To Many Americans, Eating Fast Food is Now a Luxury

burger beside fried potatoes with drinking glass

How has inflation impacted the average American’s fast-food consumption? According to a new survey from Lending Tree, 3 in 4 consumers typically eat fast-food at least once a week, but 62% say they’re eating it less due to rising prices.

Furthermore, nearly half of respondents say their quick service restaurant bills are similar to local sit-down restaurants, and 22% say the fast-food is more expensive.

These sentiments come as fast-flation reaches a tipping point in the U.S. A recent study revealed that many leading fast-food restaurants have raised their prices by 60% on average over the past decade.

Drive Thru Dining = Extravagance?

Due to inflated costs, 78% of respondents say they now view fast-food as a luxury. The percentage increases to 80% or higher among those making less than $30,000 a year.

Additionally, half of respondents say they view it as a luxury because they’re struggling financially, with lower-income Americans, parents of young children, Gen Zers, and women leading the way.

This resounding response signals a new phenomenon in the U.S.

“There have always been groups of Americans who might have viewed fast food that way because of their financial struggles,” the Lending Tree report noted. “However, for the vast majority of Americans to feel that way seems like a significant cultural shift, and a troubling sign.”

Costs Increasing Meals at Home

When asked about their go-to choice for an easy, inexpensive meal, 56% say they make food at home, compared to 28% who say fast food.

About 67% of survey respondents feel fast food should be cheaper than eating at home.

“Making food at home is the top choice for all age groups, but a closer look reveals significant differences, with older Americans being far more partial to cooking at home than their younger counterparts,” the report read. “Only 47% of Gen Zers would make food at home, while 39% would opt for fast food.”

“Tipping Fatigue” Aggravates Challenges

Tipping prompts have also come to fast-food restaurants, adding an additional layer of frustration for cash-strapped fast foodies.

In the past six months, 44% of respondents say they’d been asked to tip at a fast-food place. Nearly the same percentage (43%) are saying ‘no’ to these requests.

“We haven’t traditionally been asked to tip 20% when buying a Happy Meal for our kid. However, that’s changing at certain establishments,” the report noted. “Technology has made it easier for companies to ask for tips from their customers and … companies are taking advantage of it to bring in extra revenue – sometimes to the annoyance of their customers.”


The Food Institute Podcast

How are foodservice consumers contending with persistent inflation? Are they eating more at home, for example, or continuing to treat themselves at their favorite restaurants? The latest episode of The Food Institute Podcast examines that topic with Krystle Mobayeni of BentoBox, who dissected rapidly evolving consumer dining dynamics.