bowl

    • Rewards:

      Yes

Chipotle isn’t necessarily a cheap restaurant compared to other fast food chains, but you can get a delicious meal for a good price. Barbacoa is its cheapest protein option, but you may opt for chicken or another meat for a few extra dollars.

Chipotle’s burrito bowls are its most affordable menu item, and you can ask for extra veggies and toppings to receive more food for the same price. The restaurant also offers tortillas on the side for free, allowing you to make your own burrito with the contents of the bowl.

Chipotle’s burrito bowls are pretty big, so there could be some food left to save for another meal. Overall, you shouldn’t end up spending more than $12 to $15 on enough to cover two meals, making it one of the better deals you can find when eating out.

The Chipotle rewards program lets you save even more money at the restaurant. It also lets you order via the app to spend less time waiting in line.

As a Chipotle rewards member, you’ll earn 10 points for every dollar you spend, plus extra for bonuses. For example, you’ll earn 50% more points on specified days or 100 extra for switching to a new order.

You’ll get a free entree whenever you reach 1,250 points—this won’t be a frequent reward, but it will still make a difference if you’re a regular customer.

2. Chick-fil-A

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    • One of the most cost-effective ways to eat out.
    • Price range:

      $3 – $8

    • Recommended item

      Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich or Grilled Nuggets

    • Rewards:

      Yes

Whatever you think of Chick-fil-A‘s political contributions, there’s no doubt it’s one of the most cost-effective ways to eat out. With a wide selection of delicious items made with high-quality ingredients, the restaurant lets you come back several times before you’ll eat the same thing twice.

Like Chipotle, Chick-fil-A runs a rewards program that lets you earn points whenever you order through the Chick-fil-A One app, scan the QR code when you order at the store or make a catering order online.

In addition to the basic rewards plan, you’ll also reach a higher membership status by spending more money each year. Anyone who earns more than 1,000 points in a single year becomes a silver member, and anyone who earns more than 5,000 points becomes a red member.

While basic members earn 10 points for every dollar they spend, that increases to 11 and 12 for silver and red members, respectively. This gives you an added incentive to come back to Chick-fil-A.

Red members also receive free sweepstakes entries, insider content, the option to send rewards to family and friends, and more.

Individual Chick-fil-A franchises are also well-known for customer appreciation, and they may offer additional benefits beyond those available for members. Talk to an employee to learn their policies, and remember to go in during the month of your birthday for a free treat.

3. McDonald’s

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    • While there are unhealthy choices, eating at McDonald’s doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t eat well for a low price.
    • Price range:

      $1 – $7

    • Recommended item

      Dollar Menu $1, $2, or $3 items

    • Rewards:

      McCafé only

People often avoid McDonald’s because they don’t consider it high-quality food, but you can get a decent meal at a low price, even compared to other fast food chains. While there are  unhealthy choices, eating at McDonald’s doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t eat well.

The McDonald’s Dollar Menu includes a variety of small options, allowing you to piece together a full dinner for just a few dollars. The McDonald’s app provides a rotating selection of deals to help you save even more money on your favorite items, so download the app and check for the latest discounts before you order.

McDonald’s also offers a decent coffee that some customers prefer to that of many popular coffee chains like Starbucks and Dunkin. It’s the perfect place to eat before work if you need some coffee and a quick breakfast on a tight budget.

McDonald’s doesn’t have a comprehensive rewards program, but you can earn rewards on McCafé products using the McDonald’s app. You’ll earn a free drink of any size after purchasing five at regular price whether you order through the app or scan your QR code at the restaurant.

Its drinks are already more affordable than most competitors’, so this makes a great deal even better.

The McDonald’s Dollar Menu includes a number of sandwiches for a single dollar, making it one of the cheapest restaurants available if you’re low on funds.

4. Wendy’s

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    • Find fast-food mainstays, plus a wider variety of options compared to competitors.
    • Price range:

      $0.99 – $7

    • Recommended item

      4 for $4 deal

    • Rewards:

      No

Wendy’s offers many of the same foods that are available at McDonald’s and similar chains, although some people consider it a higher quality option. While some of its items come at a decent price, you can spend even less money by taking advantage of deals.

The two-for-$5 meal deal, for example, lets you choose two out of certain sandwiches, chicken nuggets, and other items for a fairly large meal at a low cost.

Similarly, the “4 for $4” includes a number of smaller choices for even less money, and it may be the best deal in all of fast food.

You can get most of the conventional fast food menu at Wendy’s, but there’s a wider variety of options compared to most of its competitors. Baked potatoes and chili, for example, are available in addition to things like burgers and fries.

Unfortunately, Wendy’s no longer offers a rewards program, so you won’t be able to get any deals aside from those on the regular menu. That said, rewards only represent a small fraction of what you spend, so they shouldn’t be your main consideration when comparing cheap food options.

5. Subway

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    • Low-fat and low-calorie food at low prices.
    • Price range:

      $5 – $10

    • Recommended item

      Fresh Fit Menu Items

    • Rewards:

      Yes

Subway is another popular nationwide chain, and it offers a larger selection of low-fat and low-calorie foods than most fast food restaurants. With choices like wheat bread, lean meats, and fresh veggies, you can create a balanced meal without breaking the bank.

Most Subway 6-inch sandwiches are no more than $5, and footlongs can cost as little as $5 at some locations.

