Having a meal out at a restaurant is a nice way to spend some time with family or friends and to avoid the hassle of having to prepare the meal yourself. However, with the economy the way it is, sometimes going out to eat can be a luxury that is not always affordable. Ask anyone who eats out regularly and they will tell you it isn’t easy on the budget. Even if you only grab five $10 meals each week you’ll spend around $200 a month or nearly $2,500 each year. This is right in line with the national average, but many people spend much more than this if they dine out more frequently, live in a more expensive city, or go to fancier restaurants.
1. Utilize Specials
Many restaurants offer daily specials where there are a certain amount of entrees that are offered at a discounted price on specific days of the week. These meals often include soup or salad, the main entrée, a dessert and beverage. This usually means a larger amount of food for a lower price than normal. Some restaurants also have a menu of reduced price appetizers and entrees that are available at certain times of day. I know of a lot of bar & grill type places that have great appetizer and drink specials that could save you up to 50%.
Oh, and don’t forget birthdays! Many restaurants offer birthday freebies and provide free meals, free desserts, or discounts. You’re probably going to go out for your birthday anyway, so you might as well score a discount when you do.
2. Use the Internet
Using the internet can prove to be a beneficial way to find discounts on meals at restaurants. Several restaurants offer coupons and money off of meals that are sent to consumers via email or can be printed from the restaurants website. Restaurant.com is a great site for getting discounts, but don’t be afraid to even check a restaurant’s site directly, even with the big chains. There are occasionally discounts there that aren’t advertised anywhere else.
Another option on the internet is to use a search engine and enter keywords such as the restaurant name you would like to visit and the word “coupons” or “discounts” to receive search results that may give other sites you may not be aware of and find even more savings. With so many people looking to save money on their purchases, there are many sites that offer ways to save when shopping or dining at many businesses. Wherever you get your coupons, make sure to read the fine print because there are often requirements to meet for the gift cards and certificates to be redeemed but you do end up saving opposed to not using any money saving method.
3. Sharing Meals
If you aren’t a big eater or if you’re going to a restaurant that has large portions, you might want to consider sharing a meal. There’s a local restaurant like this we go to. If you order their lasagna for yourself you’ll quickly be overwhelmed. You get a piece that’s as big as your head and there’s no way a normal person could eat it on their own without getting sick. So, rather than my wife and I each ordering separate meals we’ll often just split the lasagna and it’s plenty filling. That’s at least a 50% savings right there.
If sharing is your intention, you may want to ask your server first. I have encountered a few places where certain meals can’t be shared or if you do share you’ll be charged a small fee for a second plate. It usually isn’t a big deal but you just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into before you order.
4. Dine Earlier
This obviously may not always be an option when you’re busy working all day or if you’re going out to eat before a late movie, but going out earlier can save you money in a number of ways. First of all, you’re usually not as hungry so you’re more likely to order a smaller dish that’s more affordable. There may also be still some lunch items on the menu to choose from and lunch items are almost always cheaper than their dinner counterparts.
Restaurants are also usually not as busy earlier in the evening and this fact alone can save you money. What happens when you have to wait 30 minutes or more to be seated? They direct you to the bar where you can have a drink while you wait. That means you’ll probably buy a drink, maybe two if you’re with someone, and then have to leave a tip. You just spent another $10 or $15 extra dollars without realizing it. If you make reservations or go to the restaurant earlier there’s a less chance of a wait and you’ll be seated quickly and may not be tempted to kill some time at the bar.
5. Drink Water
Speaking of drinks, this is where restaurants make their money. I know nothing goes better with a meal than a glass of wine, but skipping the drink can be the easiest way to save money when dining out. While alcoholic drinks are obviously more expensive the same is true for soda drinkers. Why pay two dollars for some fountain drink that costs the restaurant pennies and just fills you up with empty calories?
Going back to our five meals a week example, if you usually buy a two dollar soda with each of those meals and simply switched to water guess how much you’d save? You’d save about $40 each month or nearly $500 a year! That isn’t chump change. Even better, it’s a much more healthy choice.
6. Plan for Leftovers
Leftovers are part of almost every meal when dining out so take that food home. Pack it for lunch at work the next day or have it for dinner the next day if there is a good amount that was left after your meal at the restaurant. But don’t just stop there. Plan ahead for leftovers. For example, how many times have you been at a place that offers two sizes of a certain entrée? Sometimes the difference between the small and large portion is just a couple of dollars. Obviously, you may not be able to eat the entire large portion for dinner, but if it only costs you two dollars extra that’s like getting lunch tomorrow for just two dollars.
7. Try a New Restaurant
We all get stuck in our restaurant ruts. It’s easy to find a favorite and simply make it a habit to go there often. Whether it’s a chain or a nice local place, sticking to your regular places may be expensive. You could be missing out on a hidden gem or some great new specials.
Just a few months ago we tried a new local place that although we drove by daily, just never stopped in. It looked kind of like a small shack and it’s not a place that even had online reviews. Finally, we decided to go in one day and were pleasantly surprised. The meals were incredibly affordable, portions were quite large, and the meals tasted like they came from your mom’s kitchen. After passing by this place for years and never trying it, now it’s one of our regular spots and it saves us a ton of money since we don’t have to drive all the way into town and hit up one of the more popular places.
8. Skip Dessert
I know what you’re thinking. Dessert is one of the best parts of the meal. I won’t deny it, I love a good dessert to cap off my meal. But think about how much it costs to have dessert at the restaurant. Is it really worth spending five dollars or more on a single piece of pie? Splitting it obviously helps, but it’s still a lot of money for a small serving.
Instead, plan for dessert outside of the restaurant. Hit up the local ice cream joint on your way home, or better yet, plan ahead and pick up something from the bakery before you go out to eat and have some when you get home. This also makes a great excuse for inviting your dinner guests back to your place after the meal for some dessert and coffee. It’s a lot cheaper for everyone and you can keep the good times going long after the meal.
It’s Not All About Sacrifice
I know many financial gurus will tell you to just stop going out to eat and cook meals at home to save money, but that isn’t always the best option. Dining out with friends and family is a great social experience and life is too short to squander away every little pleasure just to save a few bucks. So, if you’re going to go out to eat, at least make a conscious effort to follow some of these tips and save some money. It might not seem like much when you’re only saving a few bucks per meal, but it really does add up.
Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle
My name is Jeremy Vohwinkle, and I’ve spent a number of years working in the finance industry providing financial advice to regular investors and those participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans.