My Budget Doesn’t Keep Me From Going Out to Eat. Here’s How I Saved $526 This Year on Restaurant Meals

how to save money on food
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Food: The one item in your budget you can’t seem to cut.

Or can you?

I saved $526 on food this year while going out to eat each week — and I live in New York City.

It all began when I realized just how big a portion of my budget I was blowing on food. Although I’m currently drowning in student loan debt, I don’t like the idea of missing even a minute of my 20s by declining a night out with friends.

I decided there had to be a way to make this work.

I made it my goal to figure out how to continue going out with friends (and/or ordering in!), while also bringing down my overall food expenses.

And I did — here’s how:

Eating Out

We’ve covered restaurants where kids eat free and those with loyalty programs.

But you might be wondering: Is there a way to avoid paying full price at restaurants you already regularly go to? You bet.

Use OpenTable for Reservations

OpenTable is an app for reserving a table at a restaurant, even if you’re already en route. You‘ll earn 100 or 1,000 points each time, depending on your timing.

I eat out most when I’m travelling with my family, so I’ll make all our reservations for the whole week (in any given city) and rack up the points.

Then, you can redeem 2,000 points for $20 at any participating restaurant.

You can log into your account whenever you want to check your points, and they usually send an email when you have enough to begin redeeming them for meals.

Redeeming points is fun and easy: You just log into your account and follow the links.

Although OpenTable is rapidly expanding into new cities and countries, bigger cities usually have higher restaurant participation rates and, of course, more dining options.

Some areas, of course, have better coverage than others. But if your area has no participants at the moment, it could change soon — so keep checking back.

Total Savings: $120 (through points earned via weekly date night reservations)

Coupons and Gift Certificates

Next, come armed with a coupon. Here’s how to find them.

First, Google the restaurant. It may be offering a coupon on its website, Facebook page or elsewhere online.

Second, buy a $25 gift certificate at It costs $4 during almost-weekly “flash sales.”

Check the site daily until you see a sale prominently advertised. There’s usually only one catch: The bill has to be over $50 — but that’s usually not an issue when I eat out with friends.

Third, use Groupon and Living Social to browse for restaurants currently offering 50% off coupons.

When you use these sites, get there through a rebate site like Ebates or other similar site for even more cash back. Ebates currently offers 6% cash back at Groupon.

Total Savings: $91 (four coupons)

Cash-Back Credit Card Rewards

Pay your bill with a credit card that offers cash back rewards.

I usually use my Chase Freedom card for 1% cash back — it jumps up to 5% cash back for about three months each year, since the “special 5% purchase categories” change each quarter.

Total Savings: about $15

More Cash Back from iDine

Get up to 15% cash back (in American Express gift cards) on restaurant bills by simply registering your credit card for free on  iDine.

You’ll start by earning 5% cash back at one of the thousands of participating restaurants. Once you’ve spent $500 within a year, it goes up to 10% cash back, and then 15% for annual spending over $750.

The catch: You have to fill out a 30-second survey about the restaurant, which you’ll get by email about a week later.

I recently paid for a work-related meal at an iDine-participating restaurant. The bill was nearly $400. My company reimbursed the full amount, and I earned extra cash back from iDine.

Total Earned: $50.64 (so far this year)

Combine Everything

True Penny Hoarders will combine all the strategies above.

With solid planning, it’s entirely possible — especially in big cities with lots of competing restaurants.

In New York City, for example, all of the following restaurants were recently listed as participants in everything listed above: 212 Steakhouse, Basera Indian Bistro, Goodfella’s Brick Oven Pizza, Grotta Azzurra Ristorante, KTCHN NYC, Mumbles Restaurant, Onegin and Pietrasanta Italian Restaurant.

Let us know if you find others!

Eating In

If you live in a big city like NYC, you probably know of a number of competing food-delivery apps. Each one offers first-time-user credits, referral credits and restaurant-specific discounts.

Begin by signing up for one of the apps and pay for your first order with a first-time-order credit. Be sure to combine that with a first-time-user discount if available, then order from a restaurant with a restaurant-specific discount.

Earn referral credits by getting friends to sign up for each app. It’s an easy sell because the other person gets a credit towards their first order, too.

I refer every friend that visits NYC from out of town. I’ve also referred roommates, siblings and at least four fellow penny-hoarding friends.

Recently, my parents visited the Big Apple — and the apps aren’t available in their suburb. But I signed each of them up, then ordered food for myself using their first-time referral credits (they wanted to eat out that night).

I got six free meals (two parents times three apps). Plus, I earned six referral credits to use on my own later on!

Here’s a quick roundup of some of the popular apps:


  • Referral credit: $10/person (though it’s on hiatus right now)
  • Combine it with a restaurant-specific discount (often 20%).
  • One of NYC’s most popular food delivery apps with the most restaurant listings

Total Saved: approx. $96 ($60 referral credits + $20 parents’ credits + $16 in discounts).

  • Referral credit: $7/person
  • Combine with a first-time-user percentage discount using a promo code.
  • Combine with a restaurant-specific discount (often 20%).
  • Earn redeemable points each time you use the app.

Total Saved: $87 ($42 referral credits + $14 parents’ credits + $11 in discounts + $20 points credits)


  • Referral credit: $7/person
  • Get $10 off your first order with promo code TFC10.
  • Combine with a restaurant-specific discount (often 20%).
  • Earn a $1 credit if you send in a photo of the food you ordered.
  • As a brand-new app, this app doesn’t have wide coverage yet, but keep checking back.

Total Saved: $67 ($42 referral credits + $14 parents’ credits + $11 in discounts)

Jared Markowitz is a freelance contributor and working professional in New York City. While not at the office, he’s made it his mission to find ways of making up for his crushing student loan debt payments and always-too-high NYC rent.