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Funny Money: A Quest to Find the Best $1 Burger

Since the dawn of the drive-thru, philosophers have pondered that most trying of propositions — where to go to get the best burger for a buck. There are no easy answers to the quandary, and the solution at which one arrives says as much about the eater itself as it does the burger.

What’s important? A sesame seed bun? Onions? Double beef patties? Or that most precious of resources, bacon?

Would you be willing, given no other options, to come up with not just a buck for your budget burger, but a buck and a half?

In an effort to tackle the trying riddle, I plotted out a path to hit five drive-thrus within the span of 30 minutes. I would leave with $6 and return with five budget burgers, finishing my experiment with an incalculably higher cholesterol level and, most importantly, one definitive answer.

Best Dollar Burgers: Wendy's Jr. Cheeseburger

The restaurant: Wendy’s

The burger: Jr. Cheeseburger

The price, including tax: $1.08

The diameter: 3 1/4 inches

The corporate pitch: “A hot ‘n juicy beef patty loaded up with cheese, pickles, and onions. Made fresh when you order it. Big on taste and small on price!”

The verdict: Neither hot nor juicy, the patty is thin enough to turn Wendy’s face as red as her hair. It’s covered in something closer to a bread-like beanie than a bun. I do believe it was “made fresh.” Several hours ago.

Best Dollar Burgers: McDonald's McDouble

The restaurant: McDonald’s

The burger: McDouble

The price, including tax: $1.09

The diameter: 3 3/4 inches

The corporate pitch: “Two 100% beef patties simply seasoned with a pinch of salt and pepper, a slice of melty American cheese and topped with tangy pickles, minced onions, ketchup and mustard.”

The verdict: It’s hard to beat the value proposition of the double patty combo. The generosity, however, stops at the extra beef rations. The crusty double-decker could have used more than the requisite “pinch” of salt and pepper, not to mention the single cheese slice. I longed for the days that actual double cheeseburgers (the McDouble is a double burger, single cheese slice hybrid) were a buck under the golden arches.

Best Dollar Burgers: Burger King BK Baconburger

The restaurant: Burger King

The burger: BK Baconburger

The price: including tax: $1.09

The diameter: 4 inches

The corporate pitch: “Our BK® Bacon Burger features a savory fire-grilled beef patty, topped with naturally smoked thick-cut bacon, creamy mayonnaise, ketchup, and sliced white onions on a toasted sesame seed bun.”

The verdict: I’m thinking whoever came up with the term “thick-cut” for the bacon inhaled some “natural smoke” beforehand. Still, what little there is added just enough lust to make up for the bland patty. The sesame seeds are a welcome touch, disguising the otherwise boring bread in a mask of quality.

Best Dollar Burgers: Carl's Jr. Kid's Hamburger

The restaurant: Carl’s Jr.

The burger: Kid’s Cheeseburger

The price, including tax: $1.09.

The diameter: 4 inches

The corporate pitch: “Charbroiled All-Beef Patty, American Cheese, Dill Pickles, Mustard and Ketchup on a Plain Bun.”

The verdict: The home of the magnificent Six Dollar Burger gives you something precisely one-sixtieth as good as good as its signature creation for your measly buck. Not only does the restaurant openly mock you for your choice of a “kid’s cheeseburger,” it sticks you with a patty that vanishes inside a heat lamp-ravaged bun, like a hockey puck on an NHL broadcast, finger painted with meager condiments.

Best Dollar Burgers: Jack in the Box Junior Jack

The restaurant: Jack in the Box

The burger: Jr. Jack

The price, including tax: $1.63

The diameter: 3 1/2 inches

The corporate pitch: “Small beef patty topped with lettuce, tomato, pickle, chopped onions, Mayo-Onion sauce and ketchup on a regular bun.”

The verdict: This inexplicably pricey concoction is the “dollar burger” for high rollers, but unfortunately the added expense doesn’t translate for more burger. You’d expect more for your extra 50 cents, but instead you get the teensiest of all the contestants in our competition. Ah, but there is a bonus here not offered by the rivals — lettuce! The flavorless strands of a whitish-green substance that presumably were leaves in former lives makes this one the choice of junior jackrabbits everywhere, if not so much for humans. This dollar choice seems geared to push you toward the dollar menu choice of two tacos.

