Food prepared by someone else just tastes better. Unfortunately, you probably no longer live with your mother, nor can most of us afford a full-time cook, making restaurant meals a regular part of life for anyone who enjoys the finer things or who’s just short of time.
If this describes your weekly routine, it’s essential to learn some tricks on how to save money at restaurants: if you don’t make an effort to eat out on a budget, your finances can take a major hit. One common piece of advice is to simply stop dining out and ordering takeout completely. This is neither practical nor convenient for many people – who wants to turn into a hermit? You may still be surprised at how much money you can save without overturning your whole lifestyle, though: in some cases, you can pay as little as half the cost of a restaurant meal without sacrificing much enjoyment. Once you get used to applying these techniques, in other words, you can either eat out twice as often or apply those savings towards your long-term financial goals.
Table of Contents
- 1 Eat Only Until You’re Satisfied
- 2 Snack Before You Eat
- 3 Sign up for All the Restaurant Loyalty Programs You’re Likely to Use
- 4 Go Out on Your Birthday
- 5 Follow Your Favorite Restaurants on Social Media
- 6 How to Save Money at Restaurants Using Groupons and Coupons
- 7 Order More Expensive Items When Dining Out
- 8 How to Save Money When Eating out by Watching The Extras
- 9 Order in and Eat at Home
- 10 If Going in a Large Group, Discuss a Fixed Menu Beforehand
- 11 How to Save Money at Restaurants with Special Lunch and Weeknight Menus
- 12 How to Save Money When Eating out with Kids
- 13 Forget About Dining out on Major Holidays
- 14 How to Save Money at Restaurants by Budgeting
- 15 How to Eat out for Cheap at Bars
- 16 Save on Dining by Using the Right Credit Card
- 17 Get Paid for Writing Restaurant Reviews
- 18 Simply Ask for a Discount
- 19 One Little-Known Secret on How to Save Money When Eating Out: Treat Your Waiter with Respect
- 20 The Ultimate Way to Save on Dining Expenses: Learn How to Cook
- 21 Why How to Save Money at Restaurants Is Important
Eat Only Until You’re Satisfied
Compared to those in most countries, portion sizes in American restaurants are huge:
You’re pretty much guaranteed to be satiated once you get up from the table after consuming this, assuming that you’re even able to move under your own power. A heaping pile of food does give the impression of great value for money, but you’re probably getting less than you think. Much of the bulk you see on your plate is probably from starchy ingredients like bread, pasta, and potatoes, all of which are dirt cheap and don’t go very far toward making your diet balanced.
You can therefore save on dining as well as keep the pounds off just by not thinking of cleaning your plate as a challenge. Order an entree to share if you’re not very hungry or ask for the leftovers to go – this can easily take care of tomorrow’s lunch. Remember that it takes around 20 minutes to realize that you’ve eaten your fill; anything you swallow after that is probably calories you don’t need.
Snack Before You Eat
One of the simplest ways to eat out on a budget is simply to eat less, perhaps only ordering an appetizer or two instead of an entree. You don’t want to feel deprived, though, nor do you need to. Eating a handful of nuts or swallowing a teaspoon of extra-virgin olive oil half an hour before sitting down in the restaurant will curb your appetite and help you make more prudent menu choices.
Sign up for All the Restaurant Loyalty Programs You’re Likely to Use
Sure, it’s annoying when corporations pretend to be your best friend, and you probably don’t want to get daily emails or texts about their Brand-New Improved Incomparable Number-One Friggalicious Flawless Gigantoburger. Apart from being annoying, it’s also important to understand that loyalty programs, which may mean signing up for a mailing list, downloading an app, or swiping a store card every time you visit, are all designed to make you spend more at a given restaurant.
They can also work out in your favor, though: a little bit of research will show you how to save money when eating out by playing the system. Many give you free stuff for ordering from them several times a year; if this is the case, you may as well get all your tacos at the same takeout place. Others provide loyalty program members with items like sauces and sides free of charge, which can give you a more elegant dining experience for less. These savings are not, we should mention, huge, but they are easy to get and add up over time.
