Last night my husband and I, along with our youngest Sten, went out to dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants. As I went to pay the tab I remembered an email I’d received earlier in the day from financial guru Dave Ramsey talking about 7 money mistakes to avoid at restaurants. All of a sudden I got nervous and mentally went through the list to make sure I wasn’t committing any of the eating-out faux pas on the list.
Undertipping? Splitting the bill unfairly? Freeloading? Complaining about your food (after you’ve eaten it?) You asked. You pay? Taking advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet? Hogging tables? Whew! I was safe on all 7 counts. :-) (You can read more about Ramsey’s tips HERE.)
This experience also got me thinking about all the ways I have tried to make eating out more affordable for our family over the years. With four kids we didn’t do a lot of eating out, but when we did we tried to make sure we were getting the most bang for our buck. So after I got home I started compiling my list and did some additional research and managed to come up with 25 different ways to save money when eating out. While we try not to eat out too often, it’s nice to know that with a little planning and common sense we can enjoy it when the occasion presents itself.
Eat lunch instead of dinner.
On average, lunch menus are 25 percent cheaper than dinner menus. The lunch menu is usually similar, with the main difference being portion size (which will help your waistline as well as your wallet!) If you have the flexibility to dine at lunch it can save you money.
Pick the right day.
Restaurant will often offer special deals on low-traffic days of the week. Check out local establishments to see if your favorite meal is the bargain-du-jour on a particular weekday and save some money.
One thing that many people may not realize or utilize are weekly specials that almost all restaurants are implementing these days. Pay attention to the restaurants that you frequent most often.
Dine before 6 p.m. and take advantage of the early-bird special. While these specials are typically associated with the elderly, they are available to all consumers and offered at many dining establishments. These specials are also a great way for families with young kids to save money and still be home for bedtime.
Skip the drinks.
Drinks are a huge source of a restaurant’s profits. With wine and alcoholic beverages, it’s not unusual for customers to pay four or five times the restaurant’s wholesale price, with some of the biggest markups coming from the lowest-priced offerings on the menu. Ordering tap water or bringing your own beverage – even if you have to pay a modest corking fee – can save you a bundle.
Don’t judge a restaurant by its’ storefront.
Dining at hole-in-the-wall locations, strip malls or even food-concession trailers lets you benefit from their minimal overhead. Thanks to the abundance of online reviews and guides, it’s easier than ever to cull out the hidden gems from the places you should avoid.
Dine at the bar.
A number of restaurants offer a special bar menu that is considerably cheaper than the regular menu. If you are dining alone or “with the guys/girls,” this is an especially useful money-saving tactic. Also, many restaurants offer a happy hour period every afternoon, which includes drink specials and appetizer deals.
Save eating out for special foods.
When you’re on a budget, eating out becomes a special occasion. So treat it like one by choosing foods you can’t or won’t cook at home. Popular items like burgers, chicken and pasta are the cheapest items to purchase, so restaurants mark them up more than other dishes. Seafood, beef, and pork are better values for the price.
Practice portion control.
This is useful at restaurants that are notorious for serving large portions! You can either share portions with members of your party (many restaurants will plate split meals on separate dishes for you,) or take leftovers home if it is too much. That’s like saving 50% on each meal because you pay once and wind up with two meals out of it. Just make sure to order dishes that are easy to reheat and will still be good as leftovers the next day (salads, obviously, wouldn’t be a great choice.)
Think about what you order.
I know I have been guilty of this on MANY occasions. It’s amazing how often we over-order, wasting food and money in the process. Check what comes with your main course before you add any side dishes, and don’t be pressured by your waiter into ordering additional dishes.
Have a snack first.
This will help prevent “eyes bigger than your stomach” syndrome. Grabbing a light snack before you head out to dinner can curb the desire to order a huge meal.
Follow the Facebook page or Twitter feed of your favorite restaurants and eateries. Many post exclusive deals and coupons & some even post code words. If you tell your server the code word, you’ll get a discount or a freebie. Give these social media outlets a quick glance before heading out the door.
