I confess. My wife and I go to grocery stores to eat free samples. That strategy isn’t on the list below. Gorging on samples isn’t really a meal out and it can be costly if, like us, you end up buying a few things along the way (but here’s a tip anyhow: try a Whole Foods Market on a Saturday).
In any case, there are better ways to eat out for less. Whether you want a fine dining restaurant experience, a fast healthy meal, or just want to get out of the house for a while, one or more of these tips will work for you…
1. Check Menus Online
Finding restaurant information and reviews is as easy as searching online for “restaurants” along with a city name. The resources you’ll find usually link to the website of each restaurant listed. Poke around and you can often find a menu with prices. Or try a website like allmenus.com, which will save you a few steps. Just enter your zip code and get a list of restaurants. Click on one and you’ll see the menu. You can locate inexpensive places in this way, and you might even choose your meal before you go, making ordering simpler.
2. Eat Only Side Dishes
My wife and I often find some of our favorites on the “sides” part of the menu. We don’t always want a big meal, so a side of stuffed grape leaves and another of falafel in a nice Greek restaurant can be enough. Sides are usually inexpensive, but not always, so look closely. This works especially well for vegetarians, because many restaurants have few or no meals without meat, but most have vegetarian and even vegan options as side dishes.
3. Have Lunch Instead of Dinner
Most restaurants charge more for dinner than for lunch, even if the menu options are the same. If you just like to eat out and your time is flexible, dining out for lunch is one of the easiest and best ways to save money. Aim for around two in the afternoon to avoid crowds — another advantage of this strategy. Most places offer lunch pricing until three or four o’clock.
4. Share a Meal
A recent Zagat survey found that a restaurant dinner in the United States averages over $40 including drinks, taxes, and tip. Of course you won’t spend anywhere near that if you follow the tips here. And whatever your own average is, you can cut it down dramatically by sharing a meal with your spouse. My wife and I regularly split a meal when dining out, and we’re usually too full for desert when finished. Only once have we paid for the extra plate, and that $2 charge was very reasonable. If you are big eaters order an appetizer first or add a couple side dishes, and you’ll still save money versus getting two full meals.
5. Use Coupons
The best coupons are the ones offering “buy one get one free” lunches and dinners. You might have to buy drinks to qualify, or the coupon might be valid only on certain days or at certain times. None of these are deal breakers. After all, two soft drinks will still cost less than the free meal would, and you might be flexible in your schedule. But you do need to read the fine print so you know exactly what the deal is. Weekend newspapers and promotional packets that come in the mail both have good coupons. Online you can go to Valpack.com and enter your city or zip code to get printable coupons for restaurants near you.
6. Skip the Drinks and Appetizers
If you’re like most people you’ve probably had the experience of being almost full in a restaurant before the meal even arrives, thanks to appetizers. So you bring half of your meal home. But now you have to cook the leftovers. How much do you want to pay for food that you have to prepare by yourself? Instead try skipping the appetizers (or make them the main meal), and order water. Alternately, if you are with your spouse, you might split a soft drink. Skipping appetizers and drinks (or at least one) can save you quite a bit of money.
7. Picnic With a Take-Out Meal
Sometimes you just want to get out of the house and avoid cooking. One way to do this inexpensively is to order a quart your favorite Chinese dish and pick it up on your way to the park or beach. Any other takeout options will work as well. Bring your own drinks and plates and you have the makings of a great picnic without preparing any food on your own.
8. Go During Happy Hour
Many restaurants with a bar have a “happy hour” (usually longer than an hour). Check online and/or call around to find the ones with the best food specials, and to find out what days and hours they’re offered. Half-priced appetizers and drinks are common. At many restaurants you have to actually sit at the bar to get the happy hour prices. This isn’t a problem for my wife and I. At one of our favorite places we often walk past the line of people waiting for a table and go straight to the bar, where half the seats are empty and the food and drinks cost less. We can easily make a meal out of a few carefully chosen appetizers.
9. Have a Pizza Delivered
If your desire to eat out comes mostly from not wanting to cook, why not order a pizza for delivery? Take it out to a table in the backyard with a bottle of wine at sunset. To make this an inexpensive meal use coupons from the local newspaper or, when you call the pizza joint, ask if they have a coupon deal they can give you even though you don’t have the coupon.
10. Go to Two Different Restaurants
Have you ever wanted to go to a restaurant for the great view and surroundings, but it is just too expensive? One solution is to first eat somewhere cheap, and then go to the pricey place for something light. You can eat out for less and then enjoy the ocean view (or whatever view they offer) and expensive decor for the cost of a drink and appetizer. The waiters and managers will be fine with this as long as you don’t tie up a table during the dinner rush.
Your Turn: Have you used these techniques to save money on restaurant meals, or do you know another one to add to our list? Tell us all about it below.