50 Ways to Spend Less When Eating Out
Whether it's trying the new restaurant in town, enjoying drinks with friends, or sampling new kinds of food, dining out brings many pleasures. The final bill can add up, though, especially once gratuity and taxes are factored in. Here are 50 tips that can help save money when eating out.
Related: 51 Restaurants Where You Can Grab a Meal for Under $10
Dinner out is often more expensive than lunch, and many restaurants offer lunch specials to entice new customers and turn tables over quickly. Opt for a cheaper lunch date instead of dining during prime time in the evening.
Many restaurants feature lunchtime deals to attract diners on tight budgets, including chains such as Applebee's, Olive Garden, and Outback, to name just a few.
Order lunch for pickup and eat with co-workers at the office instead of eating out. The camaraderie will be just the same even if the ambiance is somewhat lacking.
Many restaurants, such as Applebee's, IHOP, and TGI Friday's, offer free meals for children on certain days or during specific times. Some may require the purchase of an adult meal.
Restaurants of all sizes increasingly are accepting orders online, allowing diners to order exactly what they want and to take advantage of online discounts available only through the eatery's website.
To get a sense of how much the total bill may be before going out, check prices on MenuPages or search for restaurants in the "$ (inexpensive)" or "$$ (moderate)" price groups on Yelp. Zomato goes a step further, providing the average cost of a meal for two people.
Happy hour isn't only for drinks. Many bars and restaurant feature cheap eats to go along with discounted cocktails, wine, and beer. Search "happy hour" on Yelp to find nearby deals and look for ads on storefronts or in local publications.
Some restaurants require diners to spend a minimum dollar amount or purchase at least one entree each. Call ahead to avoid this requirement, especially if you plan to share an entree.
Some restaurants offer early bird specials (meals at reduced prices and sometimes reduced portions or fewer courses) to attract budget-minded diners during the hours when traffic is thin -- typically 4-6 p.m. The trade-off is eating dinner, well, early.
Many social-media-savvy restaurants offer discounts to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram followers, which may even include free food.
Some restaurants and bars offer special deals on the Yelp and Foursquare/Swarm mobile apps. For example, Ugly Kitchen, a New York City eatery, has offered free orders of wings to patrons who check in on Yelp.
MealPal subscribers can place orders with select restaurants the night before, skip the line, and pick up lunch for monthly flat rates that amount to $5.19 to $6.39 per meal. The service (formerly known as MealPass) is available Chicago, Miami, Boston, Washington, New York, and San Francisco, cities where buying lunch can easily cost more like $10. Consumers must supply an email and may have to wait for an invitation before joining.
Related: 12 Cheap and Easy Brown-Bag Lunches
Save a percentage off the retail value of certificates for select restaurants (e.g., a $25 certificate for $10). Note the fine print, as some places require a minimum purchase and include a default tip.
Many fast food and restaurant gift cards are available at discounted prices on Gift Card Granny, which aggregates cards available from sellers such as Raise, Gift Card Spread, and Cardpool.
Scoutmob scours deals and lets users in New York City; Atlanta; Nashville, Tennessee; and Washington search for deals on dining, as well as clothing and events.
Some establishments offer deals directly, so subscribe to their newsletters and look for specials offered through restaurants' mobile apps.
OpenTable users earn points for making (and honoring) reservations through the site and are eligible for dining rewards after accumulating sufficient points.
Many credit cards offer 1 percent cash back, but several offer more for dining purchases. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 2 percent cash back for travel and dining.
When dining with a group, charge the entire bill to your credit card and earn rewards. Friends can give you cash or, with a few taps on a smartphone, easily send payment for their portion through a service such as Venmo, PayPal, or Chase Quick Pay.
Restaurants including California Pizza Kitchen and TGI Friday's offer loyalty programs for frequent diners. Points and complimentary items such as dessert can be earned by using the restaurant's rewards card.
Users of the Servy mobile app can get part of their meal costs reimbursed by submitting private feedback. Reviewers can earn $1 to $10 for each evaluation.
More than 10,000 restaurants and bars participate in the iDine rewards program. By using a linked credit card at a participating restaurant, users can earn 5 to 15 percent back on each meal.
Pass on drinks if you're on a budget. Specialty cocktails can cost more than $10 in major cities, and even cheaper drinks add up, especially if everyone opts in for a second or third round. Focus on food instead.
Seek out restaurants with a BYOB policy. New restaurants are a great place to start, as they sometimes open before they've received a license to serve alcohol.
Some restaurants charge a flat fee for opening a bottle of wine that diners bring in, known as a corkage fee. It can be cheaper than ordering individual drinks, but be sure to inquire before dining, as corkage fees can be quite steep at some eateries.
Search for bars that offer BOGO drinks. For example, Key Bar in New York City provides a ticket for a free second drink with every drink purchase.
Enjoy a glass of wine or cocktail at home before heading out to dinner. It may curb the desire to order drinks later at the restaurant.
Eateries in neighborhoods away from city centers and suburban commercial districts typically pay lower rent, which allows them to charge lower prices for similar food.
Before heading out to eat, drink a glass of water or have some fruit to alleviate hunger and avoid ordering more food than necessary at the restaurant.
Although they might seem inexpensive compared with the entrees, an appetizer or two can quickly pad a restaurant bill. Ask the server how many guests each dish serves before ordering, or consider skipping appetizers altogether.
Order one fewer main course than the number of people and share all the dishes. Everyone gets a taste without paying for an entire item. Sharing can also help with portion control, by removing the pressure to finish an entire entree yourself. Look out for restaurants that tack on a surcharge for splitting dishes, though.
Many American restaurants serve portions that are much larger than the recommended serving size. Consider the practice of mindful eating: Focus on the texture and flavor of each bite, while filtering out external distractions. Those who eat mindfully report feeling fuller faster and more satisfied, which can help curb the desire to order more and leave enough food left over to take home for another meal.
When the meal arrives, ask for a box and save half for the next day. The practice can reduce overeating, and results in two meals for the price of one.
Some restaurants offer deals and happy hour prices for patrons who sit at the bar -- and service may be quicker to boot.
Unless the meal is family style, ask for separate checks when ordering to prevent confusion and awkwardness later. Splitting the bill evenly can cost you when others order more expensive dishes or drinks.
It's easy to quickly hand the check back with a credit card enclosed. However, some restaurants automatically add 15 to 20 percent gratuity to the bill, especially for large parties, and also leave the tip field blank. Check the bill first to avoid double-tipping.
When dining with a picky toddler, skip the restaurant kids' menu and instead pack food that kids will eat. Parents can save money and the headache of choosing from a limited menu for a child's small appetite.
Consider the cost of the kids' meals before ordering. It may be smarter to order an adult entree and split it up for the kids, instead of ordering multiple dishes off the kids' menu.
Consider a casual eatery where meals are ordered at a counter or from different stations but enjoyed in a sit-down restaurant setting.
Getting a meal to go, rather than dining in, can cut 15 to 20 percent from the restaurant bill. Use a nice tablecloth, a few candles, and some background music to create your own bistro.
Instead of ordering dessert at a restaurant, where it could easily cost $6 to $10 before tip and tax, go for a stroll and get it elsewhere. A scoop of ice cream or slice of cake costs a few dollars at a bakery.