For many of us, eating out is the main way we like to socialize with family and friends. However, if you’re trying to save money, dining out at a restaurant weekly (or monthly) can quickly take a dent out of your budget.
I often recommend preparing meals at home as a way to save money and eat healthy, but I understand that many of us simply hate cooking and rather eat out instead.
Here are 20 ways to save money when eating out:
1. Look for discounts online
Check for online coupons or web-only offers. Sometimes these deals can be found directly on the restaurant’s website or third-party websites.
Discounted gift certificates can also be found online for many popular restaurants. These are all great ways to save money when dining out. I like using Groupon to find deals on food and beverage.
Another way I like to save money when eating out is to use coupons from the Entertainment Book. I have been using the Entertainment Book for years to get discounts on food, shopping, city attractions and more. Many of the restaurant coupons are Buy 1, Get 1 Free so the book quickly pays for itself.
2. Order an appetizer as a meal
Appetizers and salads are often lower priced than entrées, and many restaurants serve up generous portions of starters. These can easily be eaten as a meal, which is a great way to save money.
If you’re dining out with friends or on a date, consider sharing a couple of appetizers instead of each ordering an entrée.
3. Drink and dine during happy hours
If you don’t mind eating dinner a little early, head over to your favorite eatery and take advantage of their happy hour specials.
These specials might include buy one, get one offers, half-price appetizers or discounted drinks. This allows you to still enjoying the experience of dining out while staying on budget.
4. Cut your entrée in half
Many restaurants serve up generous portions for main entrées, usually enough for two separate meals. To save money and prevent over-eating, you may want to consider taking half of your meal home.
You can enjoy your second portion for lunch or dinner the next day, which also saves you time by not having to make (or buy) another meal.
5. Avoid popular chain restaurants
While popular chain restaurants can sometimes offer special discounts, you may want to consider dining at an independent establishment. Many ethnic restaurants, for example, offer tasty meals at a lower price point than chains.
I usually enjoy my dining experience more at independent restaurants and find they provide more value than when I visit chain establishments.
6. Drink water as your beverage
Skip the overpriced soft drinks and choose to drink water instead. Not only is water free (if you order tap water), but it’s also healthier for you than sugary sodas or juices.
The money you save by choosing water could go towards paying for an appetizer instead.
7. Take advantage of lunch specials
Many restaurants offer daily lunch specials or smaller portions of their dinner entrees for a reduced price. Also, if you go for a late lunch, you’ll less likely be hungry for dinner.
I love taking advantage of lunch specials and often find they are a better value than going out for dinner.
8. Don’t feel obligated to tip more than necessary
Base your tips on service, and don’t feel pressured to leave 20% if you didn’t receive good service. Over-tipping can take a dent out of your dining budget, so think carefully about how much you’re paying for service.
9. Opt for take-away
Instead of paying for sit down service, consider getting take-away next time. Many restaurants offer a discount to guests who opt for take-away, which is a great way to save money.
This may also prevent you from being tempted to order extra items, such as dessert or drinks, that you could easily make at home.
10. Celebrate your birthday
Many restaurants have a birthday club (usually this means you have to sign-up with your email address ahead of time). When your birthday approaches, you’ll receive an email for a free meal, appetizer, or dessert.
Even if a restaurant doesn’t have a birthday club, try mentioning to your server that someone at your table is celebrating a birthday – you might get a free dessert or birthday drink.
Related: The best tea room in Edinburgh
11. Split a meal
Since the amount of food you get at many restaurants is more than you actually need, consider splitting a meal with a friend or date.
When you order an entrée, ask for an extra plate and divide the two meals once it arrives. There might be a nominal charge for the extra plate, however it’s still more affordable than ordering two separate entrées.
Another idea is for one person to order an entrée and the other person to order a small dish (such as a soup, salad or starter item) – then you can share both dishes.
12. Pay with a rewards credit card
By paying with a rewards or cash back credit card, your savings doesn’t have to stop after you pay the bill.
While some credit cards offer a flat-rate on cash back or reward points on everything you buy, some offer higher rates in specific categories, such as dining out, grocery shopping or gas.
13. Check reviews before you go
The last thing you want to happen when trying a new restaurant, is to end up receiving mediocre food or poor service.
Always check reviews before you go. Not only will this give you an idea of what to expect in terms of service, but it might give you hints on what the best dishes are to order (and which ones to skip).
Of course like all reviews, they’re subjective and a manner of opinion. However, it may introduce you to a new favourite eatery that you didn’t know about before.
14. Skip dessert
Unless the restaurant you’re eating at is famous for its dessert, a better option is to skip it and satisfy your tooth sweet at home.
Desserts at restaurants are often over-priced and not the focus of the dining establishment. You are better off picking up your favourite dessert at a bakery, or buying the ingredients to make it yourself at home.
15. Eat at ethnic restaurants
As I mentioned in point #5, eating at ethnic restaurants can have its advantages.
For example, the price point at my favorite Thai restaurant is lower than the price point at many popular chain establishments. Also, the food is often more consistent and provides a unique experience that can’t be found at a chain restaurant.
In addition, sometimes chain restaurants can focus more on table turnover instead of ensuring the guest has a positive dining experience (in terms of food and service).
The last thing you want to feel when you’re eating out is rushed, which can often happen at chain establishments.
Restaurants want to recover the cost of the wine bottle in the first glass. This is why guests are charged a premium for a glass (or bottle) or wine at a restaurant.
Instead, a better idea is to dine at a restaurant that offers BYOB (sometimes a small corkage fee might apply).
This is not only a great way to save money, but you don’t have to feel obligated to skip ordering a bottle of wine (due to the steep price), since you can bring your own.
17. Check for daily and weekly specials
Follow your favourite eateries on social media (Facebook, Twitter or Instagram) and be aware of their daily or weekly specials.
Sometimes restaurants offer a discount on drinks or meals on days that are less busy (such as Monday-Wednesday). However, daily and weekly specials could change, which is why it’s important to stay up to date by following your favourite restaurants on social media.
18. Save eating out for special dishes
One way to save money is to eat out less often. Instead, save eating out for special dishes only.
Rather than ordering a dish that you can easily make at home, choose something that is difficult to replicate yourself.
This provides more value for your money, and makes dining out feel special, rather than becoming an ordinary or every day experience.
19. Become a loyalty member
Sign up with your email address to become a loyalty member at your favourite restaurants. Just like joining the birthday club in point #10, loyalty members might receive exclusive promotions or discounts.
Sometimes restaurants offer a loyalty card, where members receive points or stamps. Once enough points (or stamps) are collected, you can redeem them for a discount or freebie on your next visit. This is another great way to save money when dining out.
20. Voice your opinion
If your meal was less than satisfactory or you received poor service, don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. This doesn’t mean you should be rude or start pointing fingers at your server, but you should calmly speak up about your dining experience.
Talk to your server or the restaurant manager and let them know exactly why were you either unhappy with your meal or the service. Being clear and calm will gain you more respect than being rude.
By voicing your opinion, you may receive a discount on your meal, a free dessert or an opportunity to visit again for a discount.
For example, my parents recently went to a popular Steakhouse to celebrate a special occasion. However, their steak was not cooked the way they had requested and felt that service was being rushed (when they just wanted to relax and enjoy their meal).
Instead of voicing their opinion at the restaurant, they waited until they got home and sent their feedback online, through the restaurant website.
The restaurant manager called them to follow up with their feedback and wanted to apologize for the poor food and service. They received a $75 gift certificate to compensate their poor dining experience.
Over to you — how do you save money when eating out?