We all eat to live, but many of us love to eat—especially at restaurants. There’s nothing like a good homecooked meal, but it somehow seems to taste better when you’re not the one doing the cooking. The downside? The price tag. Sure, going out to eat saves you from that pile of dirty dishes, but it doesn’t save you any money.
Here are some of our top tips and tricks that will help you save money at restaurants this year—without blowing your budget.
How to Save Money at Restaurants
1. Save half of your meal.
Before your food arrives, ask for a to-go box. When your meal gets to your table, go ahead and stash half of it in the box to enjoy later. And just like that—you got two meals for the price of one. Plus, you don’t have to worry about what to take for lunch tomorrow. Boom!
2. Use coupons.
Sign up for coupons and email alerts from your favorite restaurants. Yes, a cluttered inbox is annoying, but if you get $10 off, it’s totally worth all that email marketing. Pro tip: Create an email just for coupons! That way you won’t have to sort through it every single day.
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Consider this a small step forward as you plan your restaurant spending each month. Put your coupons in an envelope and carry it with you like cash. You’ll be glad you did.
3. Do a lunch date instead.
Lunch is awesome. Not only is it cheaper, but you can also usually get extras like a soup or salad with your meal for less than the price of a main dish at dinnertime. If you want to go out at night, opt for a less expensive alternative like ice cream or coffee.
4. Get the birthday discount!
Multiply this deal by however many people are in your family. If you already know where you want to go on your special day, sign up for their online birthday club now. Then on your big day, you can bask in all the perks. Happy birthday to you!
5. Skip the coffee, tea and soda.
Remember that you’re there for the food, not the Cherry Coke. Next time you go out, ask for a cup for water and you’ll knock roughly three bucks per person off your tab. After all, water is free.
6. Skip the appetizer.
If your restaurant of choice offers free bread or chips and salsa, you may not need an appetizer to leave satisfied. Enjoy a generous helping of bottomless bread or chips and put that extra $9 toward your main entrée. See, you’re saving money already and you just walked in the door!
7. Share a meal.
Portions are crazy big in America. If you haven’t tried splitting an entrée with someone, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you do. You’ll still be full if you share a dish, and if you need to, you could always order an extra side. Let’s be honest, you probably would have had leftovers anyway. And if you’re single or eating alone, try asking for a half portion.
8. Bring your own food.
Breweries that don’t serve food usually allow customers to bring their own. And restaurants that don’t serve alcohol often allow BYOB. Less markup, more yum.
9. Get it to go.
Instead of dining in, get your food to go and rent a movie for a cheap date. Tip the takeout person a few bucks rather than 20% of your tab, since they’re spending five minutes wrapping up your food instead of spending an hour filling drinks and getting you that unlimited salsa.
10. Order like a kid.
This one is good for your quick lunches—just be sure to respect any age limits the restaurant has (some don’t have any!). If you’re looking for something light to go, order from the kids’ menu. The portions are often large enough to fuel you for a light meal, and you can sometimes trade in the toy for a bigger size entrée (or an ice cream cone)—no shame.
11. Go on a Monday or Tuesday.
The first few days of the week are notoriously slow for restaurants. Because of this, they’ll usually offer specials to entice customers to fill their booths. Move your Saturday night hang to the middle of the week and you can eat a meal you already love at a better price. You’ll find $10 pizzas, cheap burger deals, all-you-can-eat wings, two-for-one specials and more!
12. Avoid major holidays.
Fixed-price menus are becoming super popular for major holidays. An entrée that would cost you only $15 on a regular day is suddenly lumped in to a three-course, $49-per-person meal. If you want to go out for Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day but you’re afraid of the sticker shock (and the crowd), try going out the day before or even the day after!
13. Save your lunch money.
Instead of shelling out $10 for a greasy lunch three times a week, bring dinner leftovers to work and put that money toward a quality meal with your special someone. It’ll make all those times you had to scarf down the contents of a paper bag worth it.
14. Avoid the sports bar.
Watch your sports at home, where the snacks are pre-purchased. If you go out, chances are you’ll end up watching TV and eating (and spending) mindlessly.
15. Kids eat free.
We still pay full price whether our little ones pick at their food or clean their plates. And when they eat one piece of broccoli from a meal that cost you $10, it’s hard to keep that smile on your face. But when the kids eat free? Well, that puts everyone’s mind at ease. Plenty of restaurants offer free (or nearly free) meals for kids under 12 on certain nights of the week. Your kiddos can also score freebies at some dining spots by showing off their A/B report card or sporting a team uniform after a game.
16. Hit up happy hour.
You’ve probably heard that appetizers are a waste of money, and they can be—unless you use this little trick. Grab dinner on the early side, and eat half-priced appetizers as your entrée. Just be sure to check ahead of time and see what time their happy hour prices start (every place is different). Best of all, if you order a sampler platter or a few appetizers to share with a group of friends, you’ll get to sample the full menu for a cheaper price and a shorter wait time. (#winning)
17. Prioritize outings based on your plans.
The calendar is your restaurant budget’s best friend—trust us. So, at the start of each week, take a look at what you’ve got going on. Do you have dinner plans with friends on Friday? Does it look like you’ll need to snag lunch out in the midst of a crazy Saturday? Eat at home the rest of the week, and you’ll be set! Or pack yourself a meal for Saturday lunch to make room for a Sunday date with your spouse. A little planning goes a long way.
18. Cut down on convenience buys.
Let’s be real, the biggest drain on our restaurant budget comes from quick and impulse buys. You know the type: easy drive-through orders, last-minute pizza deliveries, and the inevitable “I don’t feel like cooking” dinner at the local Mexican restaurant. Set yourself up for success by keeping quick and healthy snacks in your car, and stock your kitchen with some frozen pizzas.
19. Don’t skimp on tipping.
Sure, you want to save money on your final bill, but don’t get stingy and cut corners on the tip. If you’re going out to eat, you need to be prepared to tip—plain and simple. Find other ways to cut back on your food cost (like BOGO offers and coupons), but still be a good tipper. And if you don’t want to cough up the extra money for a tip, then opt for a restaurant that doesn’t have servers bringing you food (think Chipotle and places like that).
20. Always do a budget.
This is the month you’re finally going to say no to blowing the restaurant budget. That means you may not be able to swing by the coffee shop on your way to work, accept last-minute lunch plans with friends, and take the kids out for pizza after soccer practice. So, each month before the next month begins, sit down with your spouse and do a zero-based budget. Look at your month realistically and don’t forget to create a line item for eating at your favorite restaurants.
Save money at restaurants this month with EveryDollar. It will help you create your zero-based budget, track your spending, and hold you accountable when that mid-week taco craving hits.