Go Out on Your Birthday
One common feature of restaurant loyalty programs is a free dessert, drink, or even main course on your birthday. Only a few eateries will give you this perk without joining their customer club, but this is the best day of the year for doing so – plus, you may be treated to an off-key rendition of Happy Birthday.
Follow Your Favorite Restaurants on Social Media
Especially if you’re a fan of some local mom-and-pop type restaurant without the marketing muscle of a national chain, find out if they have a Facebook page or Twitter account. Advertising on these is cheap and instant, making them the best place for independent eateries to share coupons when business is slow, run promotions on special days, and advertise time-limited specials.
Regarding the latter point, there are basically three reasons why a restaurant will offer a special dish at a very low price (many are overpriced compared to other menu items, so check):
- To showcase their kitchen’s creativity and generate some word-of-mouth buzz,
- Because one of their suppliers gave them a great deal on a specific ingredient, usually premium seafood or meat,
- They have a bunch of something in stock that’s about to expire.
The last point can be a cause for concern. Fortunately, most restaurants are pretty conscientious about food safety. There’s still a risk of food poisoning, though; it makes no sense to save on dining if you have to go to the hospital afterward. If you know you have a sensitive stomach, you may want to steer clear of ridiculously cheap specials at places you don’t know.
How to Save Money at Restaurants Using Groupons and Coupons
If you have a special occasion coming up and are wondering how to eat out cheap, ten minutes on the internet looking for coupons and special rates will be time well spent. Groupon, for instance, makes this incredibly easy by letting you search by zip code to save on dining experiences ranging from no-frills takeout to gourmet meals.
Not all companies like to work with Groupon, particularly independent businesses who are often exactly those restaurants that allow you to eat out on a budget. Some alternatives you can check out include:
Discounts of up to 50% off aren’t uncommon, so looking for coupons online really is how to save money at restaurants. The only major drawback is that these are typically for specific menu items: you’re slightly out of luck if you have a craving for chicken wings but your coupon is for calamari.
Order More Expensive Items When Dining Out
This suggestion may seem just a little out of place in an article on how to eat out cheap: wouldn’t ordering the least expensive item you’ll enjoy make more sense? Well, math still works the same way as it did yesterday, so from one perspective this is accurate.
When you start thinking in terms of value for money, however, the picture changes. As a general rule, restaurants charge three to four times their ingredient costs for food. This isn’t set in stone, though, and it turns out that expensive dishes actually carry less of a markup than those made from cheaper ingredients – sometimes, they’re basically sold at cost.
This means that a $20 pasta dish, which you can probably duplicate at home for under $5, carries a far larger surcharge for the restaurant’s service and atmosphere than a $35 steak. Of course, it’s difficult to put a price on personal enjoyment; if you’re a maniac for spaghetti, the steak may simply not appeal to you even though it’s a better deal in some ways. For my part, I would rather spend more and dine out less often as long as this makes each such meal more memorable.
How to Save Money When Eating out by Watching The Extras
It’s difficult to say exactly how much money a restaurant makes on any particular menu item: defrosting and plating a boxed dessert takes much less effort than an entree prepared to order, and their overhead costs are huge. You can be pretty confident that main courses are generally less profitable for them, though: they typically make up the difference by selling drinks, side dishes, and appetizers.
These are, of course, largely optional. If you’re a wine connoisseur, find out which restaurants charge a low corkage fee or have a BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) policy and supply your own. Order plain water if you need something to wash down your meal and go for ice cream afterward instead of getting dessert at the restaurant.
Order in and Eat at Home
A major reason people like going out to eat is the ambiance and décor restaurateurs spend so much time and money on. You may not, however, want to share a room with a bunch of strangers if you want to save on dining out as a family or go on an intimate romantic date.
Eating in your own living room (or taking the party outdoors for a picnic) can be far more relaxing and it’s one way how to save money when dining “out”. You can take your shoes off, choose the music or put on the TV, pour drinks from your own fridge for a fraction of the menu price, toss together a salad for under a dollar, and so on.
Restaurants typically don’t give you a discount for not tying up one of their tables, but many (including some very high-end places) now offer free or cheap delivery. You’ll save 20% right off the top by not having to pay a service charge, as well as not getting tempted to order a $15 cocktail or $10 slice of cake.
