This year, we are definitely cutting down on eating out by at least 50%. Part of our plan is to do more grocery shopping and eat at home. I do love to cook anyway, might as well focus more on my cooking and save money at the same time. In the past 10 years, all I did was grilling. I love to grill and entertain people in the summer, then I started to get more involved in making dinner at home and that’s when I discovered my cooking ability. One thing I really like about cooking or home cooked meal is the feeling of abundance it provides.
But sometimes going out to eat is inevitable. Birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and other family events. When you’re on a budget, dining out can be a more stressful than an enjoyable event. Cooking at home saves you money, but the convenience (and sometimes unavoidability) of restaurants make spending the extra buck your only option.
Whatever your reason, these 8 tips on how you can save money while dining out can help you cut costs at the restaurant table.
Trim the Fat
That is, cut the unnecessary stuff. Sodas, alcoholic beverages, extra sides, desserts, and even appetizers can turn that $15 plate into a $50 ordeal. If it’s a special occasion, consider having a glass of wine at home before the meal, or look for a BYOB restaurant. If you’re dying to try their margarita, make your reservation during happy hour.
Ask your server about the specials; many places include appetizers in their happy hour as well. You can still indulge in desserts; consider splitting something off the menu, or going out for ice cream at a drive-thru.
Sodas are an unnecessary and easily avoidable cost. Opt for lemon water or tea if plain ole H2O isn’t your thing.
Have a light snack or appetizer at home before the meal. We’ve all been to a restaurant starving and ordered WAY more food than we thought we could handle.
After the complimentary bread, appetizer, and salad, that big-as-your-face pasta plate become less of a necessity and more of tomorrow’s leftovers. If you are at a restaurant that offers complimentary snacks such as chips, bread, or peanuts, fill up. As long as you’re not embarrassing yourself or the host, having your fill of the free food as well…free, saving you money by decreasing your appetite, thus lowering the chance of over-ordering.
Split a Dish
Many restaurants (especially casual American fare) are known for their huge portions. Splitting a dish splits the cost and can leave room for an appetizer or dessert. Many restaurants will plate the half dishes separately, making the shared dining experience easy and fair.
Ask your server before sharing; some places have a split dish fee, making the cost of the half dishes nearly the same as two full plates. If you’re worried about not getting enough, you can always add a dessert or side salad to the order.
Either way, it’s usually cheaper than ordering two full-sized meals.
Ask for Specials and Look for Coupons
Hey, it may not be the most glamorous look, but coupons and specials are an easy way to save while dining out. Before you go, check the restaurant’s website. Some establishments offer a free appetizer or 15% off for signing up for their email newsletter. Groupon, restaurant.com, and other similar coupon sites can offer discounts as deep as 50% off your ticket.
You can even check out a discounted gift card website like Cardpool to purchase gift cards for under the ticket price. If you can’t find any online, ask your server for the best specials. Also, go to Costco and check out their gift card section. They may have the restaurant gift card that you need and they also sell them at a discount.
If it’s a first date or occasion you don’t want to be seen saving, you can always pull your server aside and ask them to apply the coupon without the rest of the party knowing. (Even though there is nothing wrong with being thrifty!)
If you’re out of town or simply don’t have the tools or energy to cook at home, placing a to-go order can save you time and money. A few places offer a discount for carrying out. You’ll also save on the tip, as a server won’t be bringing you refills or that extra side of ketchup.
Grabbing a soda at a gas station, vending machine or your fridge will save you a few bucks on drinks.
Order in Bulk
Before you go and order ten dishes, take into consideration the amount of time you will need the pre-cooked meals. If you’re staying at a hotel for the weekend, ordering a full pizza and throwing the leftovers in the mini-fridge instead of ordering a slice every day can help you cut down that extra dough.
Ask your server if they have any multi-dish discounts, a few restaurants offer discounts like “eat one here, take one home for half off.” While the 20 oz. steak may seem like a ridiculous price for one sitting, splitting it into three meals takes away some of that sticker shock.
If you are with a group of others (a business convention, for example) splitting the cost of a catered meal may be more economical as well.
Use the Clock to Your Advantage
If you have control of time and place (naturally opt for an affordable establishment), making a reservation for lunch or early dinner can help you save while dining out. Lunch menus are almost always cheaper, and a reservation for an early dinner can be economical as well.
If you are invited to an evening event, some restaurants will still allow you to order off the lunch menu; it doesn’t hurt to ask. Whatever you do, don’t come in five minutes before closing. You won’t be receiving any free food, just the last picks of the night and a fake smile from your server.
Modify Your Meal
The bulk of the meal is usually the meat. Opt for a vegetarian option, skip the salad or sides, or ask if they can simply put in a half order of whatever you want. This is especially easy for pasta dishes, asking for half of the chicken breast plate may not be as easy.
Most restaurants will discount the menu item if you skip the meat or add on’s (salads and sides) but make sure to ask before assuming so.
These suggestions are all helpful and easy tips for you to try out. One final note – before you consider dining out, make sure you have enough to tip your server. One area to never skimp on is the tip. Like the tipping culture or not, it is a part of American dining, and punishing your server for your budget restraints is not acceptable. Make sure everyone leaves the restaurant happy.
Do you have a tip you can’t live without? Let us know in the comments!