What My Cheap Food Was Costing Me

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Cheap food might taste good, but over the long term it can have bad ramifications.

1,060 calories. That’s the number of calories in the standard McDonald’s Quarter Pounder With Cheese Value Meal. If you want to go “large” then you’ll need to add another 250 calories to that bad boy of a meal.

Why should you care about the number of calories in a meal like that? It’s quite simple really…how many times have you ordered that very meal, or something similar, without giving it a second thought? I mean it tastes good, on some level, so why should you be concerned about the number of calories it has?

That, my friends, was my exact train of thought just over a year ago. In fact, I held to that thinking for most of my life. It wasn’t until last year when I started getting serious about losing weight that I began to see the real and true impact on my health those decisions were having.

These Daily Decisions Were Costing Me My Life


To give you some perspective, the meal listed above is 70 to 82 percent of my daily caloric intake now. Prior to completely changing my lifestyle habits about a year ago, I was eating fast food, on average, once a week – on a “good” weak. That might seem bad, good or somewhere in the middle depending on your opinion on fast food. That aside, it reveals how I viewed eating. I was consuming in the neighborhood of at least 3,000 calories per day if not closer to 4,000 or more.

I was busy, or so I told myself, and would grab quick, “cheap” and easy things to eat. They had the added benefit of tasting good and gave me, or so I thought, the quick boost of energy I needed to carry me through the day.

Looking back now that I’ve lost 92 pounds (as of about a week or so ago) I can see how those snap decisions were costing me my very life. I may not have had a gun to my head, but the Quarter Pounder was doing the same thing, albeit at a slower pace.

I know that might sound alarmist, but trust me when I say it’s not. I was near 40, had little energy throughout the day and would tire easily. That was all because of the fat I was packing on myself.

To make matters worse, I was leading my family in the very same decisions. The little Frugal Rules’, incredibly impressionable that they are due to their age, were being ushered into a life where fast and cheap food was commonplace. I was also leading Mrs. Frugal Rules down the same path. Point being, I was modeling it for them, meaning it didn’t just stop with my own personal health. In the end, I lost 100 pounds on Nutrisystem. You can read more about how I did that in my Nutrisystem review.

How Can This Tied Back to Finances?


I know this may seem like it has absolutely nothing to do with personal finance. Well, it’s my site, so I get to say it does. 😉 Seriously though, there are a variety of ways our food choices tie back to finances.

The obvious way food choices tie back to finances is health care costs. According to The Fiscal Times, health care costs related to obesity here in the States could end up adding up to $605 billion in direct, indirect and intangible costs to the system – per year. That is a staggering number to say the least.

With the health care system as messed up as it is the last thing we need to do is add more costs to it. If we continue down the current trajectory we’re on I can only imagine what those costs will add up to in 5-10 years. It won’t be pretty.

The other way it ties back to finances is if you’re in the habit of making poor choices in relation to food, I would argue that it’s more likely you’re doing the same when it comes to finances. This is not meant to judge, fat shame or anything else like that as I have been in the same position myself and we make those kind of decisions every day. For example, if you’re in the habit of wasting $5,000 throughout the year on needless items I would argue that money would serve you much better, assuming you’re not already doing so, in an IRA or paying off debt as opposed to buying more stuff.

You Can Change


Looking back, before I started my weight loss journey I didn’t think I could change. I thought that I had been living this way for so long that I couldn’t change. Thankfully, that was a lie that proved to be wrong. Going back to the Quarter Pound meal, I now use those calories on things that bring me value in the day.

They’re things that give me energy. They’re things that allow me to play with my kids and don’t leave me feeling like I need to take a nap. They’re things that actually have color and are real as opposed to things that are processed and manufactured to make me crave them more.

This is not to say that I don’t have the same temptations as I did a little over a year ago, because I very much do. The difference is that now I view eating like managing my money – with a budget. That impacts my daily choices all with an eye to the kind of lifestyle I want to live now and in the future which allows me the freedom to choose the kind of life I want as opposed to one saddled with poor health.


What other financial issues do you think could be tied back to our health choices? How often do you eat fast food? What’s one challenge you deal with in relation to food choices?

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.


  • Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank says:

    I don’t eat fast food meal anymore. I used to have it like thrice a week. Then, when I decided to commit myself to this mindset, I started with once a week. I was taking slowly but surely, until I reached to the point that I ate fast food meal once a month. It really depends on commitment.

    • John Schmoll says:

      I definitely had weeks where I’d be at 2-3 meals out like that. It’s just not worth it in the long run. You’re right though, it does require commitment.

  • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

    Congrats to you for losing so much weight! That’s awesome! We’ve found that we eat even more healthfully as our frugality has increased. Part of it is that we don’t eat out at all anymore. We weren’t fast food eaters, but we did go to restaurants periodically, which was always a recipe for higher fat/calorie foods. Everything we make at home is healthier! We also stopped buying most packaged/processed foods because they’re more expensive. And, I completely agree with you on the health costs of eating bad foods. It’s all-around more frugal to eat well!

