The price of eating on the road

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Updated Jan 18, 2013
The high cost of food on the road has some drivers running in empty — or very close to it.The high cost of food on the road has some drivers running in empty — or very close to it.

I was standing at McDonald’s inside Love’s somewhere in Illinois listening to two drivers talk about how much it costs them to eat on the road. One remarked that the old lady didn’t believe he was sometimes spending $300 a week to eat. I thought that sounded like a lot, too.

I was siding with the old lady in my mind as I started to add up what it costs George and I to eat on the road. When I thought about it, I realized I felt the same way she did before I actually came out. I had no idea how expensive the mark-up on some items could  be. Let’s face it, if the only Happy Meal you can get to costs $6 instead of $3, you’re gonna buy it regardless.

There are three ways to approach the food dilemma on the road. You can do the minimalist thing, old-timer style, and buy a loaf of bread, pound of bologna and sack of Fritos and haul ass. This obviously requires a cooler or refrigeration of some kind, as no one wants to eat hot Fritos. There are people who do fine with this and run like hell on it.

It’s a good bet they don’t have their wives with them and they’re probably not in top physical condition, but they’re making the most money out there and more power to them. A pound of bologna is about $4; sack of Fritos: $3; loaf of bread: $2. They’re spending the least amount to sustain life you possibly can.

The most sensible thing — and probably what most over-the-road drivers do — is to make the upgrade from minimalist and add a few groceries to the list. A cooler with enough room for drinks, cheese and yogurt. Crackers, nuts, beef jerky and pudding cups added to the pantry with the bread and Fritos give a nice variety without breaking the budget. It’s never a bad idea to have a few MRE’s on board, just in case you really are stuck somewhere for a few days.

The cost of feeding someone on the road like this varies and depends on where you decide to buy groceries. Over-the-road drivers have the unique ability to price shop the entire country. Five pounds of beef jerky may cost $20 in Texas, but $35 in Illinois. You can almost do the price comparison by using your daily fuel prices — where fuel is high, groceries will be too.

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The third way to eat is to stop three times a day at restaurants and buy food. I’ve heard of people who do this – they’re called tourists. I personally have no knowledge of drivers who actually do it, but I’m told it happens. I can only imagine it’s prohibitively expensive.

We use a combination of methods two and three, mostly to keep me from whining a lot about having to eat bologna sandwiches while not going food-broke on the road. We buy one meal a day, and usually sit down in the establishment for it. This is on good days when we have time to eat like human beings. We spend between $18 and $25, depending on whether or not it’s fast food or Denny’s (or Iron Skillet, or Country Kitchen, or whatever Denny’s-like restaurant it happens to be).

We stock a cooler and a small pantry in the truck. With drinks, not including coffee, we spend between $75 and $100 a week. We don’t go hungry, but we certainly don’t eat three meals a day; there’s a lot of grazing and snacking going on. Coffee is an added expense and definite necessity. We can’t seem to find a coffee maker for the truck we can’t kill in about a week, so we spend between $35 and $50 a week on coffee.

Doing the math I came to a grand total of about $300 a week for two people, so I’m going to have to side with the wife on this one and say if he’s by himself and spending that much, he’s either eating a lot or at really expensive places. If he’s not by himself, she’s got more reason to be mad at him than for spending a lot on food and I’ve got not comment for that.

The $300 a week we spend is pretty bare bones, it doesn’t include smokes and other incidentals. Money is like water out here, every stop is peeling off $50 bills, even if you don’t fuel. The mark-up is completely stupid in some places. You pay outrageous prices for the weirdest things, but it’s always things you need and can’t get anywhere else at the moment. (This may be a vague reference to female personal products, but as I wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable I’ll not make a direct statement to such).

The key to saving money on the road is coming out prepared. Having a plan and a budget and the tools you need to make both work cuts down on a lot of stress and also helps keep things profitable.

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