How to get the most out of $5 at your favorite fast food chains

We all know what it feels like to be broke and hungry, and it sure as hell it ain't glamorous. Maybe it's a few days til payday and the thought of going home and trying to figure out how to cook a meal makes your brain want to quit. Maybe you've just got a bad case of the munchies and can only find $5 worth of quarters lying around. Whatever the reason, never fear, hungry reader. I combed through every fast food menu, hack and insider tip to bring you the ultimate list of how to get the most bang for your buck for $5 or less at these fast food chains, so sit back, relax and prepare for the thrifty deliciousness to follow.

(note: Seeing as prices may vary from state to state, I used each chain's respective app to determine pricing in my state. Since I live in the state of Oregon, sales tax is omitted below, so you might want to grab a handful of car change if you have any lying around).

Taco Bell

Taco Bell is the promised land, a beautiful urban mecca where it is, in fact, possible to order six Doritos Locos Tacos at 1 a.m. God bless America.

Not only is Taco Bell the tastiest option among the fast food giants, but it's also the most flexible. Just $5 can get you a whole lot here, and we're not just talking tacos, either. Be sure to download the app to check out what savings lie within first.

The breakfast menu here is pretty economical. You have a few options from a handful of combos under $5 to $1 menu items you can build your breakfast with. Your $5 would be best spent getting two breakfast burritos for $4, along with an extra breakfast soft taco for $1.

There's still plenty more to love if you aren't early enough for the 11 a.m. cutoff. First up are the $5 Crispy Chicken Quesadilla Box and $5 Cravings Deal boxes. Both give you an ample amount of food, with the quesadilla box foregoing an extra item in lieu of a drink.

There's also the glorious $1 menu. The most filling options here are the burritos, so getting five in total (I suggest the Beefy Fritos Burrito, grilled) would be sure to guarantee a full, content belly all night long. If you crave a little variety, you can add potato to any taco for an extra 50 cents, or spend 30 cents to add guacamole, or swap out refried beans for black.

Wendy's

A quick glance at the menu will quickly reveal that few combos here are under $5, which requires us to get creative. The current special at Wendy's is the four for $4 meals, which seems like the best value for your money so far. You get fries, a four-piece chicken nuggets and a drink, plus your choice from one of the following: Jr. Cheeseburger, Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, Double Stack (with a patty weighing in at ¼ pound), Crispy Chicken BLT, Crispy Chicken Sandwich, a Grilled, Spicy or Homestyle Wrap or a small chili. That leaves you with an extra $1 to spend on…I don't know…a nice, cool Frosty? Or maybe you want an extra four pieces of chicken nuggets, which is cool, too. You do you.

Another menu option is the current special combo, which happens to feature a three-piece chicken tender complete with small fries and a drink for $5. Hmm. You might want to opt for a gentle manipulation of the Everyday Value Menu instead. Here are the best combos I found:

  • Combo #1: Two Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers plus junior sized fries or a four-piece nuggets for $5
  • Combo #2: One Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, one junior fries, eight-piece chicken nuggets
  • Combo #3: Crispy Chicken Sandwich or Jr. Cheeseburger, six-piece nuggets or sour cream and chive potato, four-piece chicken nuggets, junior fries.

Jack in the Box

Let's start off with the obvious. Jack in the Box may have a slightly higher price point than its competitors, but the cheap tacos here are the stuff of legend. You can get two for $1.19, making tacos the unquestionable best value for money on the menu, but be warned — these tacos aren't what you'd call especially delicious. But what do you expect when you can get eight tacos for under $5?

There's also a special section on the website dedicated to "Offers & Stuff" that prompts you to sign up for the newsletter of course, which promises joining will help you unlock all sorts of deals. Alrighty then. Downloading the app can also be a little helpful: at the time of writing this I found a coupon in it for 10 off off my order as well as one giving me two free tacos with purchase.

So make that 10 tacos for under $5.00…which is insane.

Breakfast here is much, much cheaper than the lunch menu. You can grab a $2 Ham & Egg or Sausage & Egg Breakfast Pocket, with two going for $4 shaping up to be a fairly decent breakfast. Mini pancakes are $1.19, so if you've got a little change to throw on that $5 you can round out the whole thing with a little suga'.