    • John Schmoll says:

      Thanks Mrs. FW! I think you’re exactly right about healthier eating being a byproduct of frugality. Those packaged/processed foods do generally cost more expensive – not to mention being laden with a bunch of crap.

  • Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    I don’t have a fast food problem since we don’t eat meat, but I have had a sugar problem in the past. Now I mostly avoid it because it makes me lethargic! I am much happier and more productive when I am not eating sugar. The temporary high just isn’t worth it.

    • John Schmoll says:

      I was the same way with sugar Holly. After pulling back on it, it was crazy to see how lethargic it would make me – the momentary pleasure you get just isn’t worth it.

  • Mark@BareBudgetGuy says:

    I love fast food, but I do often think “why am I paying my hard earned money (which I love), to feed my body bad stuff?” It’s kind of a lose lose, but I still do it on occasion. Getting better though!

    • John Schmoll says:

      That’s a great way to look at it Mark! As with many other things, it comes down to balance but it can definitely be a lose-lose situation.

  • Meghan says:

    First congrats on losing 92 pounds! That’s crazy! Second, thanks for the reminder. I don’t go McDonalds often. Every few months, I’ll order a small fry and unsweet tea, but it’s hard not to order the burger. I’ll remember this. 🙂

    • John Schmoll says:

      Thanks Meghan! I know, they make it very easy to just add things on – the fries are the worst, in my opinion…or maybe it’s because I like them so much. 😉

  • Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life says:

    I think I eat fast food about two or three times a year when there’s literally no other choice. I get food on the go a lot, but in NYC there are lots of healthy options 🙂

    • John Schmoll says:

      That is one thing I miss about being in Chicago – there are a lot of healthy options though am sure there is that much more in NYC.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    I ate fast food MUCH more when I was in college, and honestly don’t even average one meal a week nowadays. Plus I’ll typically go for a fast-casual restaurant like Chipotle or Panera that has “healthier” options (Yes I know Chipotle still has a ton of calories…but it just seems healthier). I think as a whole our society is pushing more towards the healthier food choices and being aware of our health. Hopefully the trend continues.

    • John Schmoll says:

      I was the same way DC – I shudder to think of how often I ate it while in college. Those places can be better, but where they get you is the serving sizes and sauces/dressings. Some of the salads at Panera have more calories than I eat in a day!

      I think you’re right, to a certain extent, though there is still a lot of ignorance out there on the subject.

  • Mrs. PoP says:

    Congrats on the weight loss, John. Your kids are so lucky that you’re going to be modeling healthy behavior for them to learn from.

    We definitely have our vices, but the taste of real food is usually just so much better than food products (a distinction that I picked up from Michael Pollan) that once you start eating real food, the food products just don’t seem nearly as alluring.

    • John Schmoll says:

      Thanks Mrs. Pop! They’re a huge part of the reason why I’m doing it – I want better for them.

      I could not agree more, I’ve found the same thing myself. The more I eat real food the less I want the crap. I’ve also found that changing my diet has done like a hard reset to my taste buds, in that I’m enjoying foods I used to dislike quite a bit.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

    John, this post brought tears to my eyes. It makes me sad the way so many are deceived into believing that they have no choice but to eat these foods, because they really aren’t cheaper, in the short-term or in the long-term. You and I have both learned the abundant blessings of a healthy diet and good health in general. I do still crave my junk food, but when I think about how I used to feel when eating that stuff regularly, the craving goes away real quick. Feeling great is a much better payoff.

    • John Schmoll says:

      You’re exactly right Laurie, the feeling is a much better payoff. Too many give in to the belief that the one meal does or means nothing. Sure, in a vacuum, the one meal or one snack may mean little to nothing but it’s a lifestyle of eating in that way that can get you into trouble. Healthy living is indeed a blessing, and one that I want more of the more I live it out.

  • Tonya@Budget and the Beach says:

    I think so often people turn to fast food because it’s cheap…or at least it appears to be on the surface. But what you are paying for down the road is doctor bills, medication, physical therapy because people’s bodies can’t support heavy weight, etc. Not to mention loss of income because of health problems. But people live for the now, especially if you are young and maybe it’s not weight that’s a problem..yet. I’d rather pay more for food now that is healthy and good for me and save money in the long run on all that other stuff. Plus, eating healthy does give you more energy. For me right now….I have a MAJOR fricken sweet tooth. Although I choose dark chocolate, I’m trying to eliminate as much sugar as possible. Damn that one is hard!

    • John Schmoll says:

      I’ve come to that as well Tonya – wanting and being willing to spend more to get the kind of food I know will help us now and in the long run. The trade-off is no longer worth it in my opinion. I hear you on the sweet tooth – I struggle with that one as well. I’ve just learned that I can’t allow myself to eat it without some sort of limit. If I limit myself, I’m fine, but if I sit down with something then I’m in trouble.

