Are you looking to learn how to save money eating out? My wife and I love to eat out at restaurants. Thanks to a recent look at how I spend my money, 8.8% of my income actually goes towards eating out every month in fact. But, I do not make any apologies for it.
My wife and I simply hate cooking and love eating out at restaurants. It is something that we love to do. So, my wife and I make a conscious effort to budget eating out at restaurants so much.
Restaurants rely on more than ambiance and the aroma of your favorite foods to get you to spend. They favor tricks to appeal to your mind — to get you in the door and push your bill higher. But there are ways that you can save money eating out at restaurants.
Restaurants hope that we don’t realize it, but a lot of energy goes into developing menus. They focus on every detail — layout, font, color scheme and so much more — every aspect designed to entice us to spend more money.
For example, have you ever noticed that many restaurants don’t put dollar signs next to prices? It’s similar to why casinos make gamblers bet with chips instead of real money.
Dollar signs make us mentally associate numbers with a real cost. Leaving them off subtly makes us feel that the number isn’t associated with quite so high a price.
Most menus in national chains do not list food and prices in a straight vertical line down the menu. Customers can compare prices too easily this way. Instead, restaurants often offset them from one another. It’s little tricks like these that force customers to work a little harder to understand and compare costs.
We all know that it can be very expensive, but you can also save money while still eating out a lot. You simply have to make smart decisions while you are at the restaurant. But, do you know how to save money eating out? Below are ten of the best ways to save money eating out at restaurants…
- Buy Restaurant.com Gift Cards
- Discount Cards
- Weekly Specials
- Friend Your Favorites
- Portion Control
- Have a Spending Plan
- Check Out Groupon
- Go Out for Lunch Instead
- Buy an Entertainment Book
- Drink Water and Skip The Alcohol
- Eat a Snack at Home Beforehand
- Go for Lunch or Happy Hour
- Be Your Own Server
- Avoid Dining Out with Large Groups
- Yelp Check-In Discounts and Freebies
- Sign Up for Birthday Specials
- Join IHG Rewards Club Dining Program
- Become a Mystery Shopper
- Pay with a Dining Rewards Credit Card
- Watch Out for the ‘Free’ Gift Cards
- ‘Loyalty’ May Only Goes One Way
- Skipping The Emails And Daily Deal Websites
How to Save Money Eating Out at Restaurants
1. Buy Restaurant.com Gift Cards
With Restaurant.com, you can purchase gift cards to over 18,000 restaurants across the country for pennies on the dollar. For as little as $10, you can receive a $25 Restaurant.com gift card that can be used in tons of locations near you. I was completely blown away by how much I saved using Restaurant.com the first time. Now I’m hooked.
2. Discount Cards
My children are constantly selling discount cards to local area restaurants for their school’s fundraiser. These cards often cost $10 or so, but I have literally made my money back after the first use.
Our favorite restaurants around town offer 25% off of your meal or even a buy one, get one free entre. This is a great way to save throughout the year. We even went as far as to purchase some from other friends whose kids attend different schools because the deals on the other discount cards were so good.
3. Weekly Specials
One thing that many people may not realize or utilize is weekly specials that almost all restaurants are implementing these days. Pay attention to the restaurants that you frequent most often.
When do they have 10 cents wing night? When do they have kids eat free night?
We keep a running list of which restaurants in our area have which types of deals on certain days. My wife and I often wait until the last minute to decide where to eat, but it helps us save money eating out when we know who offers deals and when.
4. Friend Your Favorites
Just like you can like Money Q&A on Facebook, you can like most restaurants on Facebook as well. Even mom and pop locations now are finding their way online in an effort to drum up more business. This is a great opportunity for you to find new deals and coupons online.
Many restaurants offer great deals and coupons for newsletter subscribers too. Do not be bashful when signing up for these newsletters to get a great deal. If you are worried about spam, set up a new free email account just for these newsletters.
5. Portion Control
Another great way to save money eating out at restaurants is to practice portion control. Now more than ever, portions at restaurants have grown considerably and are huge. Portion control can come in a variety of methods.
When I asked several great personal finance bloggers, Beating Broke mentioned sharing portions with members of your party. Hunter from Financially Consumed recommended to be sure to take leftovers home if it is too much. That is like saving 50% on each meal if I can pay once and have two meals out of it.
Watching your portions can do more than help you keep your weight down — it can help you conserve your budget too. American restaurants continue to serve ever larger portions. Of course, these increased portion sizes comes an increase in the price.
The worst thing that a consumer can do is simply ignore the fact that portions are excessive. You have to have a plan. Will you take half of your meal home with you? Split it with a dining companion? Or should you simply look for a smaller alternative? Your wallet and your belly will thank you for having a game plan and sticking to it.
6. Have a Spending Plan
Okay, I won’t call this setting a budget, but you have to have some idea as to how much you can spend per month on eating out.
Are you willing to spend $100 per week? What happens if you blow that on one meal? Are you going to go home the other six nights and eat Ramon Noodles?
That’s the kind of discipline it unfortunately takes. It is okay to spend a lot of money on something that you love, but you have to set limits beforehand and stick to them.
7. Check Out Groupon
YFS from Your Finances Simplified recommended using Groupon or Living Social to find great deals on restaurants in your area. Like Restaurant.com, using Groupon and Living Social are great resources to save money eating out at restaurants.
In my local area, our daily newspaper is even trying to start a service on the newspaper’s website similar to Groupon that offers very specific deals only in our immediate area.
Groupon has an entire section on its website dedicated to local food and drink deals. In some cases, restaurants may offer Groupon deals to generate more public awareness about their new establishment, while others may have suffered from poor customer reviews in the past and want to rebuild their restaurant’s reputation by attracting new folks through daily deals sites like Groupon or Living Social.
It’s never a guarantee with some Groupons, but you may end up finding your new favorite restaurant and get a 20-50% discount on the food when you redeem the Groupon! Save 70% or more on new deals near you
8. Go Out for Lunch Instead
We all know that lunch at restaurants is typically less expensive than dinner. Eating lunch instead of dinner is a great way to save money while eating out at restaurants. This is a favorite tactic of the Prairie Eco Thrifter. She also points out that the portions at lunch are much smaller too which will not only help your wallet but also your waistline.
9. Buy an Entertainment Book
I hadn’t thought of this idea of buying an Entertainment Book until Jason from Live Real, Now mentioned it to me. I remember Ryan from Cash Money Life has always praised the deals available in the Entertainment book as well.
I haven’t even seen one since I was a little kid and my mother would buy them. They still exist and a great resource to save money eating out at restaurants.
10. Drink Water and Skip the Alcohol
Several of the friends that I polled for this article such as Eric from Dollar Versity mentioned drinking only water in an effort to save money. This is a great tip since alcoholic drinks are expensive and can quickly make your bill spiral out of control.
I also learned this lesson the hard way with my youngest son who orders chocolate milk everywhere we go. And, most restaurants do not offer free refills on milk as they do for soda. Three glasses of milk later, not only does he have a stomachache, but I have a bloated bill from the restaurant as well.
You already know water is the healthiest beverage on the menu, but you might not realize just how much money you can save by only ordering water when you dine out. Considering the average cost of coffee or soda is $1-3 – and alcoholic beverages at restaurants range from $6-14 – you could save quite a bit of money every month if you stick to water in restaurants and save the soda, coffee, juice, or alcohol for consumption at home.
11. Eat a Snack at Home Beforehand
Similar to how grocery shopping on an empty stomach can lead to more impulse purchases, going out to a restaurant while you’re starving can make those costly and high-calorie appetizers look more enticing.
By simply eating a piece of fruit or other small snacks to tide you over as you drive to the restaurant and wait for a table, you will be less likely to splurge on appetizers and more likely to save money by only getting an entrée.
12. Go for Lunch or Happy Hour
Lunch portions are typically smaller than dinner portions, and with those smaller sizes come greater cost savings. Many restaurants even offer lunch specials at much more affordable prices than their dinnertime counterparts.
If you’re unable to make it out of the house or office during lunch, consider going to a restaurant or bar with happy hour specials (typically from 3-6pm) and splitting some low-cost appetizer dishes with friends or coworkers.
13. Be Your Own Server
When it comes to buffet-style restaurants, you won’t have to spend as much money on tips because you don’t receive the same level of service as you would in a regular restaurant. It’s still a good idea to leave a couple of bucks for the busboys who clean up after you, but since the food and drinks are all self-serve, you don’t have to tip the full 15% on your bill.
14. Avoid Dining Out with Large Groups
If you dine out with a group of 8 people or more, many restaurants automatically tack on an 18% gratuity charge to your bill. While tipping your servers should never be sacrificed just so you can save some money – many servers rely on tips for the majority of their income, after all – you may not want to deal with the hassle of splitting a check between several different people and paying a higher tip amount simply because you’re dining with a larger group.
Of course, this may be unavoidable in some cases, so be sure to discuss how you’ll divide the bill before going out with them to prevent any conflict over who owes what.
15. Yelp Check-In Discounts and Freebies
Sometimes you may find a restaurant offering a 5-15% discount or free menu item just for checking into their business on Yelp. Even if you’re not an avid Yelper, it’s still a good idea to sign up for a Yelp account just so you can get the special check-in offers that some food establishment offers customers who were diligent enough to look up their page on Yelp.
16. Sign Up for Birthday Specials
Many restaurants offer free desserts (or even entire entrees) to people who dine there on their birthdays. Unless it’s for a child, you’ll likely need to show your driver’s license to prove your date of birth, but this tiny inconvenience shouldn’t deter you from this once-a-year money-saving opportunity.
In some cases, you can even sign up for a birthday club and receive a coupon from the restaurant, which you can use during the week or even month of your birthday.
17. Join IHG Rewards Club Dining Program
The IHG Rewards Club Dining program boasts over 10,000 participating restaurants and bars, where you can get rewards for dining at these particular establishments. Joining IHG Rewards Club is free, and you can earn as much as 5 points per $1 spent on dining if you sign up for their email newsletter.
18. Become a Mystery Shopper
One of the best ways to get free food is through mystery shopping assignments. When you’re a mystery shopper, you may not have much control over which restaurants you get to go to, but you’ll get your meal reimbursed afterward (and some mystery shopping programs offer a little extra money to cover your travel expenses and time).
Depending on where you live, how far you’re willing to commute for assignments, and what your schedule’s availability looks like, you could get mystery shopping gigs multiple times per week and significantly reduce your out-of-pocket dining out expenses as a result
19. Pay with a Dining Rewards Credit Card
Although this doesn’t immediately save you money on dining out expenses, paying for the restaurant bill with a credit card that offers special rewards for dining-related purchases can help you rack up more points or cash-back.
For instance, the $0-annual fee Capital One Savor Cash Rewards card offers 3 points per dollar spent on dining (and 2 points per dollar spent on groceries, but only 1 point per dollar spent on everything else). This is perfect for anyone who dines out on a regular basis and wants to save even more money on restaurant-related expenses.
20. Watch Out for the ‘Free’ Gift Cards
I am a sucker for restaurants that offer deals if you buy their gift cards. You typically see these offers around the holidays or special occasions. Many restaurants offer a free additional $10 gift card if you purchase $50 in gift cards.
While that’s technically a nice deal — about 17% off that $60 worth of food and drink — there are downsides. First, are you really going to use those gift cards? How long will they sit in your wallet?
And, if you do spend them, will that mean you ultimately go to the restaurant more often than you would have if you didn’t have a gift card burning a hole in your pocket? Might the “deal” cause you, in the end, to spend more than you otherwise might have?
It is easy — and common — to spend more money per trip when you are using a gift card or credit card instead of cash. McDonald’s (MCD) found that customers’ average transaction sizes rose significantly when it started allowing the widespread use of credit cards at franchises in 2003. Mentally, it’s easier to justify and seems less like real money. It is a lesson in behavioral finance.
