When I was growing up, going out to eat at a restaurant, even a fast food restaurant, was a rarity. Things have changed! Today, dining out is a normal daily or several times per week activity. If done to excess it can have a significant negative impact on your finances.
We all enjoy the benefits of dining out. Not having to cook, having a variety of tasty foods to choose from, and having no dishes to wash, are just a few of the reasons we choose to eat at restaurants. There’s also the convenience factor, which in our fast-paced society, makes dining out the easy option, though not necessarily the best option.
Natalie and I enjoy eating at restaurants, especially when we’re on a date or celebrating a special occasion. It’s a little thing that makes life sweeter and more enjoyable for us. Of course, we don’t have an unlimited amount to spend in this area, as I’m sure you probably don’t either, so we’ve had to be intentional and creative with our dining out budget. Here are a few things we’ve learned that you can do to lower the cost of dining out, so you can enjoy it without going broke.
8 Ways to Save When Dining Out
1. Go for lunch or "linner"
Lunch options are always less expensive than dinner. A restaurants lunch menu often includes many of the same menu options as the dinner menu in slightly smaller portions. This is good for you because a smaller portion is healthier and the cost is 20 to 30% lower. You can also take advantage of a restaurant’s off-peak hours, during which they have fewer customers. An early dinner [linner] just before 4 PM or during happy hour, can offer you significant savings.
2. Get the free water
Restaurant beverages are expensive! $2.95 for tea? Really? Add the tax and gratuity and it’s closer to $3.50. Multiply that by 4, one for each family member, and it could add up to be 25% of your check. A specialty drink makes it even worse. Next time go for the water. Add lemon or lime for flavor and to help your body absorb it better.
3. Share a meal
Let’s face it, the portions served at a sit-down restaurant are larger than we really need. Some pasta dishes can be as high as 1500 calories, without the bread and side salad. Sharing a meal is both less expensive and better for you. You can also try sharing an appetizer to satisfy your craving before sharing the meal.
4. Use coupons
Look for coupons in mailers or the Sunday paper, online, or through apps like Groupon, Yelp, or Restaurants.com. A few minutes of searching can yield some nice savings. With many of these apps you can search and find deals last minute, so you don’t have to plan weeks in advance. If you love dining out, this is an easy way you can do more of it without spending more.
5. Skip dessert
Desserts, like beverages, have a huge markup. You can usually buy a whole cake at a bakery for what you’d pay for one slice in some restaurants. Save money by either skipping dessert or sharing it with everyone at the table. A taste after dinner is usually enough to satisfy your sweet tooth, and it’s better for your health.
6. Avoid the specials
Most of the time the specials menu items are ‘special’ for a reason. I don’t have an inside view on this, but my experience is that the specials are usually higher priced. If I owned a restaurant I’d highlight the items that make me the most profit, wouldn’t you? Skip the specials, especially when it’s clear that the price is higher than other great options on the menu.
7. Eat an appetizer as your main dish
Appetizers can often be just the right-sized meal. Appetizers are also priced lower than the main dish items. Getting an appetizer as a main dish will save you money and help you with your waistline.
8. Take advantage of special deals
Restaurants want to bring in more customers. They’ll use ‘kids eat free’ promotions or have lower priced menu items on a specific night of the week. Ever hear of Half-Priced Fajita Tuesdays? Look for these deals and take advantage of these less expensive options. Just don’t add the appetizer, drink, and dessert because you got such a good deal on the main meal.
For us, dining out is a treat. It’s something we occasionally enjoy and look forward to but limit to something we can easily afford.
Dining out is like eating the occasional double chocolate three-layered cake; it’s a treat and it tastes great but should be done in moderation. This is not only good for your health but also for your finances.