I enjoy eating out at a nice restaurant. My wife is a terrific cook, but it is still fun to go out to eat once in a while. (Not to mention she kind of likes getting a break from cooking!) However, as nice as it is to eat out, those restaurant bills can take a big bite out of your wallet.
In my experience, one of the areas that many people find most surprising when they first sit down and do a budget is just how much they are actually spending each month on eating out. The good news is this is a category that is very much under your control. If you are struggling to get by or to pay off debt, your dining out budget item is a great place to start. It will almost always be cheaper to eat at home.
However, even if you are struggling, it is still nice to be able to eat out once in a while to celebrate some good news or a birthday or anniversary. Even if you are doing well, you might still want to make your dollars go as far as possible. Here are some ways to save when eating out:
Ask your server or hostess if there are any special deals today. The worst that can happen is they say no. You might be surprised what is available.
2. Go for lunch
Especially at nicer restaurants, the lunch menu is often significantly cheaper than the dinner menu. Lunch portions may be smaller, but most restaurant portions are over-sized anyway.
3. Drink water
Soft drinks usually have huge mark ups, and alcohol is even worse. Drink water. Think about it. Are you coming to enjoy that nice juicy steak? Or a coke that is no different than the 12 pack you have in the fridge? Spend your money on what makes eating out special.
Restaurant portions are often well over-sized. Consider sharing a meal with your spouse or a friend. Or if you don’t want to do that take some home in a doggy bag and you can enjoy it again for lunch the next day. That way you are essentially getting two meals for the price of one.
Restaurant.com is a site that allows you to buy certificates to area restaurants. I have used it to get $25 gift certificates for less than $5. Two caveats though to be aware of with Restaurant.com: First, participating restaurants vary greatly depending on where you live. Second, you need to be careful to read the fine print. Many offers have restrictions; there may be minimum purchases required. For example, I once bought a $25 certificate for $5, but found it required a $40 purchase to use it. That’s still a good deal as I was getting a $40 meal for only $20, but it wasn’t quite as good a deal as it might appear at first glance. So read the fine print to avoid surprises.
6. Daily deal sites like Groupon
Many daily deal sites like Groupon or Living Social frequently have savings coupons for local restaurants. Like restaurant.com though, just make sure you read the fine print for any restrictions. Most of these offers have an expiration as well, so be sure you will be able to use it before the offer expires.
RetailMeNot is another great site for finding savings opportunities on a wide variety of products. Food is no exception as there is an entire section devoted to restaurant coupons.
8. Check the web site
Before you go, check the restaurant website. Some restaurants have special deals or coupons you can print directly from their web site.
9. Join loyalty programs
If you have establishments that you go to frequently, sign up for any loyalty programs they might have. Often these programs may provide you with a free appetizer after spending a certain amount of money, or perhaps a pizza shop might give a free pizza every X purchases.
10. Follow them on Facebook
If you are a user of Facebook, follow any restaurants you regularly frequent. Some restaurants post deals occasionally just for their loyal Facebook subscribers, or at the least it may be a good way to find out what deals may be available.
11. Discounted gift cards
There are many sites that specialize in buying gift cards and reselling them at a discounted rate. Sites like E-bay, GiftCardGranny, and CardPool are popular places to find discounted gift cards. If you can buy a $50 card for $45, you just saved 10% on your meal. Just be careful that you buy these from a reputable site that verifies the cards being sold are valid.