21. ‘Loyalty’ May Only Goes One Way
It seems like a good idea to sign up for restaurant loyalty programs. They often give away free food or drinks after a certain number of purchases or on your birthday. A recent report from Colloquy, a research branch of LoyaltyOne, a global loyalty program design and implementation firm, found that only 44% of consumers are active participants in loyalty programs they sign up to use.
It’s important for you to understand what loyalty programs really are — a tool for tracking your purchases and shopping behavior. This allows restaurants and retailers to better focus their marketing efforts on you based on your spending patterns. And loyalty cards also lure you into spending more money. They induce you to shop more in order to receive more rewards.
22. Or, Consider Skipping the Emails and Daily Deal Websites
I am a sucker for Groupon (GRPN) and daily deal websites. I have signed up for many companies’ email newsletters to know about the latest sales. Companies inundate me with offers and coupons daily directly in my email inbox. I am tempted to buy more with an email every day and buy more items than I really need.
The same is true with restaurants. Be careful about which restaurant email newsletters you sign up to receive. You will be tempted to go to that restaurant more than you may otherwise have gone.
Do you fall for these restaurant tricks? Do you find yourself spending more at restaurants than you have in years past? How do you combat these mind tricks that restaurants and retailers are using against us and entice us to spend more?
Note: A portion of this article originally appeared on AOL Daily Finance about saving money eating out at restaurants. Those portions have been reprinted with permission.
Do you have any tips on how to save money eating out at restaurants? Which method to save money eating out at restaurants is your favorite? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.
28 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways to Save Money Eating Out at Restaurants”
My girlfriend and I are big fans of eating out. I think I’m definitely gonna take suggestion #1 and run with it. I’m not a big Groupon or Living Social fan. The biggest problem with their deals is that when those deals are run, the staff is (usually) not that friendly. I’ve asked around and I was told that most people tip according to their (heavily discounted) bill, not the actual value of their meals. Anyway, thanks for sharing this. With the abundance of places to eat in NYC, I’m pretty sure I’ll get a whole lot of mileage out of this 🙂
I was using a Groupon at one of my favorite restaurants the other month and asked the owner when he was going to do it again, and he said never because it cost him so much in lost revenue/profit. I know that it drove a lot of customers to him, but it still squeezed his margins that month.
You bring up a great point about tipping. You have to be conscious of the old total, and that is definitely the amount that you should calculate your tip from. It is a shame that people do not do it right but you are right….it definitely happens a lot.
Excellent post Hank. This is definitely the time of year when I need to watch my portion control.
Amen, Hunter. You are definitely right. It is #10 that gets me into trouble with my waist line.
Great tips. I liked reading what people have found to be helpful. And like Hunter said, with the holidays is when we need to be extra diligent.
Good points there Hank! Restaurants are indeed titing the supply-demand balance in favor of the consumers and everything we can do to take advantage of that should be done. Its just how the aiport food is ridiculously overpriced.
Don’t forget loyalty cards and other restaurant promotions. My wife and I eat out at a Mongolian Grill chain quite often. We have a loyalty card that gives us $10 off for every $100 we spend and have branded t-shirts that give us 10% off our entrees.
The other problem with Groupon/Living Social is that they are still pretty geographically limited. They have the bigger cities pegged, but smaller areas are out of luck.
That’s a great point, Edward! I can’t belive that I forget about them. I have several loyalty cards to our favorite restaurants. It seems like more and more are going toward that route. I never heard of the t-shirt deal though. I think that I would feel a little cheesy wearing a specific shirt to get 10% off. I would have to really love the shirt. Hard Rock Cafe should offer that deal. I’d be all over it! Thanks!
Great job pulling all of these together. Had I responded – I would’ve repeated Eric’s thoughts about drinks. Entirely too costly…
…best deal is 1/2 price bottles of wine.