If Going in a Large Group, Discuss a Fixed Menu Beforehand
It’s no secret that being a restaurant chef is an incredibly stressful job. One single person may be ultimately responsible for administration, accounting, ordering supplies, training staff, general cleanliness, and the livelihood of dozens of other people, all while working twelve to sixteen-hour shifts and dealing with all the numerous small emergencies that crop up during every dinner service. The last thing they need is to get swamped with 20 different dishes, some with special requirements, that all have to be served at the same time.
If you’re planning a function you can’t host at home, don’t just make a reservation. Speak to a manager about what kind of set menu they can create to help your guests eat out on a budget. Since you’re effectively buying in bulk and reducing the strain on the kitchen, you can certainly negotiate a discount by doing so.
How to Save Money at Restaurants with Special Lunch and Weeknight Menus
Restaurants want to be busy all the time, but many struggle to attract customers before 7 p.m. One strategy that’s paid off for a lot of them is to serve different dishes, often lighter on the stomach and in slightly smaller portions, around lunchtime. These are sometimes called “executive lunches” and cost around $10 – an appetizer or drink may even be included in the price.
Similarly, restaurants are nearly dead on Mondays and Tuesdays, so many of them offer attractive specials. Moving your regular date night from the weekend can allow you to eat out on a budget regularly and, since the staff won’t be rushed, get you better service besides.
How to Save Money When Eating out with Kids
Many food businesses focus their marketing on children. This isn’t because pre-teens are big spenders, but because they invariably drag their parents along to foot the bill.
This is a somewhat sneaky sales tactic, but numerous restaurants go the other way and serve kids’ meals for free. Be sure to check the terms and conditions, though: at some eateries, you’ll have to buy an adult entree to qualify, many have age limits, and some run these promotions only on certain days of the week. Some restaurants even have kids’ giveaways for reading books or getting a good report card.
Forget About Dining out on Major Holidays
A sentimental gesture that’s become an obligation is about as romantic as cold scrambled eggs. Especially when a special menu is involved, taking someone you care about out for Valentine’s or Mother’s day is incredibly pricey – you can eat out on a budget two or three times for the same cost!
How to Save Money at Restaurants by Budgeting
Many people interested in learning how to eat out cheap focus on the big stuff: one-pound steaks, alcoholic beverages, family-size pizzas, and black-tie restaurants. In practice, these items often aren’t those that are really draining your bank account.
Coffee to go may cost you $3, a vending machine sandwich $2, and a mid-afternoon doughnut and soda another $2. Sure, you can afford it…but this amounts to almost a hundred and fifty bucks per month and $1,800 per year if you snack like this every weekday. Most people don’t track these kinds of expenses and therefore don’t even know how much money they can save just by getting a portable coffee maker and preparing their own lunches at home.
If you think this type of impulse spending is making your wallet go hungry, you may want to look into the envelope system of budgeting. The secret to its effectiveness is its simplicity: at the start of each month, put a pre-determined amount of money into an envelope marked “Food and drinks not from the grocery store”. Whether you spend $200 on a lobster dinner or 99 cents on a burger, the money is taken out of that envelope – no credit cards allowed! Once the envelope is empty, you can’t eat out until your next payday comes around, even if all your friends are going. This means you’ll have to plan ahead, and also that you’ll automatically be much more aware of your spending habits.
How to Eat out for Cheap at Bars
For the most part, bars and the overpriced drinks you’ll find there are a waste of money. There is one exception to this rule, though: happy hour. Many bars serve finger food or appetizers, and these are sometimes heavily discounted around the time most businesses close for the night and office workers start to head home. If you order a few of these, like a mini-pizza, chicken wings, and some fries, you may well be able to comfortably skip dinner later.
Save on Dining by Using the Right Credit Card
Choosing a credit card isn’t quite as simple as filling out the application and hoping for the best. It’s really a good idea to spend some time weighing the various factors involved, including how much cashback you can earn on things like restaurant purchases.
The basic idea is that one to five percent of what you spend on qualifying purchases finds its way back into your account. This isn’t all that much, but every little bit helps and you don’t have to go to any effort to get this refund as long as you were going to pay by card anyway.