The $5 footlong rotates monthly at participating restaurants, so look at the latest deal at the beginning of each month. A footlong sandwich is often enough for a filling dinner.

Subway’s rewards plan, known as Myway, is accessible through an iOS and Android app, and you’ll be surprised by how quickly you accumulate points.

Myway provides four tokens whenever you spend a dollar at Subway, eventually leading to a reward of $2 once you get to 200 tokens. That might not sound like much, but it’s a decent discount, and it will make a real difference over the course of months and years.

6. Burger King

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    Burger King
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    • One of the most affordable places to eat when you’re in a pinch.
    • Price range:

      $0.99 – $6

    • Recommended item

      5 for $4 deals

    • Rewards:

      Yes, limited locations

Like McDonald’s and Wendy’s, Burger King is one of the most affordable places to eat when you’re in a pinch. Its prices and menu are comparable to those of McDonald’s, and some people prefer the ingredients and distinctive taste of Burger King.

Burger King’s most well-known deal is its five for $4, intended as a more affordable alternative to the Wendy’s 4 for $4 and similar offers. You can also get 10 chicken nuggets for just $0.99, one of the cheapest ways to eat at any restaurant in the United States.

BK Rewards, the Burger King rewards program, provides several of the same benefits you can get at other fast food restaurants. If you live near a participating store, sign up for a rewards account to take advantage of every possible offer and earn points on every purchase.

You’ll also get a free Whopper after signing up, so you’ll come out ahead even if you never come back to a Burger King.

Unfortunately, BK Rewards is still in its early stages, so it’s only available at a few locations in Little Rock, Lexington, and Fresno. Customers in other areas will have to wait for the program to be expanded throughout the country.

7. Olive Garden

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    Olive Garden
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    • A full-service restaurant with affordable options.
    • Price range:

      $10 – $20

    • Recommended item

      $5 Take-Home Entree or Create-Your-Own pasta

    • Rewards:

      Yes, pilot program

Unlike many of the other affordable chains on this list, Olive Garden is a full-service restaurant rather than a fast-food stop. While its menu isn’t exactly healthy, you can certainly find nutritious options, and it feels like more of a full meal than a fast-food combo.

Olive Garden offers unlimited breadsticks and salad to every customer, and the entree prices are extremely competitive for a sit-down restaurant. If you’re looking for something substantial but less heavy, consider the unlimited soup and salad combo.

The chain also regularly provides an offer that allows you to buy one entree at full price and receive a second one to go for free, giving you two meals for the price of one. Italian food is easy to heat up at home, so this is an easy way to approach meal planning when you’re busy.

Similar to Burger King, Olive Garden is running a pilot rewards program to offer consumers  incentives for becoming regular customers. Members can earn points in a variety of ways on every transaction, even stacking these benefits with savings from combos and other deals.

After a $5 reward following your first visit as a member, for example, you’ll get 400 points for each entree, 200 for appetizers and lunch combos, and 100 points for desserts and kids meals. You could potentially earn 1,000 or more points for a single family dinner.

8. Chuy’s

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    • One of the most well-known brands in Tex-Mex in the South.
    • Price range:

      $9 – $15

    • Recommended item

      Happy Hour Nacho Car (Free)

    • Rewards:

      No

One of the most well-known brands in Tex-Mex, Chuy’s isn’t available in as many areas as the other restaurants on this list. Its locations are concentrated in Texas (the brand’s home state) and other states in the South and eastern U.S., although there is one restaurant in Colorado.

While Chuy’s base prices are already pretty low, target its happy hours to minimize the cost without sacrificing quality or quantity. Its website advertises a happy hour every weekday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., giving you an opportunity to get a low-cost meal after work.

The Chuy’s Nacho Car is completely free during happy hour, including chips, queso, salsa, meat, jalapeños, and other great toppings. You can also save money on a range of drinks including $5 margaritas, $8 large margaritas, $9 house martinis, $3.25 domestic beers, $1 off Tecates and glasses of wine, and $3 off bottles of wine.

With unlimited free nachos and cheap drinks, you can get a satisfying meal at Chuy’s for much less than what you would likely pay at similar restaurants.

You can even buy appetizers rather than entrees and still take advantage of the free cart. While prices will still be decent if you come after 7 p.m. or over the weekend, definitely keep these deals in mind if you live near a Chuy’s.

Eating out is one of the most common things stretching budgets, but you don’t always have to stay in if you want to save money. These are just a few of the best restaurants to consider if you’re tired of cooking at home but don’t want to spend too much going out.

Price Range Recommended Item Rewards
Chipotle

$12 – $15

Burrito Bowl

Yes

Chick-fil-A

$3 – $8

Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich or Grilled Nuggets

Yes

McDonalds

$1 – $7

Dollar Menu $1, $2, or $3 items

 

McCafé only

Wendy's

$0.99 – $7

4 for $4 deal

No

Subway

$5 – $10

Fresh Fit Menu Items

Yes

Burger King

$0.99 – $6

5 for $4 deals

Yes, limited locations

Olive Garden

$10 – $20

$5 Take-Home Entree or Create-Your-Own pasta

Yes, pilot program

Chuy's

$9 – $15

Happy Hour Nacho Car (Free)

No

 

Alex McOmie

Alex McOmie currently serves as the Managing Editor for Money Done Right. He joined the Money Done Right editorial team in summer 2019. Learn more about Alex.

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