How to Save Money Eating Out — and Even Score Free Food
Maybe you’d like to have someone else do the cooking more often, but you’re on a budget. Maybe your weekly schedule is crunched, so some drive-through and restaurant meals are a necessity. It adds up.
But you could be eating out for way less than you think.
Using these savvy tips, you can sometimes cut the cost of a lunch or dinner out by more than half. That means you can eat out twice as often on the same budget.
25 Ways to Save Money Eating Out
1. Use American Express Card Special Offers
Search the “Amex Offers & Benefits” section on your American Express account page. We scored a free meal from a $10 credit offer for buying something from Newegg.com using Amex Express Checkout.
I used my Amex card to buy a $10 printable gift card for Applebee’s. The $10 credit appeared on my account within a few days, refunding 100% of my purchases. Voila — money to spend at Applebee’s!
Basic statement credits offers are common. Offers are tailored to individual accounts. For example, one of my cards has 64 offers (three for restaurants) while another only has 25.
2. Buy Discounted Gift Cards for Eating Out
Many people don’t realize you can buy discounted gift cards for restaurants online.
I recently bought a $25 Applebee’s gift card for $19.75 — a 21% discount.
Want to save even more? Buy discounted gift cards through cash-back websites and use a good cash-back credit card to knock a higher percentage off the cost of a meal out.
3. Use the Right Credit Card
Use one of these cashback credit cards when eating out. Getting 1-2% back may not sound like much, but the savings add up when combined with these other strategies.
4. Go During Happy Hour
Try eating at restaurant bars during happy hour. You’ll save on drinks and find half-priced appetizers at many places, often only in the bar area.
Seating is another advantage. When we’re happy to sit at the bar, we often walk past lines of people waiting for tables in the main dining area.
5. Make a Meal of Appetizers and Sides
When we became vegetarians, my wife and I avoided meat by ordering side dishes and appetizers. Sometimes it ended up being the best food in the restaurant, and the meal was much cheaper than two entrées.
6. Eat at Casinos
Free meals at casinos are less common than they used to be, but many casinos have inexpensive restaurants to attract customers. Check casino websites for upcoming events that offer free food, like slot tournaments.
7. Research Menus Online Before Eating Out
Most restaurants have their menus on their websites, so you can choose a place with inexpensive dishes you like. Check for daily specials, which can help you decide which day to eat out.
You can also see menus for restaurants across the country (even some that have no website) at AllMenus.com.
8. Join a Vegan Group
Find vegan groups on MeetUp and join one that regularly has potluck dinners. For our last vegan potluck dinner, we bought two cans of dolmas from Trader Joe’s and stacked them on a plate with some lettuce-leaf garnish.
Total cost: $5.
They were a hit, and we ate 10 delicious dishes brought by others. Even if you’re not a vegan, you’ll be welcomed as a potential convert. It’s a great way to get out of the house and have a big meal that’s (mostly) cooked by others.
9. Eat a Late Lunch
Items on lunch menus almost always cost less, even when they’re the same entrées served for dinner. So eat out for lunch to save money.
You can eat an early dinner at lunch prices if you go to one of the many restaurants that serve lunch until 4 p.m.. We especially like to eat lunch out as a cheaper way to check out expensive restaurants.
10. Go Sampling
We sometimes buy a few things when we go to Whole Foods to eat all the free samples. But we also eat enough samples to fill up for free, justifying the cost of the wine and craft beer they serve (and yes, you can drink as you shop).
Ask employees in your local grocery stores if they have special sample days.
11. Drink Water When Eating Out
Wine and beer with dinner can quickly get expensive. Make eating out about food, and save the drinking for when you get home. We order water with lemon (always free).
12. Be Frugal When Traveling
If you’re heading out on a road trip, there are plenty of ways to blow a bunch of money on food. But there are also ways to save.
Pack snacks and drinks to avoid stopping at convenience stores every time somebody feels munchy. Likewise, bring your own refillable water bottle to avoid purchasing water. And when you get to your destination? Hit the grocery store.
13. Skip the Appetizers
Unless you’re going to make a meal out of them as a way to save money, skip the appetizers.
Most restaurant meals provide more than enough food.
14. Join Rewards Programs
If your favorite spot has a program for loyal customers, sign up! You’ll get emails with special offers and maybe a free appetizer once in a while.
Here’s a list of 50 restaurant rewards programs.
15. Take Advantage of Military Discounts
Many restaurants — particularly big chains — offer a discount to veterans and active military members. Discounts range from 10% to 20% year-round, and some places offer up free food on Veterans Day. You might have to show a military ID.
16. Eat at Buffets
Dining at an all-you-can eat buffet is a way to get the most food for your money. If you hit a lunch buffet and you’re too full to eat dinner that night, you’ll reduce your food expenses. But maybe not your weight.
17. Split a Meal
When we find restaurants that serve large meal portions (most of them), we order a meal to share. Once in a while a restaurant will charge a couple dollars for the extra plate, but even then it’s a way to reduce a dinner bill substantially.
18. Order the Daily Special
Often the daily special at a restaurant is cheaper than the other entrées.
But beware, there are two kinds of daily specials. The ones announced that day are often a way for a restaurant to use up old food. The regular specials that rotate by day are a better bet for a fresh meal at a lower price.
19. Bring Coupons
After using at least 100 restaurant coupons I can tell you: Read the fine print!
A buy-one-meal, get-one-half-off coupon gives you a discount of only 25%, and even less if you have to buy two drinks just to get the deal.
BOGO coupons are the best, and you can find them in mailers or websites like Valpak.com.
20. Eat at Two Restaurants
How do you enjoy the ambience of a high-end restaurant without paying premium prices? Eat a light meal at a cheap restaurant first, and then go to the expensive place with a view for drinks and/or dessert.
21. Order a Pizza
The old standby.
If your goal is just to have someone else cook, order pizzas for pickup. A couple pizzas can feed four people for much less than eating out.
Ideally, you’ll also have a coupon. If you really want to get out of the house, take the pizza with you (see the next item).
22. Have a Picnic
If you want to get out of the house and have someone else cook, order Chinese takeout and head for the park or lakeshore.
In our experience, takeout boxes hold more than you normally get at the restaurant, so order one meal to split and take it to a nice picnic spot.
23. Take Advantage of Free Kids Meals
If you are going out with your children, here’s a list of restaurants where kids eat free. That could cut your cost in half.
24. Eat Out on Your Birthday
Check out these places that give you free stuff on your birthday. Free food rules.
25. Combine Strategies for Eating Out
The most powerful way to cut the cost of eating out is to combine two or more of these strategies.
You might eat half-priced appetizers at a restaurant bar during happy hour using a discounted gift card that you bought with a cashback credit card.
Then have the second beer or glass of wine at home.
Steve Gillman is the author of “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com. He’s a former contributor to The Penny Hoarder.