Some of the best credit cards for frequent diners include:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
- American Express Green Card
- Capital One Savor Rewards Card
- Citi Prestige Card
Get Paid for Writing Restaurant Reviews
iDine, now known as Neighborhood Nosh, used to reward their members with cashback for writing helpful reviews of local dining spots and thereby helping other users find the best restaurants. They’ve since tweaked their business model, but you can still get paid for sharing your opinion of restaurants you’ve visited.
In some cases, these remarks will not be published: mystery shoppers are used by restaurant managers to measure how well they’re doing. In return for your time, they’ll refund the cost of your bill. Another option is to work part-time for one of the many market research companies that pay users for completing surveys and writing reviews on products and services they’ve used. You can also try your hand at becoming a food critic in your own right, either for a local newspaper or on a personal blog. Be warned, however: the few people who make a living in this way know a great deal about food and the restaurant industry.
Simply Ask for a Discount
Many restaurants offer discounts of 10% to 15% to various groups: serving military, teachers, students, senior citizens, and even union members. There is a catch, though: these are almost never advertised. You only have to ask and show some form of ID, though, and then perhaps tell all your coworkers so they can take advantage of this too.
One Little-Known Secret on How to Save Money When Eating Out: Treat Your Waiter with Respect
Most diners have no idea of the dynamics behind the scenes of a restaurant, including what the wait staff’s job involves. You may therefore be surprised to know that there’s a real art to what they do; some of them earn a lot more than you’d imagine.
They also have a keen memory for the customers they enjoy serving as well as those they’d prefer not to interact with. They most definitely share these opinions with their colleagues as well as the kitchen staff. Depending on where they work, they can also have a surprising amount of leeway when it comes to giving away freebies or telling you about obscure ways to save on dining in their restaurant.
The lesson here is obvious: especially if you visit the same place frequently, tip well or at least remember your manners. The rewards for doing this may not be conspicuous, but they are certainly real.
The Ultimate Way to Save on Dining Expenses: Learn How to Cook
This article is all about how to save money at restaurants, but we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t at least mention this obvious approach to reducing your spending on food. On average, preparing your own meals costs a quarter to half of what you’d pay at a restaurant. Doing this for only a couple of meals per week can easily save you an amount equal to a utility bill. Perhaps more importantly, this is a lot healthier for you: restaurant chefs know all too well that salt, sugar, and fat make everything taste better and add liberal amounts of these ingredients.
As with any new skill, cooking takes time to learn. There are plenty of baby-steps resources for those who are willing to put in the effort, but there’s also a kind of middle way. Meal delivery services will drop a box of fresh, pre-portioned, and (sometimes) pre-cut ingredients at your door once a week. These are accompanied by a kind of cook-by-numbers recipe designed to be as easy as possible for novice cooks to follow.
This costs more than buying your food from the farmer’s market but is still a great deal cheaper than eating out. Even if you can be found in a restaurant most evenings, you’ll probably still keep a couple of packs of ramen and a frozen pizza or two in your kitchen – these meal kits are nearly as easy to prepare and much, much tastier.
Why How to Save Money at Restaurants Is Important
Eating out is often a social ritual: it’s the conventional way to get to know a potential romantic partner, it’s a way to celebrate everything from birthdays to promotions, it can be a large part of networking for career advancement. Depending on your living arrangements, it may be difficult to get a proper meal any other way; for some people, it’s all about celebrating the culinary arts.
The trouble is that it’s not easy to eat out on a budget. Let’s say you get two meals per day outside the home, spending $10 each time: that’s over seven grand over the course of a year! The average American household clocks in at $3,000 annually, almost as much as they spend on food from the supermarket. Saving even a fraction of that number will make it that much easier to achieve financial goals like getting out of debt.
Nobody is asking you to stop getting takeout and visiting restaurants completely. Instead, try to figure out how to eat out cheaply; the tips in this article should get you most of the way there. Above all, remember that any money you spend on restaurants won’t be available for any other purpose. Eat out on a budget: assign a portion of your income to this expense, keep track of how much you spend, and don’t exceed the figure you’ve decided on unless you have a very good reason for doing so – not “I don’t feel like cooking tonight”.