Spending only $125 on food last month showed me that fast food is deceptively expensive

Doing the SNAP challenge in September and only spending $US125 on food for the month led to a lot of interesting conversations. One overwhelming misconception had to do with “cheap” food.

Many people believe that on a low budget, you would be forced to eat fast food because it’s cheap.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Fast food is EXTREMELY expensive. Ignoring all other nutritional facts, on a hard dollars-to-calories basis, it’s just not worth it.

In my article about the experience, I gave the example of a McDouble from the dollar menu at McDonald’s versus a box of pasta. A McDouble will give you 400 calories — only a small meal on a 2000 calorie diet. For the same price (19 cents less, actually) you can get an entire box of pasta, which will give you a whopping 1600 calories!

This misconception got me thinking a lot about why people tend to perceive fast food as cheap. I came up with two theories:

1. I think it’s basic human instinct to satisfy needs as they arise. When you’re hungry, you care about your next meal, not necessarily four meals into the future. The pasta will take more time to cook, and the burger is available now, and they’re pretty much the same price — so the burger is the obvious choice. The bias ignores the fact that when we cook the pasta we’re not making just the next meal, but the next four.

2. People incorrectly compare meals to meals rather than calories to calories. Calories are a basic unit that all food has in common no matter what. Fats, sodium, and other vitamins and nutrients will vary across all food. Calories are the only thing that give a proper comparison regardless of what you’re eating. It’s also the easiest unit to check for. It will be labelled on everything you buy, so it’s as simple as looking at the back of a container.

For actual cheap food, check out the receipts from my previous article about living on a SNAP budget. You’ll find things like oats, beans, rice, and pasta. These are all calorie-dense foods that can be mixed with more expensive meats and vegetables in order to create a healthy and balanced meal.

The short answer is, if food is already prepared for you, chances are that it’s too expensive for an extremely limited budget.

NOW WATCH: The way you pay with a credit card will start to change on October 1 — here’s what you need to know

NOW WATCH: Money & Markets videos

Want to read a more in-depth view on the trends influencing Australian business and the global economy? BI / Research is designed to help executives and industry leaders understand the major challenges and opportunities for industry, technology, strategy and the economy in the future. Sign up for free at research.businessinsider.com.au.