Burger King

Early risers can indulge in the two for $4 breakfast menu. Get two of the Sausage Egg & Cheese Croissan'wich with 18 grams of protein each to start your day with a dose of protein that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger proud. Throw in a small coffee to augment your body with much-needed caffeine and you're gravy.

When asked how to score the best deals in-house, BK provided us with a great answer: download the app. You can snag coupons as well as stay notified of the rotating specials, which are by far the best value option in the joint. At the time of writing this piece, the special was a combo that got you two cheeseburgers, small fries and a drink for $3.49, which is more than enough to lure hungry bellies to the BK yard. Pair it with the 10-piece spicy chicken nuggets for $1.49 for a meal that's pretty damn hearty.

Let's not forget about the Value Menu. You could go the simple route and walk away with five burgers at $1 each (cheeseburger, Crispy Chicken Jr. sandwich or a Rodeo Crispy Chicken burger)…or you could also try the meatier route with two double cheeseburgers and a four-piece chicken nuggets, all for $4.87 pre-tax.

Craving more? Earn a free Whopper by doing the survey on the back of the receipt. Just answer a few questions on your phone and pop back in line to claim that righteous patty.

Popeye's

The folks behind the famous Louisiana style fried chicken have a coupon tab on their site that allows you to search for nearby locations and see if there are any coupons available. Given that my coupon was for a free large side and six biscuits with purchase of a 12-piece box or larger it was definitely outside the $5 range and thus, not particularly useful.

My local store was offering a deal where you could get six boneless wings, a biscuit and a side for $5, which—given Pop Eye's price point—is a pretty decent deal. There aren't any other combos for $5, though you could always make off with two thighs for a little under $5, which seems paltry in comparison.

In short: $5 won't get you a whole lot of love here, but it will get you a decent combo.

McDonald's

Signing up for the McDonald's newsletter gets you access to a few deals and promos. The McDonald's app gets you access to weekly deals available exclusively in the app, which are surprisingly pretty decent. Free hash browns with breakfast sandwich purchase, $2 off a purchase of $10 or more, buy one Happy Meal get one free, etc. You can also redeem things like "buy five McCafe beverages and get one free" with the app, too, which is worth it if you hit up Mickey Dee's often.

Your $5 can go a mighty long way with a little bit of preparation. Since there are so many items here priced under $2 I decided to take an economical approach to building up your $5 meal. Inspired by the analysis of McDonald's menu items over at FiveThirtyEight, I decided to consult the official nutritional menu and cross reference nutritional values (namely, item weight) with the cheapest menu items.

As far as breakfast goes, $5 will get you four sausage biscuits, which is definitely enough to soothe even the most savage belly.

The best deal on the regular menu offers two McChicken sandwiches for just $2. Get four McChicken sandwiches (the item with the most weight among value menu) for a total of 572 grams by weight. For comparison, two Big Macs is 422 grams of food. You'll still have a dollar leftover, at which point you could grab a biscuit on the side from the all day breakfast menu or grab a drink to wash down all that chicken.

Chick-fil-A

There's a Chick-fil-A app with a built-in loyalty program that promises every time you use the app to order you'll "make progress toward receiving free treats." 

Here are your best options when it comes to the breakfast menu:

  1. Get a Hash Brown Scramble Bowl for $4.15. You get the option to choose from a bowl with nuggets, sausage or a grilled filet.

  2. Snag a sunflower multigrain bagel for $1.49 and bulk it up with cream cheese (60 cents) and plenty of egg (egg whites for 80 cents, egg for 60 cents) for a total of $3.49, leaving you with just enough to add on an English muffin.

As far as the regular menu goes, you won't be getting any combos off the lunch menu for under $5, sadly enough. But you can definitely swing a sandwich. The most promising looking of all the sandwiches is the Deluxe, racking up at $4.55. You can add on pickles and extra butter on your bun for free, and tomato and lettuce for 15 cents a piece to create a sandwich that's just under $5. Other options include three chicken strips for $4.25, and eight nuggets for $3.99.