Good tips! We like to get specials. When I know I’m going to be taking half of my meal home (those portions are huge!) I ask for a take-home container right away when my meal is served. That way I can put half in the container before I ever start eating. The food will last longer in the refrigerator without my saliva in it to start pre-digesting it. I try to eat the leftovers the next day, but I can wait an extra day this way.
That’s an interesting idea. I never thought of starting the meal by asking for a box. Do you ever get weird looks from the server?
Not that I’ve noticed!
You lost me on your first point itself. IMO, restaurant.com doesn’t give you all the information. When I bought $50 gift card, I was informed I can use it only if I spend more than $100 and the bill will include 18% tip by default, I like it or not. Though I only spent $4 for that gift card, it will not be used because of this condition. Me and my wife can not eat $100 worth food in the restaurant I bought the card for and it is not valid for take out.
Second point is the tip. I wouldn’t mind paying 18% if I get that quality service, what if I don’t? I still pay
I am not impressed and won’t recommend restaurant.com to anyone.
Great point, Noel. I guess that it comes down to understanding what you are buying and knowing the fine print of the deal or gift certificate. Still if you can use the Restaurant.com gift cards, they are a great deal. As for the 18% tip, I give 15% no matter what. So, I won’t let 3% dissuade me from scoring a great deal. That is a great protection for the servers who often get shorted on these great deals when people tip on the amount they pay and not the true value of the food.
For us older folks, don’t forget to ask if they offer a senior citizen’s discount. Some restaurants will give these starting at age 50 .
I did forget about senior citizen’s discounts. It is always good to ask for a discount. I know many people who would qualify for a discount such as a military discount, but they frequently forget to ask businesses if they honor it. This can cost you 10% or more in some places if you forget to ask. Great tip! Thanks!
Whenever I’ve asked for a box to be bought with my meal (so I can take half home), it’s been an inconvenience for the server (or so it seems) and I’ve had to ask more than once. Mildly annoying, to say the least. But a great idea. I tend to go for lunch rather than dinners, so it’s not an issue–I eat it all right there!
Eating lunch instead of dinner is a great idea and tip too! Thanks, Jeanne.
I do mystery shopping as a way to eat out and save money. I get a nice meal with a friend and for simply writing a report, I get my money back!!
Where do you find legitimate mystery shopping businesses? 🙂
If I really cannot help it and had to eat out a lot, for me I think having a spending plan or eating out budget for the month will help me save and not spend too much eating in restaurants. I would look around also for restaurants I like that would give discounts to regular customers.
Since I have a big family, we tend to look for restaurants that offer group meals or combo meals to save money. It is less expensive for us, than ordering separate menus for each one of us.
Or the other way is to choose restaurants that offers price which are normal for you 🙂 For example I am also often going out to eat, and for me it seems much better to feel relaxed and to order whatever you want than to think how much you will spend today 🙂
What about cash back credit cards? Do you have any good suggestions?
Here is the HUGE savings that no one will talk about….the elephant in the room….TIPPING…!!!! Totally avoid sit-down service restaurants in favour of buffets or other venues that to not require a ‘SERVER’ who requires to be ‘tipped’. There are PLENTY of excellent alternatives to sit-down service that do not require the extortion of a tip from you. Your savings as frequent diners will be giantic even in the short run…!
Good tips! One other strategy I use is to purchase restaurant gift cards at a discount warehouse club. There are a lot available at a 20% discount. When this is combined with a returns program then the savings can be significant!
Great tips Hank! One I would like to add using discounted gift cards. My wife have been doing that for a while. Only down side is we now feel like we are getting robbed if we use cash.
We Cook at home but Love to treat ourselves to Eating out, Late Lunch Deals is a True Buy!
Water is another Key too. Having Coffee/Dessert at home, yet at very HIGH End Restaurant’s that you won’t frequent often I will Order 3-4 Appetizer’s Most Chefs Must Do Dinner Menu to please the Masses. Most Chefs Admit they Use there Flare and originality on the Appetizers where they have the most freedom. We get to try more selections and keep the overall cost down pare it with a salad and your good to go!!!