Visiting restaurants is a great way to celebrate special occasions, get together with friends, enjoy dates or just enjoy food you don't have to cook. However, eating out can get expensive very quickly. The United States Census Bureau estimated Americans spent over $54 billion on dining out in 2016. That is way over the average spent on groceries, which was $52 billion.
Naturally, one of the best ways to save money at restaurants is to avoid them! Cooking at home is usually the cheapest way to eat, yet many people prefer takeout to taking the time to cook a proper meal.
Still, even when we try to order the less expensive entrees on the menu to cut costs, the bill can add up. Once you've added drinks, appetizers, desserts and a tip, you could be looking at a hefty bill that costs more than a week's worth of groceries.
With a little practice and self-discipline, however, you can still treat yo' self without overindulging your bank account. Here are 17 strategies to save money and still enjoy dining out.
1. Set a Budget. Setting a budget and only bringing that amount in cash will keep you from overspending during your next restaurant visit. When you know you only have a certain amount to spend, you'll choose your dishes more wisely.
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, or visit restaurant websites or social media pages for more information. Also consider eating lunch instead of dinner; you can often order the same meal for one-half or one-third of the dinner price, with portions being only slightly smaller (if at all).
3. Make a Meal of Appetizers. Ever found yourself saying you could make an entire meal out of appetizers? Do it! Several of these smaller-portion dishes 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. Order during happy hour and you'll really be saving!
4. Share a Plate. In a world of ever-increasing food sizes, it's rare you don't get more than enough food at a restaurant. Most places offer large enough portions for you to get two meals out of one. (That is if you are willing to sacrifice having leftovers for yourself!) Do note that some fancier restaurants may have a split-plate charge, but in general sharing is a great way to save money.
5. Invite a Friend. Lots of eateries 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 a two-fer and savings on a second order. You can also split the total bill with friends, making it way more affordable.
6. Take Half Home. If you read #4 and decided you don't want to share your leftovers, make another meal out of them. Instead of gorging yourself into an unpleasant state in one sitting, box half of your meal for lunch the next day. You'll cut both your bill and calories in half.
7. Get it To-Go. Most restaurants offer to-go services, eliminating spending money on drinks or a tip. You can then enjoy restaurant food in the comfort of your own home, or make it an outing by planning a picnic. Some restaurants even let you order online and offer promo codes for take-out orders.
8. 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 in the coupons they offer. Plus, you'll contribute to a good cause. Make sure, however, that the book you purchase includes restaurants you'll actually go to.
9. Watch What You Drink. The biggest restaurant mark-up is alcoholic beverages, but soda, tea and coffee aren't far behind. Instead, substitute water with a lemon. If you simply must have a soft drink, be sure to check for meal deals that include a drink, or share a beverage with your significant other or friend.
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. Sometimes you can even take a survey at the end of your meal and get rewarded in free food or a coupon for next time.
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. Check out BestMark.com for mystery shopping opportunities in your area.
12. Use Reward Points. Your credit card company may offer reward points redeemable for restaurant gift cards. If you pay for your dining out on a credit card often, you'll be racking up more points which will later pay off in a free meal out.
13. Buy Discount Gift Cards. You can purchase a wide variety of discount restaurant gift cards on secondary gift card sites like Gift Card Granny. For example, you can often find gift cards 30-50% off from restaurants like TGI Fridays , Buffalo Wild Wings and Panera Bread.
14. Kids Eat Free! If you have younger children, look for restaurants that offer "kids night" discounts. Take note that most of the time you'll be required to purchase at least one adult meal to receive the free kids meal.
15. Order From the Discount Menu. Most restaurants have a kids menu and 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 portions or meals for less.
16. Take the Special. Most diners and sit-down restaurants offer daily specials for a lower price. If you're not a picky eater, this can be a great way to get an affordable meal that usually includes sides and sometimes even a drink. If you don't see a specials board, ask your server.
17. Use Coupons. Special deals are everywhere these days as restaurants try to lure customers. Restaurant coupons are one of the most popular promotional strategies because everyone likes to eat! Tell the server you're using a restaurant coupon before you order to make sure the coupon will apply to your selections, and don't forget to tip based on the original cost of the meal. Your meal may be discounted, but your service is not!