26 Tips to Spend Less When You Eat Out at Restaurants
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.
Certainly, grocery prices are no picnic, but if you’re looking to trim fat from a bloated budget, eating out is a good place to start.
How Much Does it Cost to Eat Out at Restaurants?
The cost of a restaurant meal in the U.S. depends on the type of restaurant, the location and the economy. Soaring inflation and food shortages have hit restaurants hard in the past year, causing a hike of 6.5% to menu prices, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Since the average homemade meal costs around $4 per person, there’s no doubt eating out takes a big bite out of your budget. But you could be eating out for way less than you think.
Using these savvy tips, you could cut the cost of lunch or dinner out by more than half. That means you can eat out twice as often on the same budget.
26 Ways to Save Money Eating Out at Restaurants
1. Take Advantage of Military or Veteran 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.
2. 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.
3. Buy Discounted Restaurant Gift Cards for Eating Out
Many people don’t realize you can buy discounted gift cards for restaurants online.
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.
4. Let This Free App Save You $50/Month on Dining Out and Gas
An app called Upside can help you save money every time you dine out or buy gas. They keep it simple: Spend money at a participating gas station or restaurant and earn cashback. Oh, and that’s real cash, not points.
Here’s how it works: Just download the Upside app and create a free account, then browse the map to find participating restaurants and gas stations in your area and claim an offer.
Pay with a card that’s stored in your Upside wallet, then tap “Check In” or take a picture of your receipt — this will confirm you actually bought gas or food (dine-in or takeout) at a participating location.
Upside will tally up your cashback earnings. And when you’re ready, you can transfer your funds to a bank account, PayPal account or exchange them for a gift card from brands like Starbucks and Amazon. You’ll get your money in two days or less.
Download the Upside app to get started — it’s completely free, and it works at more than 50,000 businesses.
5. 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.
And don’t forget to check out the kid’s menu at your favorite restaurant. Often the portions are nearly as generous as adult dinner entrees for much less.
6. Eat Out on Your Birthday
Check out these places that give you free stuff on your birthday. Free food rules!
Also be sure to fill out your restaurant rewards or diner club profile completely, including your birthday. Sometimes restaurants send you a coupon for a free dessert or appetizer to celebrate.
7. Don’t Skip the Survey
Sometimes you’re asked to rate the service and it comes with some compensation in the form of a discount on a future meal. So take a few moments to leave some feedback and pocket the savings.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. Go Out to Eat 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.
11. Eat a Late Lunch
Items on the lunch menu almost always cost less, even when they’re the same entrées served for dinner. Lunch entrees range just a few dollars cheaper but those savings add up fast.
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.
12. 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).
Many restaurants put the drink menu on the table, but you can hand it back to the server as soon as you sit down to avoid temptation.
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.
And if you’re headed to one of those “small plate” restaurants that are all the rage, ask about the portion sizes before you double up on menu items.
14. 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.
Don’t have anyone to share with? Make two meals out of one by asking for a to-go box with your meal and setting aside a portion before you dig in.
15. 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.
Also, keep an eye out for early bird specials that restaurants offer to encourage diners to come in before the dinner rush.
16. Check to See if You Can BYO Wine
Some restaurants allow diners to bring their own wine and have the server open it at the table and pour it for a corkage fee. Restaurants generally charge between $10-$40 in corkage fees for diners who want to save money by bringing their own bottle of wine.
17. Use Credit Card Card Special Offers
Search the benefits section on your credit card account page. We scored a free meal from a $10 credit offer for buying something from Newegg.com using Amex Express Checkout.
I also 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!
Credit card benefits and incentives tied to specific restaurants 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.
18. Join Rewards Programs
Many restaurants have a program for loyal customers, so sign up! You’ll get emails from local restaurants with special offers and maybe a free appetizer once in a while.
Here’s a list of 50 restaurant rewards programs.
Note that Open Table also offers rewards or dining points for restaurants that are part of its reservation network.
18. 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.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. 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. (Yes, you can drink as you shop.) Ask employees in your local grocery stores if they have special sample days.
Costco is also famous for offering enough free samples to keep you satisfied long after you shop. And those Costco food court deals — $1.50 hot dog, anyone? — are hard to beat.
22. Be Frugal When Traveling
If you’re heading out on a trip, there are plenty of ways to blow a bunch of money on food. But there are also ways to save. When you price shop for accommodations, decide if it’s worth it to book a room that has a microwave or other amenities that allow for meal prep.
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.
23. 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.
24. Eat at Two Restaurants
How do you enjoy the ambiance 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.
25. Order a Pizza or Pickup Meal
The old standby.
If your goal is just to have someone else cook, order pizzas or fast casual food for pickup. A couple pizzas can feed four people for much less than eating out. Delivery apps like DoorDash and Uber Eats have a pickup option that costs less than delivery and still earns points for future discounts.
Ideally, you’ll also have a coupon. If you really want to get out of the house, take the pizza with you (see No. 26).
26. 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.
Stack Your Saving Strategies
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 cash-back credit card.
Then have that second beer or glass of wine at home.
Steve Gillman is a former contributor to The Penny Hoarder. Kaz Weida, a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, contributed.