friends eating at a pubDining out is very convenient. There’s no cooking, no clean up. Even if the food is average, it still tastes great because we don’t have to do anything beyond order, eat and pay.

It can get expensive, though. I’m a meat and potatoes man, so when I think dining out, one of the first places I think of is the steakhouse. I compared prices at a national steakhouse chain with prices at a national discount grocery club. Here’s what I found:

One 8 oz. sirloin at the restaurant is $14.79. The same piece of meat at the store costs $8.50. Now, this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison because the restaurant meal includes a potato and your pick of one of several sides. It also doesn’t include the server’s tip.

The cost of restaurant dining keeps going up. According to the latest consumer price index (CPI) data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, eating outside the home will cost you 2.7% more than August of last year.

All that said, let’s be real for a second. We’re going to keep going out. It’s just easier sometimes not to have to worry about preparing a meal. Since this is a given, let’s take a look at how we can dine out without breaking the bank.

Lunch Is Often Cheaper than Dinner

If you want to save money, lunch is often cheaper to buy than dinner. This is the case for a couple of reasons.

For starters, lunch is usually the lighter shift. Because of this, restaurants will often have a cheaper lunch menu aimed at bringing diners in. There’s a lunch rush, but it’ll normally still be easier to get a table at lunch than dinner.

There’s another reason restaurants can afford to charge less for lunch than dinner. In the U.S., the big meal is in the evening. This means we tend to eat smaller portions during the day, and so the portions a restaurant serves are smaller.

Snack Beforehand

Almost every day, I eat what most people would call an extremely light lunch. My team pokes fun at my habit of eating a power bar and a juice pouch. It’s portable and extremely convenient.

However, by the time I eat dinner around 6 or 6:30, I’m extremely hungry. If I were to go out for dinner at this point, there would be no doubt in my mind that I could eat 12 chicken wings, chili con queso dip and onion rings.

Not only would my doctor disapprove of that meal, but I would have over-ordered and there’d be no way I could eat it all. By priming our stomachs with a snack beforehand, we’re more likely to have more realistic appetites. It’s also somewhat healthier because we aren’t as likely to overeat.

Deals

You save money at the grocery store by clipping coupons. The same principle can apply at restaurants. Many restaurants have “always on” deals. For example, you can often print coupons off a restaurant’s website to use on multiple occasions.

Another great thing to do is to get on the restaurant’s email subscription list. Restaurants email deals all the time. Sure, they’re designed to get you to come in and spend more money, but if you’re going there anyway, might as well get the deal.

Many large chain restaurants offer specials, like two-for-one dinners or multi-course meals for cheaper than an appetizer, to get you in the door. I’ve seen commercials for buy one meal, get one to take home, and that means one less meal I have to prepare the next day.

Groupon and similar sites have many good deals for local restaurants. They’re generally restaurants looking to build up clientele or attract new customers, so you’re not likely to find big chains, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Kids’ Meals

Certain restaurants offer kids’ meals for free, so you can often get a deal that way. It may be on specific nights or limited to an age range, but perfect if you’re looking to be economical.

I do feel the need to put a public service announcement here. Don’t try to pass off your 15 year-old as 12 just to get a free meal. It probably won’t work.

Gift Card Sites

The last great place to check for discounts is gift card sites. When someone gets a gift card they don’t really want, they’ll list it at a discount in order to get some money out of a gift card they wouldn’t use. They get the money and you get a cheaper meal at a restaurant you like.

Do you have any tips for ways to save money at restaurants? Share them with other readers in the comments.

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