How to Save Money When You Dine Out

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While shopping at the supermarket and cooking at home is the best way to keep your food costs low, we all know there are times when we just want (or need) to dine out. Whether it’s at a fast food joint or a nice restaurant (or someplace in between), the saving money while dining out part can be a real challenge. But it is possible. Here are some easy ways you can save money and yet still enjoy a good time out and away from your kitchen. When that need arises, think about these ways to save money when you dine out.

While cooking at home saves the most money, there are still times when you want or need to dine out. Check out these 12 ways to save money at a restaurant.

Coupons, Coupons, Coupons!

I always use a coupon whenever I want to dine out. This can be at a simple fast food spot like McDonalds or Wendy’s for a free drink or BOGO (buy one get one) on a burger which is perfect for sharing with my wife, or a discounted meal or item at even nicer restaurants.

Coupons are available online, in newspapers, in magazines, in weekly or monthly neighborhood “shoppers”, coupon mailers like Val-Pak or with something like the Entertainment.com membership or book (which has a fee, but has lots of dining discounts) that pays for itself after just one fine dining experience.

Another option is Restaurant.com where you can buy discounted gift cards for local restaurants or the new dining discount pass.

Great Loyalty Clubs and Email Offers

In fact, I get so many offers to dine for free or at a discount that sometimes it’s almost overwhelming. The key is to at least be aware of the offers before you head out to dine. I always check my coupon stash and even my emails because I belong (for free of course) to many restaurants’ loyalty clubs and am always receiving surprise discount offers. Unless I check them before I go, I would actually miss out on them.

If you are not sure about a discount offer or if the restaurant that you’d like to visit offers them, try this one: call them and ask about them on the phone! Shockingly, they want to tell you and get you to come in so they will tell you what the deals are and where to find them if you ask! Or don’t ask and err…don’t save.

My wife and I recently discovered when we were dining at a local restaurant/ice cream parlor that right there on our table was a sign encouraging us to sign up for their texts and instantly get 25% off anything we order. We went to our phones right then and there (free wifi of course) and signed up, then showed our discount to the server when the bill came. Yes, 25% off that night just for paying a little attention to the sign on the table. That’s a lesson even I was able to learn as it beat my 10% off coupon I had cut out of the local town newspaper.

Some chain restaurants and independent restaurants have loyalty cards which offer you free items, discounts, and promotions that include specials for your birthday and/or anniversary. We love getting those and use them every year.

Check the Back of Your Receipts

First of all, get a receipt and keep it for any money you spend because you want to track your expenses and double-check that you are on budget, right? Budgets apply even when you are out treating yourself to a meal and not just for paying your utilities and mortgage and car payments.

The best part of the receipt just may be looking it over at the bottom or flipping it over and looking on the back. The bottom or back of your receipt may have a discount or freebie for your next visit if you answer a few survey questions (online or by phone) about their service. It’s well worth the time and trouble to do it and besides the potential savings, you will have a chance to influence the company with your opinions of their food, service, and prices. In return, save on your very next meal.

“Kids Eat Free” and Kid’s Menus

Take advantage of restaurants which offer free kids dining with your adult meals, or even just kid’s menus which are lower in cost. Kids meals paid for at the regular high prices just don’t make any real sense. They may not want or enjoy those and they cost double or triple the cost of a discounted meal. Free, of course, is even better.

Senior Discounts

Ask about senior discounts like a percentage off your meal, or free coffee or tea. Some places even have a special senior menu. Almost every fast food and most others will offer some kind of senior discount or a special “senior” menu choice. I especially enjoy the IHOP senior menu which saves about 40% on several options when I take advantage of it.

Free Refills and Value Sizes

Most major fast food chains offer free refills on soft drinks. If so, always buy the smallest size drink so you can get free refills and save the cost of a larger drink. Also check to see if there is a “value menu”. Two smaller hamburgers will cost less, and give you more food, than one regular-sized one.

Buffets and Family Style Dining

Find a restaurant that offers buffet dining and you can have a variety of different foods at one price. In a family style restaurant, you can order things that can be shared rather than a portion served separately to each person. This gives everyone the opportunity to try tasty items without a la carte costs.

One of my favorite restaurants is Ruby Tuesday’s and I often take advantage of their “unlimited salad bar” that I make my meal. It’s a big value, more healthy than many entrée options, and I just overall enjoy the 50+ choices of items on the table.

