Food is the best. If I had to make a list of all of the things in the world that are the best, food would be right at the top. I like to cook, but I also enjoy dining out from time to time. Dining out too often can get expensive, though. Which is why I’ve come up with the Ultimate Money Saving Guide to Dining Out™. Feast your eyes on these 13 dining out tips and then go feast at a restaurant with your friends and family without breaking your wallet.
The Ultimate Money Saving Guide to Dining Out™ in 13 simple tips:
1. Deals, Deals, DEALS!
There are a TON of great deals sites that can help you save money when you’re dining out. Here’s a quick rundown of a few of my favorites:
Yelp Deals – Yelp is not only a great way to find out more about your favorite restaurants (like if they accept credit cards or have outdoor seating), but they have been running “deals” on their site for over a year. Almost any business owner can create and upload a deal, so check out your restaurant on yelp to see if they have a deal available, or search for “deals” near your area in the search bar at the top of the site.
Groupon Now – You’ve probably heard of Groupon – the daily deal site that negotiates huge discounts (usually 50-90% off) with popular businesses. But one drawback of this well-loved site was that you had to wait until a deal you liked became available. That’s no longer an issue with Groupon Now. Groupon Now is a new way to find local deals that you can use immediately. And they’ve made it easy by organizing their deals by categories. Before you choose where you’re going to eat, check out the “Eat Something” category to see if there’s a deal nearby.
Restaurant.com – Restaurant.com is a great site that offers discounted gift certificates to a variety of restaurants. Here’s the trick to nabbing the best deal: sign up for their email list and wait until they offer the 90% off coupons. They usually do this once or twice a year. When this sale hits, you’re able to pick up a $25 gift card for $1 (regularly priced at $10)! Just remember to read the fine print. A lot of these deals have a minimum amount you have to spend in order to use the certificate.
2. Sign up for rewards sites.
iDine is a site I just found out about on twitter. It’s a pretty cool concept. Sign up for an account and add your debit/credit cards to their secure site. They track the money you spend at restaurants and give you reward points for the money you spend at their partner restaurants. You get more points if you write a review. Your points can be cashed in for a gift card that you can use anywhere American Express cards are accepted. While you’re not getting a discount immediately, you’ll be rewarded for the money you’d normally be spending.
3. Free stuff on your birthday!
What’s cheaper than free? Not much. On your birthday you can get a ton of free stuff at restaurants. A lot of people choose dining out as a way to celebrate their entrance into this world, so why not capitalize on all the free things you can eat? Here’s a pretty good list birthday freebies. Get ready to blow out the candles on your free IHOP stack of pancakes!
4. Timing is everything.
There are other days aside from your birthday that allow you to capitalize on discounted meals. Many large cities offer restaurant weeks, which allow you to sample a fixed menu from a fancy restaurant at a discounted price. You could also consider trying a more expensive restaurant at lunchtime when they usually offer the same great food at a lower price. One of my favorite pubs in Detroit, Foran’s Grand Trunk, offers monthly beer dinners, where a local chef prepares a 5-course meal. Each course is paired with a Michigan beer and everything (including tax & beverages) is included in one fixed price.
5. Prepare your inbox.
To stay informed about the latest events, deals and specials happening at your favorite restaurants, join their mailing lists! If they don’t have a website mailing list, ask at the restaurant if you can sign up with the wait staff. Restaurants with mailing lists often send out deals and specials to try to entice their fans to come back.
6. Order wisely.
If you don’t come to the table with a deal in hand, you’re going to have to order wisely. That means:
- Avoid a beverage – Water is free, nutritious and delicious!
- Split a meal.The average portion size at restaurants has been growing. There’s usually enough for two (or more) to share.
- Skip the kid’s meal. That is, if your kids are too young or won’t eat it. Try bringing some food they like instead.
- Don’t order things that don’t reheat well. That bone marrow dish is not going to fare well in the microwave. Think about what the food will be like the next day and order the dish that will make the best lunch tomorrow.
- Skip dessert. Avoid it if you can and hit up an ice cream shop on the way home. Bakeries and other dessert shops are likely to be cheaper than the restaurant.
- No booze. A bottle of wine is usually priced at least two times higher than its retail price. Ouch! Pick up a bottle on the way home and have a nightcap instead.
7. If you must have booze…
If you ask me, certain meals just aren’t complete without a glass of red wine. And boozing it up is one of the hard earned benefits of adulthood, so if you have to drink and want to keep your bill on the cheap side, try to have only one glass of wine. If you know you, or your party, is going to have more – buy the bottle. It usually ends up being cheaper per glass that way. Also, look for BYOB restaurants. These types of restaurants allow you to bring in your own alcohol (sometimes with a small corking fee), which can tremendously reduce the bill.
8. Get that doggy bag.
Don’t worry about impressing people with what you order or the fact that you are going to take it home. If your friends or business associates judge you for getting a to-go box, that’s their problem. Frugality is no longer a mark of shame. It’s a badge of honor!
9. They put that stuff on the table for a reason.
The chips, the bread, all the delicious carb-y goodness that is on the table – put it in your trap. Eat it up.
Okay, look. I know carbs are not great and if you have the ability to avoid them, I envy you. But if you eat some of those snacks, you probably could get away with ordering a smaller portion and still end up feeling full by the end of your meal.
10. A full-blown entrée is not your only option.
Be sure to read the entire menu. Appetizers can be a great option for dinner that can cost less than an entree. They are designed to feed 3-4 so you know the portion will be huge (meaning you can take some home as leftovers – see tip #8!). Additionally, appetizers tend to contain a lot of meal-like options, like quesadillas, or you can get a sampler and try a bunch of different things.
11. Kids eat free.
Oh those little, expensive bundles of joy that people call their “children.” Going out to eat with them can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be if you go to places where they eat free! Kids Meal Deals is a site where you can find kids meal deals and kids eat free restaurants in your area.
12. Don’t Tip!
Just kidding…kind of! If you sit down at a restaurant and are served by a server, you should always tip, and I think you should tip 20%. Waiters and waitresses work hard for the money, so don’t be stingy with a tip.
BUT – if you order takeout, you don’t have to tip (as much, some people still recommend tipping at least 10% and I try to do that, especially if I order takeout a lot from a particular place). Or if you eat at places like Panera, Au Bon Pain, Noodles & Company, Corner Bakery Café, Chipotle, etc. you can skip the tip without skimping on quality, healthy meals.
13. Double check your bill.
Always make sure that you look at your bill carefully before you hand over your cash. It’s easy to just slip your credit card into that little plastic pocket without a second thought, but take an extra second and make sure you aren’t being overcharged. Restaurants are busy places and things can easily get unintentionally mistaken.
Wow. That’s a lot of tips. But would you expect anything less from the Ultimate Money Saving Guide to Dining Out™? If you did expect anything less, you probably shouldn’t have. Don’t worry. Your expectations will be more accurate for the next Ultimate Money Saving Guide. Until then, go eat a dinner and don’t spend a lot of money!