When trying to cut back on spending, one of the first things to generally go are trips out to restaurants. Sure it’s cheaper to eat at home, but dining out is about more than just the food. It’s a social experience. So unless you have absolutely no social life at all (or your significant other is one amazing chef), it’s likely you’ll eventually give in and head out to dinner. When that happens, here are some tips to lessen the toll on your wallet.
Order water instead of drinks - Alcoholic drinks are definitely pricey at restaurants, so skipping those is pretty obvious, but sodas and tea are also getting more expensive. A fountain soda at a chain restaurant can cost $2.50 or more! And some places don’t even offer free refills! So by ordering water, a couple can easily save five bucks or more at dinner, and a family’s savings can be even greater. Plus, water is the healthiest option. (Have you seen the calorie counts in alcoholic drinks?)
Eat appetizers for dinner – This is especially helpful for couples and small groups since many restaurants offer appetizer samplers. A couple can share one sampler and 3-4 people can share two, and everyone still pays less than they would for a full entree.
Fill up on bread – While this may not be the best option if you’re dieting, it’s a good one for your dieting wallet. Not all restaurants serve pre-meal munchies like bread or chips and salsa, but if the restaurant does offer it, you can fill up on that. Then simply order an appetizer or entree to split! Just remember that your server works mostly for tips, so maybe tip an extra dollar or two to make up for the money you saved.
Look for coupons - There are several places you can find great coupons and deals for restaurants.Sign up on your favorite restaurant’s website and, with varying frequency, you’ll get offers and coupons right in your inbox. Check local magazines and newspapers for specials. There’s also the Entertainment Book, which features oodles of coupons for local restaurants. These books usually cost $20 or $30, but you’ll quickly make that up after a few night’s out.
Look for 2-for-$20 deals – Chain restaurants are rapidly jumping on this bandwagon and offering two- and three-course meals for only $10 per person. You have a limited selection to choose from, but it’s still a great deal. With tax and tip (and no drinks!), two people can have a lovely evening out for around $25.
Kids eat free - Many family chain restaurants (such as Chili’s) will offer free kids meals with the purchase of an adult meal. They generally pick a slow night, like Tuesdays or Wednesdays, to help entice more customers. For families with several kids, that extra savings can quickly add up. Check out sites like My Kids Eat Free!, or ask your favorite restaurant if they offer any similar deals.
Skip the apps and desserts - Many people already avoid this money trap, but it can be tricky, especially when dining out with friends. Hopefully you can convince the whole group to skip the treats, but if you can’t, don’t eat them and make sure you get counted out when the bill comes. And speaking of the bill…
Get a separate check - Many restaurants don’t prefer this, but it’s imperative that you try, especially when eating with large groups of people. If a group has ordered lots of drinks and extras, they’ll often split the bill evenly, so if you just ordered a salad, you might be looking at a $50 bill instead of $15. Being up front with your waiter (and your friends!) at the very beginning of a meal will make getting a separate check easier, so give it a try.
Go out to lunch instead of dinner – Most restaurants have much cheaper deals at lunch than at dinner, and most of the time it’s the exact same food in only slightly smaller portions. This is a great idea if you’re meeting a friend or having a casual date, since the atmosphere is a little more relaxed.
Look for happy hour deals - You normally think of bars and alcohol when you think of “happy hour,” but many restaurants offer happy hour specials that include things like half-off appetizers. Depending on the specific happy hour pricing, a couple can share two apps and even have an alcoholic beverage each and still spend less than $20 total!
Order over the phone - If you’re not interested in the restaurant experience but just don’t feel like cooking, you can place an order over the phone and pick it up. Many restaurants will even bring it out to your car for you. (Some even have convenient “pick up” parking spots right in front!) You’ll save on drinks and tip, and you get to eat your favorite dish in the comfort of your own home.
Buy restaurant gift cards - On websites like Restaurant.com you can save a bundle by buying discounted gift cards to locally owned restaurants. Savings vary by individual establishments, but on average, you can get a $25 gift card for around $10, sometimes less! If you’re interested in a chain restaurant, look up that restaurant’s corporate website and you might find a sale on gift cards, too. You can scoop up these deals for yourself, or use them as gifts!
Eat half - This is a great trick to keep your wallet and your waistline in check. Eat only half of your meal at dinner, then take the rest home and have it the next day for lunch or dinner. Smaller portions are better for you, and it’ll make your tasty dinner last even longer!
Split a meal – Portion sizes have grown progressively larger over the decades, so it’s pretty easy to order one entree and split it between two diners. Just be aware that some restaurants may charge a nominal “plate sharing” fee (check the fine print on the menu), but it’s usually nowhere near the cost of an additional entree.
How do you save money dining out? Tell us in the comments below.