Student Loans, Netflix Take A Huge Bite Out Of The Fast Food Industry

Restaurant visits have dropped to their lowest point since 1990.

Customers ordering in a Dubai Burger King
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Restaurant visits have dropped to their lowest point since 1990.

If you’ve been turning to Netflix and homecooked meals lately in favor of dining out, you’re not alone. In fact, the number of homecooked meals has spiked during the past decade. There are numerous reasons for this trend, including a steady increase in the cost of restaurants, especially at the fast food level. Per Bloomberg, price hikes may make the industry look like it’s booming, but the truth is that traffic has fallen for 29 months in a row. The latest statistics show that July kept this downward spiral alive with another 1.1 percent drop in traffic.

In 2000, Americans were eating out an average of 216 times annually. Last year, a repeat of the same study showed that this number had fallen to 185 times. Although this still represents a lot of dining out, it spells big trouble for an industry that’s having trouble keeping up with consumer demands for more modern diets.

An emphasis on better health and diverse food options will be critical if the fast food industry wants to survive long-term. Forbes reported that 5 percent of Americans are vegetarians, with another 3 percent eating a vegan diet. These numbers may not seem very high, but they actually represent a big increase in meat-free living. In 2008, the Vegetarian Times put these numbers at a much lower 3.2 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.

Budgetary concerns are another major issue for today’s consumer. According to CNN, student debt has ballooned to $1.5 trillion in the U.S. for the first time ever. New graduates now owe an average of $28,400, and 20 percent of people with student loan debt are currently behind on their payments.

The average cost of eating out is $12.75 per person. Meanwhile, making a similar meal at home has an average cost of only $4. With this $8 price disparity, it’s easy to see why cash-strapped Americans are spending more time in their kitchens than they have since 1990. Delivery, meal kits and new appliances — such as Instapot pressure cookers that allow you to make a wide array of food items at home — are allowing people to stay home and eat in new and exciting ways.

Pic of Big Mac-style burger and fries
  GoncharukMaks / Shutterstock

Another major influence comes alongside shifting attitudes about entertainment. Per CNBC, an estimated 57 percent of Americans utilize a major streaming service. This makes sense when you consider that a basic Netflix streaming plan is only $10.99 for a month as opposed to the average movie price of $9.16 per ticket. To put this into comparison, it would cost a married couple $18.32 just to see a single movie without any snacks or drinks.

The drive to become more financially solvent and physically healthy is likely to continue hurting the fast food industry unless it can evolve quickly. Some chains are putting a bigger emphasis on providing healthier options, but this may not be enough if their prices also continue to increase. After all, when it comes to the cheapest and healthiest way to have a date, Americans plagued with student loan debt are hard-pressed to find a better option than streaming services and home cooking.