Eating out is a great way to celebrate a special occasion, get together with old friends, go on a date or just for a change of pace. However, eating out can get expensive very fast.
Naturally, one of the best way to save money at restaurants is to avoid them. Cooking at home is usually the cheapest way to eat. Second, many people consider restaurant dining as a time to pamper themselves - and don't want to skimp.
Still, we try to order the less expensive entrees on the menu to cut costs. Unfortunately, while entrees may not look expensive, once you've added drinks, appetizers, desserts and a tip, you could be looking at a hefty bill.
Here are 16 strategies to save money and still eat a satisfying meal.
1. Set a Budget
By setting a budget before you get to the restaurant, you face the decision of, "Can I afford to order this?" You can focus on those portions of the menu that fit within your budget, so you won't spend more than you really should.
2. Eat During Off Hours
Happy hour isn't just for drinks. Many restaurants offer discounted appetizers and lower-priced meals before or after their busiest hours. Call ahead and ask about these specials. Also consider eating lunch out instead of dinner. You often can order the same meal for half or a third of the dinner price.
3. Make a Meal of Appetizers
Meals created from many small dishes are called tapas in Spain and dim sum in China. Here we call them appetizers and combining several of these smaller portions can provide enough food for a meal while offering variety. Order a few to share and the total bill will be about half the price.
4. Share a Plate
Many restaurants offer large enough portions for you to get two satisfying meals out of one.
5. Invite a Friend
Many restaurants offer two-for-one deals or two meals at a discount for ordering off a set menu. These often include an appetizer and dessert as well. Look for coupons with two-fer and savings on a second order.
6. Take Half Home
Today's portions are large enough to make one meal into two, so box the leftovers for lunch the next day. You'll cut both your bill and calories in half.
7. Watch What You Drink
The biggest restaurant mark-up is an alcoholic beverage, but soda, tea and coffee aren't far behind. Instead, substitute water with a lemon.
8. Get it To-Go
Most restaurants offer to-go services, eliminating spending money on drinks or a tip. You can enjoy restaurant food in the comfort of your own home or make it an outing by planning a picnic.
9. Invest in an Entertainment Book
Many high school sports teams and clubs raise funds by selling entertainment books and discount cards. They vary in price, but can easily pay for themselves. Plus, you'll contribute to a good cause. Make sure, however, that the book you purchase includes restaurants you're likely to patronize.
10. Sign Up for Email Lists
It may be annoying when servers ask you to sign up for a restaurant's email or newsletter list, but it's a great way to get coupons and information about specials.
11. Become a "Secret Shopper"
Some restaurants use secret shoppers to evaluate their employees and food. All the shopper has to do is eat at the restaurant and report on their experience. At least one free meal is provided, if not the whole bill. Ask the restaurant's general manager for more details.
12. Use Reward Points
Your credit-card company may offer reward points redeemable for restaurant gift cards.
12. Buy Discount Gift Cards
GiftCardGranny.com lists a wide variety of discount restaurant gift cards. For example, you can buy a $30 gift card for only $15.
13. Kids Eat Free
If you have younger children, look for restaurants that offer "kids night" discounts but you'll usually be required to purchase at least one adult meal.
14. Order From the Discount Menu
Restaurants have a kids menu and maybe even a seniors menu. Ask if you can order off of them, even if the restaurant policy says "12 and under" or "65 and older". Explain to your server you're looking for a smaller portion.c
15. Senior Discounts
Seniors often are eligible for discounts and promotions by showing ID with their birthdate. Some restaurants offer these discounts on specific nights. Call around or surf your favorite restaurant's Web sites for more information.
16. Use Coupons
Special deals are everywhere these days as restaurants try to lure customers. Restaurant coupons are one of the most popular and easy to use promotional strategies. Tell the server you're using a restaurant coupon before you order and make sure the coupon will apply to your selections.