Is Fast Food Affordable Anymore? A Detailed Look At Menu Prices Over The Years

Authored by Josh Koebert via FinanceBuzz,

Whether it’s for speed, convenience, or price, it’s no secret that Americans love fast food. Convenience aside, fast food has also been considered one of the most budget-friendly options to feed your family outside of cooking at home.

However, fast foodies claim menu prices have skyrocketed in recent years, prompting backlash online and on social media.

Have fast food prices really changed so dramatically? And if so, by how much? To find out, our team at FinanceBuzz collected pricing data for a dozen different chain restaurants over the last decade. We then calculated how much prices have risen in that timeframe and compared it to the overall inflation rate in the same period.

Key findings

  • From 2014 to 2024, average menu prices have risen between 39% and 100% — all increases that outpace inflation during the given time period (31%).
  • McDonald’s menu prices have doubled (100% increase) since 2014 across popular items — the highest of any chain we analyzed.
  • Popeyes follows McDonald’s with an 86% increase, and Taco Bell is third at +81%.
  • Menu prices at Subway and Starbucks have risen by “just” 39% since 2014 — the lowest among chains we studied. These are also the only restaurants where prices have risen by less than 50%.

How does fast food inflation compare to actual inflation?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of goods has risen 31% since 2014. This means that $100 in 2014 dollars is worth $131 in 2024 dollars. Much of this change has happened in the last 5 years — inflation is up 22% since 2019. So how do the average menu price increases at popular fast food chains compare to those rates?

The restaurants we evaluated raised prices by 60% on average between 2014 and 2024. That means they’ve raised prices at a rate nearly double the national rate of inflation.

Five different restaurants — McDonald’s, Popeyes, Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Jimmy John’s — raised their prices at more than double the actual inflation rate. McDonald’s raised prices so much that their average menu prices increased more than three times the national rate of inflation.

Gold-tier prices at the Golden Arches: McDonald’s prices have risen the most

The worst offender for dramatic price increases is McDonald’s — a chain that recently went viral for all the wrong reasons. An $18 Big Mac® combo garnered so much attention online that the McDonald’s CEO promised affordability on a recent earnings call. According to our data, prices at McDonald’s have doubled since 2014, with an average price increase of 100%.

That rate is more than triple the actual inflation rate at that same time. One menu item that illustrates just how much things have changed is the McChicken® sandwich. This was a staple of the chain’s $1 menu in 2014, but it now costs $3 at some locations. That’s a massive price increase of nearly 200% in a single decade.

Other former value menu items, like the McDouble® and a simple order of medium fries, were among the most egregious price increases across the McD’s menu.

Other notable fast-flation examples

Looking at the full data, we see that Popeyes, Taco Bell, and Chipotle have the second, third, and fourth-largest average price increases. All three have raised prices by at least 75% in the last 10 years. Subway and Starbucks, on the other hand, kept prices the most stable of the bunch.

Though McDonald’s was the biggest inflation offender of the chains we looked at, we found some other interesting inflation trends across fast food menus.

Taco Bell

Similar to McDonald’s, Taco Bell has long had a reputation for being a cheap place to get a quick bite. But also like McDonald’s, that reputation has started to take a hit among fans due to a decade of outsized price increases.

Some of Taco Bell’s most iconic menu items show how much costs have risen. A Doritos® Locos Taco has gone from an average price of $1.39 in 2014 to $2.59 in 2024 (+86%), while a Cheesy Gordita Crunch has doubled in price from $2.49 in 2014 to $4.99 today.

Neither of these price increases is the largest we tracked at Taco Bell. That prize goes to the Beefy 5-Layer Burrito, which went from an average cost of $1.59 in 2014 to a present-day price of $3.69. That’s a 132% increase.

Chipotle

While Chipotle’s prices haven’t increased at quite the same rate as Taco Bell’s or McDonald’s, their costs have still risen by 75% on average in the last decade.

In 2014, hungry customers could get an entree, such as a burrito, bowl, or tacos, for less than $6.75 on average. Those same meals all cost $10.50 or more today. And adding guac costs 64% more now than it did 10 years ago, going from $1.80 to $2.95 on average.

Starbucks

Starbucks is one of the best chains we evaluated in terms of keeping costs down. Menu prices have gone up by 39% on average from 2014 to 2024. That is only slightly higher than the actual inflation rate during that time (31%).

Notably, some beloved Starbucks menu items have kept pace with inflation, such as their Chai Tea Latte (+30%) and their Mocha Frappuccino® (+32%). Even better for Starbucks fans and their wallets, costs for certain items such as a Caffè Latte (+22%) and Caramel Macchiato (+17%) have actually risen slower than inflation, which makes them a better deal now than they were a decade ago.

Burger King

One of McDonald’s’ primary competitors is Burger King, but BK has done a much better job of keeping costs down compared to McDonald’s. While prices at the Golden Arches have doubled on average since 2014, the average cost for Burger King menu items has risen by “just” 55% in that same time.

For a table with full results – click here.

Hear from our experts

While our study gave good insight on fast food price inflation, we also had our own questions about what the future holds for affordable meal options. To find out, we asked a panel of experts to weigh in on three questions: 

  • Do you think fast-food menu prices will continue to outpace inflation rates, or is there a potential stopping point?
  • What are some factors that can contribute to the rising costs of what’s typically considered an affordable food option?

  • In addition to a considerable increase in menu prices, would you say there’s been a drop-off in fast-food value deals, coupons, and promotions?

Shubhranshu Singh, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Marketing, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School

Do you think fast-food menu prices will continue to outpace inflation rates, or is there a potential stopping point?

