This should not be news to you: dining out at restaurants is expensive.
I’ve determined that the average cost of restaurant meals when dining out is about 3X what I pay for the ingredients to make it at home.
My meals at home range from about $3 per serving to $5 per serving (if you haven’t calculated this, do it today, it will be one of the best personal finance exercises you can do). When I dine out, $9-15 per person tends to be the average if I haven’t secured some sort of special or discount. And I like to think that the meals cooked at home are at least the quality that I get at restaurants. And healthier too. Plus, I’m mostly vegetarian, and it can be really difficult to find restaurants with a good cheap vegetarian selection.
For those reasons, I tend to shy away from eating out unless it is a special occasion or I have no other alternative. When I do, I try to cut my costs as much as possible. Here are 10 ways I’ve been able to or have seen others save money at restaurants. Share your additional saving ideas in the comments!
1. Share your Meal
This strategy is much easier to implement with restaurants that you frequent often. I have a HUGE appetite and taking a gamble on sharing a meal that I haven’t ordered before usually only leaves me hungry and sad. When I do find a restaurant or a particular dish with huge portions, I will share it with my wife. And if that dish isn’t enough for both us, I will order an appetizer vs. an entire second meal.
Additionally, I always let the waitstaff know that I will be splitting. This usually results in bigger than normal portions (they don’t want to bring you half a plate of food). Note that some restaurants charge a nominal fee for this, but it usually is worth it with the added portion sizes.
2. Buy Discounted Restaurant Gift Cards
One of my favorite restaurants recently sent me an offer that allowed me to purchase $100 in gift cards and get $20 in gift cards for free. I’ll take that offer!
Gift cards are as good as cash and can be combined with other promotions or specials, making them one of the best ways to cut the cost of eating dining out. Consider them a gift to yourself. Restaurants love them because it guarantees revenue with the sale.
See if your local or chain favorites offer discounted gift cards.
3. Skip Drinks of Any Kind – Or at Least Take Advantage of Happy Hour
Beer and wine markups at restaurants are ridiculous. I never order wine at a restaurant. If I order a beer, it’s usually for a special occasion or happy hour. If you must have a drink find out when happy hour is or just wait until you get home to have a drink.
Soda is a ridiculous waste of money, is not good for your health, and it is horrible for your teeth. The markups on it is worse than alcohol. It’s not worth $2.50. It’s not even worth $0.01. Perhaps it is time to open your palate beyond a caffeine and sugar or cancer-causing sweetener binge?
Water and lemon does wonders. And it’s free. That is, if you get tap water vs. bottled water (FYI: it’s the same stuff).
4. Pay with Credit Cards that have Restaurant Cash Back Rewards
It may not amount to much, but 2-5% is nothing to scoff at. If you are a frequent diner or just looking for a good cash back card that offers good restaurant incentives.
5. Restaurant Coupons Aplenty
I’ve found that some of my favorite quick and fast restaurants that I eat at when I’m in a pinch for time – Quiznos & Subway – often have coupons on their website or they send them out in weekly fliers. If you frequent a restaurant, check out their website for coupons with no strings attached. Retailmenot is a great site for finding special coupon offers if you can’t find anything directly on the restaurant’s website.
6. Restaurant Loyalty Cards
A number of national chain and a surprising number of stand-alone restaurants offer loyalty cards. Some are very outspoken about them, others you will have to ask. Much like credit cards, these rewards programs really only pay off if you don’t use them as a reason to increase the quantity of meals out. If you can get one meal free after buying 10, you’ve effectively cut your cost per meal by 10%.
Much like gift cards, loyalty cards are great because they can be combined with other specials or discounts.
7. Free Birthday Meals
If there is ever a day you SHOULD go out, it’s your birthday. It’s hard NOT to find a free meal or two. Here are a number of free birthday meals and drink offers you can take advantage of at national chains. I always call around to my favorite restaurants or newer restaurants I have been itching to try to see what their birthday special is.
8. Restaurant.com Vouchers
Restaurant.com offers discounted restaurant vouchers. I wouldn’t exactly call them gift cards, because they usually have a stipulation that you must spend a minimum dollar amount at the restaurant – i.e. you must spend $35 in order to use a $25 certificate (resulting in you paying $10 for the meal).
What I like about Restaurant.com is the selection of restaurants in their program is pretty good and if you go on a trip you can buy vouchers ahead of time.
Hold out for their 80%-off promotions, which they frequently run. It’s pretty easy to get 60-80% off your total bill if you buy strategically with Restaurant.com.
9. Restaurant Email List Offers
Just about every national chain these days is offering up some sort of free meal or menu item if you sign up for their email list. Even your favorite local restaurants will do this occasionally (if they are good at marketing). Many will offer periodic coupons or discounts through the email list on top of the initial sign-up incentive.
You may have to weed through the email spam, but it usually pays off.
10. Daily/Weekly Special Deals
I found out through an email list that one of my favorite restaurants was offering a buy one, get one free offer on Sunday nights in the month of November. If paired with a discounted gift card, I’d be paying about 40% of what I normally would to eat there, making it comparable to the price of eating at home.
If you are going out on the town, call around to a few of your favorite restaurants to see what their daily/weekly specials may be.
What other cheap eating out tips do you have?
Lots of great tips here. When you start to think about all the possibilities out there to combine some of these tactics, it can be as good or better cost wise vs. eating at home.
I definitely skip the booze or go during happy hour if I must, the other tips are great too! I donate blood and the United Blood Services in my area teams up with local businesses (often restuarants) to offer some sort of reward for donors. It’s not the only reason I donate, but it’s nice to be able to use their offers to “treat” myself to eating out without spending too much (if any) money! For work lunches, I also take advantage of BOGO coupons, even if it’s just me, I can save the get one free one and have a second meal later.
Really great tips! I really need to check the restaurant websites more before going out for a meal. Definitely ordering water is the best thing to do at a restaurant anymore. Tea is high too! Dining out is hard anymore but you have given excellent tips on how to save.
These are some really great tips, one other way to save on restaurants (not just your favs) is by joining mailing lists on websites like livingsocial.com. With these kinds of email alerts, you can make sure you take advantage not only of great deals at places to eat, but places to do fun things as well.
Also if there are restaurants you really love to go to, why not try eating there during an odd time like mid-afternoon where most places will offer a smaller portion, or half-size meals that cost much less for the food you like. You may not have any leftovers to take home, but its not as fun as eating it at the actual place anyway.
If your someone who likes to split meals with a friend or significant other, a good idea is for one to order something more pricey that will be the bulk of your meal, while the other can order a different entre or salad that cost’s less. Now thats a smart way to keep everyone happy at a discounted rate.
My wife & I already do tips 1-7,9.
We each always order a different entree, eat half and then share the other portion so we get to taste 2 different meals.
I already do #3 (though Hubby likes his iced tea), 5, 6 (at work), 9, and 10.
I tried #8 once. The restaurant didn’t accept my voucher. Apparently, they were having a dispute with Restaurant.com. I looked around online and found that it’s a pretty common situation. I got a credit for another voucher, but since Restaurant.com only serves 5 restaurants in my area (Burlington, VT), I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to use it. I’ve had much better luck with Living Social.