We all eat to live, but many of us live to eat—especially at restaurants. Though there’s almost nothing like a good homecooked meal, somehow food 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—especially with inflation making everything more expensive.
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 address just for coupons! That way, you won’t have to sort through your emails every single day.
3. Do a lunch date instead.
Lunch out 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.
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—or your current money goal! 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 get full, and if you need to, you can always order an extra side.
8. Learn coffee shop hacks.
Okay, this isn’t a restaurant, exactly, but if you’re spending a lot of money grabbing coffee in a drive-through each month, learn ways to cut back on that bill.
We’re talking about splitting the biggest size with a friend (which is way more ounces and often just $1 extra), ordering through the app to score rewards points, and—to be blunt—cutting back and becoming your own barista. At least some of the time!
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 around 10% rather than 20% of your tab, since they’re spending about five minutes wrapping up your food instead of an hour filling drinks and getting you that unlimited salsa.
10. Order like a kid.
Consider ordering from the kids menu—just be sure to respect any age limits the restaurant has (some don’t have any!). The portions are often large enough to fuel you for a light meal, and you can sometimes trade in the toy for a bigger entrée. Or an ice cream cone. (No shame here.)
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 start 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 after!
13. Save your lunch money.
Instead of shelling out $10 for a greasy lunch five times a week, make some budget-friendly dinners and bring leftovers to work. Then, put that money toward a quality meal out with your special someone. This way, you’re still getting to eat out, but you’re just being more intentional about your restaurant budget line.
14. Avoid the sports bar.
Watch your sports at home, where the snacks are pre-purchased for the occasion (from your favorite wings place or from a bulk warehouse store). If you go out, chances are, you’ll end up watching TV and eating (and spending) mindlessly.
15. Kids eat free.
You’ve got to pay full price for your kids to eat at a restaurant, whether or not they actually eat anything on their plate. And when they pick at just one slice of pizza from a meal that cost you $10, it’s hard to keep that smile on your face.
Try our free Meal Planner to save money on groceries!
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.
And if they don’t eat any of their dinner tonight, pack it up for their lunch tomorrow. Goodbye, stress. Goodbye, waste. Hello, savings.
16. Hit up happy hour.
Okay, earlier we said to skip the appetizers. And we stick by that money-saving tip—unless you use this little trick. Grab dinner on the early side and eat half-priced appetizers as your entrée. (Yep, really.)
Just be sure to check ahead and see what time 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? Meal plan and 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 those quick 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 stocking 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. Just get desserts.
If you love going out but want to spend less doing it, eat at home and go out just for dessert (and maybe a coffee). You can get that restaurant atmosphere with a smaller bill. It’s a win for your budget and your love of fun.
21. 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 every day on your way to work, accept last-minute lunch plans with friends, and take the kids out for pizza after soccer practice.
But that’s okay! You’re still the one in charge of your money. You’re still the one deciding to tighten up some here and there. And you’re still enjoying that restaurant life, sometimes.
The biggest tip we have for restaurant savings is this: budget. Each month before the next month begins, sit down with your spouse or accountability partner and make a zero-based budget. Look at your month realistically and don’t forget to create a line item for everything—including eating at your favorite restaurants.
And guess what? If you use an on-the-go budgeting tool like EveryDollar, you can set up a zero-based budget and keep on top of your spending with ease.
Hey, with EveryDollar and all these tips, you can find the balance you need with your food spending so you can start saving more.