  • Shannon @ Financially Blonde says:

    I used to eat fast food all the time and when I went out weight watchers and saw the point totals of a what I used to eat it was shocking. Before I lost the weight my doctor thought I was going to have an issue with diabetes and that was a huge Aha moment for me that made me change my ways. Once I lost the weight, I not only felt better but I saved money on food by not eating out as much and healthcare because I didn’t need to take all of the meds I was taking before I lost the weight.

    • John Schmoll says:

      It has been shocking for me as well. I started out with counting calories and was amazed when I would look at calorie information at restaurants. The money saving is a fringe benefit, in my opinion, as the feeling better makes it all worth it.

  • Kim says:

    Most of my family has struggled with obesity, and I’ve seen how it takes away your choices, just like being in debt. It makes me really sad when grandparents can’t play with my daughter or have to sit on a bench if we do go to some attraction. Once you get to be a certain weight and start having health problems, it’s easy to bow out of exercise because your knees or back or your oxygen level won’t support aerobic activity. I’m so thankful you turned it around before that point and your kids and grandkids are going to thank you a million times over. Have you shown a before and after picture or are you waiting until you break 100?

    • John Schmoll says:

      We’ve seen it in our family as well and just got to the point that I didn’t want to be a part of that crowd anymore. I was too young to deal with stuff like that and that was a big part of the reason why I changed.

      I’ve not done a before/after pic yet. I’ve been waiting til I hit 100 to do that. I just need to hit it first! 🙂

  • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse says:

    I’m not a fast food fan but I do know Chris and the girls probably sneak in a McDonalds run when I’m traveling. 🙂 Being healthy is a core value in our home so I probably have a higher food budget than many do. I am fortunate to have the means to do so as I know not everyone eats cheaply by choice. I also know some in their desire to save money eat cheaply not realizing that in the long run it may end up costing them more.

    • John Schmoll says:

      It has definitely become a core value for us in our home. Thankfully we can afford to eat in the way we wish and love being able to model the wise way to eat to our kids.

  • Fervent Finance says:

    I will always have a gym membership until (if and when) I settle down in my own home. Living in the city now, it is pretty much impossible for me to work out the way I like without having a gym membership, so that cost is a fixed cost in my mind.

    I try to not eat much fast food anymore (I don’t count Chipotle as fast food). But maybe once a month. I mean how good are those Mickey D fries!?!?!?!?!

    • John Schmoll says:

      That makes sense – it just goes to show you that it depends on your personal situation in things like that.

      I’m on the fence with regards to Chipotle, I can see both sides of the argument for them – but yes at least they’re not giving you fries.

  • Adam @ says:

    Congrats on making a decision to get in shape. I think it’s the single greatest thing any of us can do to positively impact all aspects of our life.

    Many of the same skills you need for savings and frugality directly apply to health, so I’m sure if your serious, you will get the results you want.

  • Abigail @ipickuppennies says:

    Fast food is a budget killer, as well as an artery clogger. And that’s coming from someone who eats too much of it.

    I’m working on that with mixed success. But I remember when I first cut calories, I was horrified by how many were in some basic meals I enjoyed. Like 50% or more!

    I’ve been lax about calorie consumption lately, partially because of fast food, and my clothes are getting tighter. Which is a good reminder to get back on track. If for no other reason, I don’t like to shop for clothes — especially if I’m going UP in size.

    • John Schmoll says:

      I found the same exact thing Abby – it’s crazy how many more calories most of the meals have.

      Best wishes in changing things up – as you know it can most definitely be done.

  • Our Next Life says:

    This brought tears to my eyes! Wow — thank you for this poignant and personal reminder about why we all need to keep things in perspective and recognize that some things are worth spending on, and nothing more so than the ingredients for living a healthy life.

    • John Schmoll says:

      Thanks for the compliment! There are definitely some things where it’s worth it to spend more money on – both in the short term and long-term.

  • Kurt says:

    92 lbs! congrats John, that is awesome. You are so right that ‘cheap’ food of the type you describe does not save money and–much worse–really can hurt our quality of life and longevity. After a health crisis in 2012, I adopted a whole food / plant-based diet, and I’ve never felt better. The first couple of years on this way of eating I felt as if were reverse-aging. I’m middle-aged, and weight now what I weighed my first year in college at age 19. The crisis was tough, but without it I’m sure I never would have made a change this drastic, and I would have missed out on a lot of life benefits I had no idea were still within my reach.

    And the thing is, healthy food does not have to be expensive. A big bowl of cooked steel cut oats with raisins, cinnamon, and a little honey costs probably 20 cents, to give just one small example.

    Congrats again, and best wishes for more health and well-being improvements ahead!

    • John Schmoll says:

      Thanks Kurt! Sorry to hear about your health crisis but glad you were able to make the changes necessary to really see a marked improvement in your way of life. Truth be told, I made my changes out of fear that I would run into a crisis myself.

      I know – that’s a myth that needs to die a quick death. Sure, it might take a little work at first to get used to – but in many instances it’s more frugal than not.

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