Sonic

You can start off by signing up for text messages with offers and updates on menu items if you're into that kind of thing. There's also, unsurprisingly, options to opt into the email newsletter as well as downloading the app to score extra goodies. Within the app is the option to use "Sonic Pay" in which you can use the app to pay for your order and earn rewards when doing so.

And then there are the current specials advertised on the site: While they may vary from state to state this is definitively the best place to look for a deal. Right now there's an offer or a $2.99 "Carhop Classic" in which you get to choose a cheeseburger or footlong quarter pound coney with medium onion rings for $2.99. Not bad.

Pricing wise, Sonic ain't too cheap, but luckily corn dogs are a plentiful. You can grab two Jr. Deluxe Burgers and a corn dog for under $5, or swap out one of the burgers and go corn dog crazy. The choice is yours.

Dairy Queen

Here's the scoop on DQ. You can opt in to their newsletter to join the Blizzard Fan Club, which gets you six buy one get one free Blizzard coupons a year, and access to "insider deals." There's also an interesting clause on the Promos page that says "Get your famously flippable Blizzard® treat served upside down or the next one's free," so, ya know, keep an eye out for that.

DQ is pretty lunch-friendly, offering up a couple of $5 Buck Lunch combos for those with hearty appetites and skimpy wallets. You get a main item (deluxe cheeseburger, chicken strips, BBQ bacon cheeseburger) along with fries a drink and a sundae for $5, which is honestly a great deal considering it includes dessert in the cost.

But goodness, there are so many deals to be had:

  • Two corn dogs for $2
  • Two chili cheese dogs for $4
  • Two hot dogs for $3
  • Two chicken wraps for $3
  • Two cheeseburgers for $4

The best option is to get four corn dogs for $4 and spend that extra $1 on a delicious kids cone to satisfy that sweet tooth. You could alternatively get either the two hot dogs or two chicken wraps for $3, and add on the corn dogs, too. Happy eating!

Carl's Jr.

Like many of its fast food brethren, Carl's Jr. has gone modern, which means you can do the whole sign up for the newsletter bit on the website for coupons and updates on promos. This is by far the most lucrative sign up deal since you get a coupon for a free small fries and small beverage with purchase of a Six Dollar Burger for signing up, essentially turning a burger into a combo for free. However, since that's above our $5 limit, we can put that in our back pocket and save it for a rainy day.

Heading to the Current Offers tab on the site takes us to a Coupons & Deals page, offering a buy one get one free coupon for…a ⅓ pound original Six Dollar Thickburger. Alas.

But hey, not all hope is lost! There's a whole array of $5 All Star Meals ready for the taking—well, four combos to be exact. Out of these (hand-breaded chicken tenders, charbroiled double cheeseburger and spicy chicken sandwich, charbroiled double cheeseburger and jumbo hot dog, charbroiled double cheeseburger and onion rings) the most stacked box is definitely the charbroiled double cheeseburger and spicy chicken sandwich. You get both aforementioned sandwiches plus fries, a chocolate chip cookie and 20 ounce drink, making this one of the best fast food deals out there today.

Subway

Signing up for the newsletter will send weekly coupons your way and keep you up to date on in-store promos. You should also definitely sign up for the Subway Rewards Program for the chance to amass loyalty points that you trade in for swag. You get a point for every dollar you spend, and can redeem points for things like cookies, sodas or even extra sandwiches.

So which sandwich is the most filling? Since you can add just about every topping to your sub, the most fulfilling sub ultimately comes down to your choice of meat. A former Subway employee in an interview with The Mirror says that "the meatball marinara, chipotle chicken, tikka chicken, spicy Italian and BMT subs offer the best bang for your buck".

Now here's where things get interesting. According to the Subway website, a six-inch meatball marinara is only $2.99. This is where the money's at. Other $2.99 six-inch sub options include black forest ham and a surprising steak and cheese sub. This gives you $2 to spare on cookies or chips, hurrah! You can also shell out an extra $1 for the cold cut combo in the hopes that all the different meats stacked on the sub will fill you up right. Finally, you can always fill out the survey on the back of the receipt for an extra free cookie.