Fast food menu prices are expected to outpace inflation in the near term. However, the rate of increase is expected to slow down going forward. It appears that, if food price inflation and wage inflation continue to decrease, we can expect fast food prices to follow the overall inflation rate by the end of year.

What are some factors that can contribute to the rising costs of what’s typically considered an affordable food option?

A number of factors have contributed to the rising costs of fast food. First, food prices are outpacing inflation. Wage rate is also rising faster than inflation. In other words, the cost of preparing and serving fast food is rising faster than the inflation rate. Second, due to increasing pressure to spend less, some consumers have also downgraded from full-service restaurants to fast food restaurants, thus increasing the overall demand for fast food. Third, because of the increasing need to take multiple jobs and less time to prepare or enjoy food, consumers’ preferences for fast food have become stickier, that is, they are willing to accept higher prices. To make matters worse for fast food restaurants, consumers are tipping less at low- and no-service restaurants. Fast food restaurants are responding by raising prices.

In addition to a considerable increase in menu prices, would you say there’s been a drop-off in fast-food value deals, coupons, and promotions?

Yes, there has been a decrease in the frequency and depth of deals, coupons, and promotions offered by fast food restaurants. My casual observation suggests many fast-food chains such as McDonalds, KFC, and Domino’s Pizza have cut online deals. When deals, coupons, and promotions are offered, they don’t appear to be as attractive as they used to be prior to the pandemic. It appears the low-price items and deals that are currently offered are mostly to mitigate the recent backlash related to skyrocketing fast-food prices and not so much to make fast food more affordable for an average consumer.

Daniel Roccato, MBA, CPM

Clinical Professor of Finance, University of San Diego – Knauss School of Business

Do you think fast-food menu prices will continue to outpace inflation rates, or is there a potential stopping point?

The worst is behind because consumers have reached a tipping point. Fast-food operators have increased prices faster than the overall rate of inflation and that is especially hard on their core consumers. We won’t see prices drop but we can expect a pause.

What are some factors that can contribute to the rising costs of what’s typically considered an affordable food option?

It’s all about labor. Commodity price increases have moderated but labor costs keep climbing. A tight labor market and higher minimum wage laws are a one-two punch for employers.

Michael Bognanno, Ph.D.

Chair and Professor of Economics, Temple University

Do you think fast-food menu prices will continue to outpace inflation rates, or is there a potential stopping point?

In the words of Yogi Berra – ‘It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.’ Yogi Berra’s wisdom aside, fast-food prices have been driven up by increasing costs for food, labor, and energy. Additionally, the labor costs for low-wage workers, like those employed in fast food, rose the fastest after the pandemic, outpacing inflation. This last trend is abating, and this will help to push the growth in fast-food prices towards the general rate of inflation. The rise in food prices is also slowing.

What are some factors that can contribute to the rising costs of what’s typically considered an affordable food option?

The fast-food industry is highly competitive, and prices rise as the result of two forces: higher demand or higher costs. In this case, it is due largely to higher costs. The competition for low-wage workers in the aftermath of the pandemic caused their wages to rise the fastest. This directly affects the cost of running a fast-food restaurant. At the same time, the war in Ukraine and other factors contributed to higher food costs. Energy prices, notably for the cost of electricity, rose more than 10% in 2022 and are still increasing at a rate that exceeds the rate of inflation. On top of these cost factors that have added to the challenges of the fast-food industry, the pandemic stimulus funds held by consumers are largely gone, and credit card delinquencies are rising as high interest rates squeeze the poor. Restaurants catering to low-income consumers are adversely being affected by this as well as higher costs.

In addition to a considerable increase in menu prices, would you say there’s been a drop-off in fast-food value deals, coupons, and promotions?

Industry data shows that restaurant deals have been on the rise. Restaurants help their profits by finding ways to appeal to price sensitive consumers without cutting prices for everyone. Coupons and promotions are a way to do this. They sort consumers according to their price sensitivity by providing lower prices only to those consumers who are willing to go to the effort of using a coupon or responding to a promotion. The tougher things get in the industry, the more the industry will fine-tune pricing tactics.

Easy ways to save on your next fast-food order

  • Maximize your rewards when eating out. Get the best bang for your buck by using a credit card for dining out to help rack up rewards and offset food prices.
  • Set a budget. Cut back on unnecessary purchases and plan ahead with your fast-food expenses in order to keep more money in your pocket.
  • Look into a food delivery side hustle. Read up on this ultimate guide to Uber Eats to see how you can create your own hours and earn some extra cash on the side.

Methodology

FinanceBuzz collected prices for 10 menu items from each restaurant. Prices were collected for 2024, 2019, and 2014. Only items that were available to customers in every one of those years were included for each restaurant.

Restaurant prices were sourced from ItsYummi.com, FastFoodMenuPrices.com, and MenuWithPrice.com. Current menu prices were cross-referenced with the official website of each restaurant when applicable. Historic pricing data was found via the same sources using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Inflation rates are based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator. Inflation rates were collected in January 2024.

As a final note, McDonald’s franchisees are given a high level of autonomy in setting menu prices for individual locations, which can make it difficult to accurately source historical data to compare to the present. As such, our team collected additional historical data points related to McDonald’s and applied certain adjustments to the final data to create a reasonable representation of national pricing trends over time for the chain.

Update: In light of the popularity of this report, McDonald’s published an open letter regarding the data presented above. In response, FinanceBuzz issued this statement on May 31, 2024. 

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Originally Posted at; https://www.zerohedge.com//