Off Peak “Early Bird” or “Late Night” Dining

Many places will offer discounts on early dinners or snacks and late night dining, since that’s normally a quieter time for them.

If you like Italian food, try a deal that the Olive Garden is currently offering. They have early bird 3-5 pm special meals that also come with unlimited salad or soup and breadsticks and save about half off the normal dinner prices. Enjoy the peaceful quieter setting, too.

Also, many places will offer on off-days like Tuesdays or Wednesdays specials like “pasta night” or “burger night” where these items are discounted from the regular menu.

Ask for Half Portions or Share an Entrée

Most restaurants try to fill you up with large portions so it’s seen as a value. But, some restaurants are willing to serve you half portions for half price if you’re a light eater. You can try sharing an entrée with a spouse or friend (although there may be a small charge for sharing), but even if they’re not willing to serve a half portion, you can always take home the leftovers and use them for another meal or snack at home the next day. Ask for the “doggie bag”.

Enjoy a “Happy Hour”

Restaurants with bars often have “happy hour” and even if you don’t drink any alcohol, there are specials and reduced prices on appetizers. Fridays is one place where you can get 50% off in their bar area on appetizers and dine on them as your actual meal! Share some appetizers with a friend instead of ordering an entrée and save. They also offer loyalty discounts, so join and save every time you dine including free salsa & chips each time you go. And they send you all kinds of special discounts and coupons by email, too.

Have Your Dessert Elsewhere

Skip the overpriced dessert menu and go to an ice cream shop for a sundae or to your supermarket’s bakery for a treat. Better yet, make dessert at home. Think about it, two pieces of cheesecake in a good restaurant can set you back about $15 (at least) and you can get your own at the supermarket for less—and eat it more than just for tonight.

Be a Teetotaler

Skip the empty calories and high prices of alcoholic drinks when you dine out. Last time I checked, even during happy hour, we’re talking $3, $5 or even $8 for a drink and way more during regular hours! Most mid-range restaurants offer free refills on soft drinks. But for the most savings (not to mention the healthiest option), order water (with lemon if you like) for free. Drinks are a huge profit-maker for restaurants and saving that cost equals dollars in your pocket, without taking away from your meal enjoyment.

The Most Unusual Way to Save Money?

If you can believe this one: Papa John’s Pizza has been promoting a savings that even I am surprised about. It’s not for dining out, but it is for delivery. If and when the local Major League Baseball team hits a “Grand Slam Home Run”, the next day Papa John’s is offering a 30% discount on any pizza you order! Just check the results the day you order and save. Weird, huh?

Final Thoughts

I have just scratched the surface on these ways to save. In fact, in your area you might find even more ways than I have listed and if so, then please share them with me.

I think it’s perfectly alright to enjoy a meal out. It doesn’t hurt to splurge once in a while, but if you want to stick to your budget when you dine out and save your money for bigger and better things, then try some of these tips. So now it’s your turn: what’s your favorite way to save when you’re dining out?

2 Comments

  1. Louise

    Great overview of ideas!
    I have one to add because I saw it just yesterday, though it is also a basic frugal move: Check your receipt.
    I met a friend at a mall food court and he ordered from a franchised fast food place, looking at the menu posted overhead and picking something listed at $4.79. It rang up at $4.99. He politely pointed it out and the manager was very appreciative. The manager said their cash registers are loaded by corporate (or some such absent entity), and the staff on sight doesn’t necessarily know or notice the differences.
    Customers who are frustrated by poor service or price issues are not likely to return, as that manager clearly recognized. On the other hand, something good that emphasizes the deal in your mind will get you coming back. Grand openings, or pre-grand openings, are often good sources for deals, as are attention-getting promotions, (wear a costume for Halloween, or the Papa John’s Pizza bargain you mentioned–Taco Bell has done similar sports-related deals), or appreciation days for teachers, first-responders, military people, etc. Or benefit from National Donut Day, Hot Dog Day, etc.

    1. Thanks for mentioning about checking your receipt. Quite often there can be mistakes, especially when you use a coupon. I have found that they sometimes don’t give us credit for the coupon and I have to remind them. You also mentioned about new restaurants and promotions, and that’s a great point. There’s always incentives to try a new place, and you may find just the kind of place you want to frequent because of it. Thanks for your tips, Louise.

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