Final answer

The BK Baconburger appears to be the winner on paper, as well as the top choice of my wife, who begrudgingly split the testburgers with me — no doubt before Googling divorce lawyers — but darned if I didn’t prefer the McDouble above all others. It’s not so much the winner as it is the least of many evils. Why? Maybe it was the twin patties. Maybe it was the half-pinch of salt and pepper. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the signature McDonald’s flavor, a cocktail of regret and disappointment, to which I’ve become conditioned since I was a wee lad.

Any of these burgers will suffice if you desperately need calories and are down to your last fistful of change. But — as you can probably tell from the photos alone — if you want a quality burger, you should be prepared to spend more than a buck.

Published or updated on January 30, 2013

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Tiffany says:

    Have to be honest – I was disappointed to see a write up on this site helping Americans find the cheapest burger. I know this isn’t a nutrition website but I put MoneyUnder30 under the “wellbeing” category of leading a healthful life. So I’ll have some change in my pocket… but at the expense of clogged arteries and a future heart attack? No thanks. :(

  2. DeputyDawg says:

    Dude, By Far The Best DadGum Burger In America Is The CHECKER ‘BIG BUFORD’ And Don’t You Veg-Heads Forget It! . . . I’m A DadGum ConWaSur Of Burgers And Dudes, I Know What I’m Talkin’ Bout,—Got It!?

  3. Phaltran says:

    Ugh. I feel nauseous just seeing the pics and reading your review. I don’t eat at any of these establishments any longer. I have a hard time even calling them “restaurants” because they do not serve food.
    The only way you’re going to get a good burger for $1 is to buy the ingredients and make it yourself.

    Good burgers require good ingredients, skill to make and care of the cook to craft it correctly. You won’t find that in a fast food drive through anywhere.

  4. Jonas says:

    I agree with BYC. If you’re going to allow $1.63 for the Jack burger, for a slightly lower price you could get a Jr. Cheeseburger Deluxe which has lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and cheese.

  5. BYC says:

    If you’re going to go to the $1.50 range the wendys jr bacon cheeseburger is a clear winner.

    Wendys jr bacon cheeseburger + small chili = cheap, tasty, filling, not horribly unhealthy

    • I only allowed the $1.50 burger because it was the cheapest Jack in the Box offered. You’ve got a good point, its inclusion is a little unfair. Sad for Jack that the $1.50 burger isn’t better than any of the competitors’ $1 ones.

  6. Phil says:

    Of all of the above, my vote is for the McDouble.
    If you like sesame seed buns, you can ask for it for free!

    A “premium” topping that can make the McDouble taste closer to a Big Mac is the $0.30 extra Big Mac sauce, hold the mustard. (Of course combined with the sesame seed bun)

    Still beats the Grilled Onion & Cheddar.

  7. momosgarage says:

    This guy is on crack. The Wendy’s and Jack in the box burgers are actually cooked on a grill with a short order type cooking system. I’m not saying any of these are GREAT burgers, but I would easily put Burger King and Carl’s at the bottom when compared to the others listed.

    • With normal, combo meal-attached Wendy’s burgers I’d totally agree. They really are good. Not sure if they use the same system for their low-end burgers but it sure didn’t seem that way on my trip.

  8. Scooter says:

    What about McD’s new Grilled Onion and Cheddar Burger. That is one surprisingly tasty concoction of mystery “food” for $1.

  9. M says:

    Get thee to a White Castle.

  10. Ha Ha funny post. I just saw the baconator ad (5 bucks) and that looks really good. I used to like it when the wendys jr bacon burger was a buck but now its about 2 bucks.

    • I too was stung by the jr. bacon burger inflation and was under the impression that Wendy’s had no $1 burgers until I hit the drive-thru. Hence the importance of shoe leather reporting.

  11. I am so hungry for a fast food burger but I am out of money for the month. I have been doing a personal no spend challenge and I failed at it.

    I had toast and peanut butter for supper tonight and a burger would be amazing right now.
    You did miss one of the best values and tastes. The children’s hamburger Happy Meal from McDonalds. Fries, pop and a hamburger for just a few dollars.

    I am in Canada so it is more money here but still a good value when I need a junk food fix.

    • Phil Villarreal says:

      I like the tip. Happy Meals get you the entire food pyramid of a burger, fries and soda for as cheap as possible. I’m more a fan of getting a burge and fries in the drive-thru and drinking something at home.

      • I used to get the cookies instead of the toy but they took away the cookies and you can have an apple that was sliced in a factory days before. I know that the Happy Meal is unhealthy but I have no idea at all how they get a sliced apple to stay white for days after it is cut so I won’t eat it. I just say no thank you.

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