Feb 12 2009

15 ideas for saving money at restaurants

Recently, a writer interviewed me about ways to save when going out to eat. I thought I’d share some of the things we discussed.

First, when I go to a restaurant, I generally have one of two goals: To have a dining-out experience, or to get filled up.

If I just want to get filled up, it’s usually because I didn’t eat enough before leaving home, and I’m out and about and hungry. I get all sorts of cranky when I’m hungry, so eating is essential. When I’m out and hungry (and too far from home), I’ll typically swing by a drive-thru and hit up the dollar menu. A baked potato or a cup of chili from Wendy’s will usually satisfy me, and it’s cheap enough.

I could save some money if I made sure to eat enough before venturing out, or if I packed some snacks to hold me over!

Other times, I go out to eat with the sole intention of having a nice dining-out experience. Going to a restaurant is intentional; not just a whim of my belly.

It’s nice to get waited on, not have to cook, and to get something different than I’d prepare at home.

We can go to a restaurant and get a lot of food, but sometimes, it’s just as fun to order appetizers or dessert only. You still get the enjoyment of going out to eat — but with less food, your bill is also less (and you’re probably healthier for it!).

Here’s some ideas for saving money:

  • Go out for coffee and dessert, or appetizers only instead of ordering an entree each.
  • If you’re hungrier than that, order one entree and split it, and share an appetizer.
  • Go out for breakfast or lunch, where menu items are typically cheaper than dinner fare.
  • Order water instead of a soft drink.
  • Get discounted gift certificates from restaurant.com.
  • Visit the restaurant’s web site to find coupons. You might need to sign up for their e-mail loyalty program, but if you get coupons for free dessert or $5 off your order, it’s worth it!
  • If you have an Entertainment Book for your area, you might be able to find some valuable coupons inside.
  • Use gift cards to fund your purchases. I like to earn gift cards from MyPoints.com and my debit card rewards program.
  • Order the “daily special” if it’s a bargain.
  • Don’t forget a doggie bag!
  • Budget for eating out. Once you’ve spent your weekly or monthly allotment, you’re done.
  • Some restaurants have promotions where your children can eat for free. Or, if your kids aren’t too picky, maybe you can share some of your meal with them.
  • Celebrating a birthday? You won’t want to miss all the freebies you can get!
  • Here’s a promo that I saw thanks to a MyPoints e-mail: Buy one entree at TGIFridays, get one free with coupon.
  • Look at your receipts. Places like Arby’s and Wendy’s have deals where if you take a phone survey within a few days after your visit, you can get a freebie on your next visit.

One last thing: Always always tip at least 20 percent. If your bill is extremely low thanks to freebies or coupons, tip more. If you can’t afford to leave a generous tip, you can’t afford to eat out.

What else can you add to the list?



14 Responses to “15 ideas for saving money at restaurants”

  1. Those are all great ideas! I’m going to click on a few of those links for some great discounts. We’ve been living in temporary lodging for awhile because we’re in the middle of a move, which means more eating out than usual, even though we have a small kitchen and groceries because the days are packed with all we need to do to settle into our new lives.

    Jennifer @ Money Saver 101’s last blog post..5 Ideas for a Budget Friendly, Romantic Valentine’s Day

  2. I think you hit all my favorite tips… my #1 is giving my daughter part of my meal. At three years old, the chances of her finishing anything I give her are extremely low, so it works out so much better that way!

  3. Great list! My husband and I actually started going out for lunch instead of dinner. It costs much less. And instead of getting dessert at the restaurant, we go to the local ice cream shop if we want something. It’s much less expensive.

    Miranda’s last blog post..Forget Economic Stimulus: Get Your Own Financial House in Order

  4. Thanks for mentioning a 20% tip!
    There are some people (my husband and myself) who rely on tips for things like paying mortgage and feeding our children.
    You kind of touched on this, but if you have a coupon or something like that, PLEASE tip for what the total would have been. It’s not the server’s fault you had a coupon, and they did just as much work as if you hadn’t.
    Ok. Thanks Kacie. i get passionate about this:)
    Oh and i just read your other blog: glad to see you’re feeling human again! 0 kids to 1 kid IS a huge adjustment. You are doing really well!

    jessica @pianomomsicle’s last blog post..PPD

  5. Another idea, which probably won’t save you much money in the short-term but could make a difference if done over a lifetime. Squeeze free lemon into your water when you can. It’s a source of a few calories and a free shot of vitamin C.

  6. Since so many of the sit down restaurants serve rolls or bread and gigantic salads with dinner; we fill up on salad and rolls, and just eat some of the main course. We take our doggie bag (usually with about half or more of our dinner), add some rice or pasta and get to have a second complete meal. We get the full dine-out experience and a second meal with little to no cooking at home. The initial outlay is the same but it’s like getting 2-for-1!

  7. We have shared entrees for a long time and are very familiar with the $1.00 menus in various places but I hadn’t thought about going to the store’s website for coupons first. Makes sense. I bet they can be paired with a gift certificate to save even more.

    I also hadn’t considered tipping on the before coupon price. Good stuff everyone.

    Gandree’s last blog post..Cheap Living – Dieting on a Budget

  8. I also beg you to remember to tip well. The other thing is when you have a gift card, you should tip on the Entire bill, not just what you pay after the gift card and coupons.

  9. Hello Kacie,

    I agree with you on the generous tip! If we can’t tip well, we should’nt be dining out.

  10. Another idea is to find a nice restaurant that shares their happy hour menu with the main dining rooms. We have a lovely little restaurant down the road with a solid happy hour menu and spend $10 instead of $30 on food when we eat there during the 3:00 – 6:00 hour.

    Rachel’s last blog post..Proverbs 1:19…Ill-Gotten Gain

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Hey! I'm Kacie, wife to Shane and mother to Jonathan (7), Vivienne (5) and Amelia (2) . I write about my family's finance: how we save money, improve our spending, and plan for the future.

I hope I can inspire and encourage you to improve your situation. See disclosure.

I'm adopting a much slower-paced posting schedule, and treating this as a hobby blog now.

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