Many restaurants also offer great deals and coupons for newsletter subscribers too. If you are worried about spam, set up a new free email account just for these newsletters.
Use apps to find deals.
There are several free apps that post deals to local and chain restaurants. Most places will apply the discount to your bill if you show them the app – no need to print the coupon. A few apps worth downloading:
Use an online booking agent like OpenTable.
You’ll get a rebate or thank you check for doing something you do anyway, making reservations. You’ll also find special promotions that will earn you rewards faster by dining at certain slower times.
If you have a smartphone, some social networking apps will get you free stuff and discounts. Here are a few apps that score you deals:
- Yelp Check-ins – After you check in, mention Yelp to your server to get the goods.
- Foursquare – Many places offer discounts and buy-one-get-one offers to people who check in.
- SCVNGR – Every time you check in, you accumulate points. You can redeem your points for a discount on your bill or a free item depending on the restaurant.
Find discount deals.
- Sites like Restaurant.com offer gift certificates for less than face value. Just make sure you’re getting a discount for somewhere you actually want to eat at.
- Groupon and LivingSocial post daily deals that will give you 50 to 90 percent off at different restaurants. You have to act quickly, but you’ll save a bunch.
- Local coupon books like the Entertainment book offers hundreds of 2-for-1 and 50% off coupons for all kinds of restaurants.
- Some credit cards give you a bonus or rebate on restaurant purchases, decide which ones make the most sense and then use them as much as you can.
Avoid the “kids” meal trap.
Don’t order the kid’s meal if your kids are really young and won’t eat it. Bring something they will eat.
Double check your bill.
When you’re ready to leave, examine the bill closely. Many restaurants add a gratuity before the total is tallied, even for parties as small as five, which frequently goes unnoticed by diners. Take an extra minute to make sure you aren’t being overcharged. Restaurants are busy places and unintentional mistakes can easily be made.
Become a regular.
Trying new places is great, but you can often get a discount or freebie by building a relationship with the servers or owners of local restaurants. After repeat visits, you’ll be able to acknowledge your server by name or mention a detail from your last meal. Gestures like these help you get more personalized attention—as well as free stuff, like complimentary appetizers or beverages.
Take surveys and earn cash back.
With iDine, you can earn 5 to 15 percent back any time you eat out. Just sign up on their website. Within 30 days of your meal, sign on and complete a quick survey. For every survey you take, you’ll earn cash back. When you reach $20, iDine will mail you an American Express gift card. It takes some effort, but it’s free money.
Try finding unique restaurants or even food trucks in your area that serve delicious dishes for less. Many small, casual establishments – especially locally owned mom-and-pop spots – serve quality food at affordable prices. At places like Panera, Au Bon Pain, Noodles & Company, Corner Bakery Café, Chipotle, etc. you can skip the tip without skimping on quality meals.
Research before you go.
Look at restaurant menus online before going out. Look at the prices and decide what sounds good for your budget. Planning ahead will keep you from purchasing a meal on a whim and overspending.
Have a spending plan.
Have some idea as to how much you can spend per month on eating out. It is okay to spend money on something that you love to do, but you have to set limits before hand and stick to them.
Redefine “eating out.
Sure, we all love it when someone else cooks and does the dishes for us, but part of the beauty of going out for a meal is the ambiance — which you can easily find outside a restaurant. Consider picnicking in a beautiful park or anywhere with a scenic view. Pick up some gourmet sandwiches and olives with crackers and cheese and you’ve got a great meal with no dishes to clean up.
Save money & the planet.
Staying local, using public transport, drinking tap rather than bottled water and eating in restaurants where food is sourced locally are all good ways of being environmentally friendly when eating out. Where possible, go to organic restaurants or ones that buy produce from the local farmers’ market, and order food that is in season.
And finally….don’t forget to tip your server for good service with all the money you save! :-)
What are your best tips to save money when eating out?