I’m an extraordinarily frugal person, but my one weakness is eating out at restaurants. There are only so many times that I feel like cooking and cleaning, and there are some dishes that I can only get at my favorite restaurants. Though menu prices are getting expensive, I’ve found enough tricks to save big at restaurants, and I never pay full price.
Some might tell you to just skip appetizers, cut out alcohol, and never indulge in dessert. But you can enjoy a few courses and even a glass of wine if you have the right tools. My goal is to show you how get the most out of your meal, not the least. If you’re looking for a filling meal, an enjoyable evening, and most importantly, great value, check out these nine sources.
1. Restaurant’s Websites
Restaurant websites used to be among the least professional sites out there. Now, from local establishments to chains, most places are investing in robust websites with experiences almost as enjoyable as being at the restaurant in person. In fact, many restaurant websites offer deals right there for you to print or access from your smartphone.
Don’t miss out on this simple opportunity to find happy hour specials, dinner deals, and special events that aren’t publicized elsewhere. Before you head out to try a new place or hit your favorite hangout, check the site. And sign up for their email list to get alerts about exclusive discounts and deals.
Lastly, see if your restaurant has a frequent diner program. You might be surprised how many restaurants are part of corporate families and partnerships, and the more restaurants you find in the same program, the more quickly you’ll rack up the points for free meals and discounts.
2. Local Events and Festivals
Every year, my hometown of Denver has a “Restaurant Week,” when hundreds of local eateries offer a fixed menu for two for only $52.80. Plenty of cities have these similar large-scale events, although here in the Mile High City we’re the only ones who charge a penny per foot.
To take advantage of these offers, we normally pick out the most expensive places that we couldn’t ordinarily afford to visit. While we still pay more than $60 after tax and tip, we receive meals that would normally cost over $150. It makes our splurge feel a lot less guilty when we know we’re getting a fine meal at great value.
Also, when spring and summer come around, keep an eye out for outdoor festivals featuring your favorite local restaurants. They’ll offer free meals and experiment with new dishes at some amazing outdoor events.
3. Entertainment Book and Card
The Entertainment Book is a thick coupon collection, and most charities sell it for around $20. They print dozens of editions focusing on all major cities and many small- to medium-sized markets too. The coupons are valuable, and it only takes a few simple nights out for the book to pay for itself.
Perhaps more importantly, the book comes with a dining card that’s good for two-for-one offers at a few dozen restaurants in your area. Using this card, it is not difficult to buy dinner for two at a pretty nice restaurant for the price of fast food.
4. Alternative Weekly Papers
Every major city has a free alternative weekly paper, and some have more than one. Even if the headlines don’t draw your attention, grab a copy anyway. The restaurant advertisements alone will be worth your time. Most publishers of these weekly publications offer restaurants low rates on ads, making it easier for large and small establishments to let you know about great deals that you won’t find in your town’s daily paper.
Many savvy diners already know about Restaurant.com, the website that sells dining gift certificates at a fraction of their value. Even if you’ve been using Restaurant.com already, you should still explore some new tricks to maximize the value of their deals. For example, signing up for their email list gets you access to discounts on the site’s already low prices. You can get a $25 gift certificate that normally sells on the site for $10 for a price as low as $2 through the newsletter.
Along with the money-saving tricks, the site has some traps to be careful of too. Read the terms of the offers very closely before you buy in. Usually there’s a minimum spending amount on food, and some gift certificates are only valid on certain nights.
Although it is against Restaurant.com’s policies, some restaurants will inexplicably fail to accept the certificates. The safe move is to call the restaurant before buying from Restaurant.com, and double-check before you get seated too.
Finally, I always print out several certificates to various places when I travel. If I do not get a chance to use them, Restaurant.com’s customer service will gladly credit them back to my account for use elsewhere. It’s a little risky, but it usually works.
It only takes a few seconds to make an online reservation before you head out the door, and OpenTable’s incentive program makes it worth your effort. When you dine at a restaurant after making an OpenTable reservation, you’ll get points worth at least a dollar each. A few dozen restaurants offer points worth $10 for reservations at specific times of the week. Once you hit $20 worth of points, you’ll get a check that you can redeem at any restaurant in their program.
Unlike other discount programs, it seems like OpenTable’s restaurants are mostly mid- and high-end establishments, so you may not be able to use it as often as other sites. But when you do, it’s usually easy to double-dip by making an OpenTable reservation and then using a coupon.
Just be sure to mention that you have an OpenTable reservation when you get there, so you get your points. OpenTable frowns on no-shows, so don’t place a reservation until you’re sure you’ll make it on time.
Group buying and daily deals sites have been getting a lot of buzz, and Groupon lives up to the hype. As long as you’re willing to commit your money in advance, you can find some phenomenal discounts at fantastic restaurants, many of which are upscale. Sign up for Groupon in your city and you can get the “Daily Deal of the Day” in your inbox and jump on any restaurant discounts that suit you!
Just be sure to read the fine print, since many restaurants restrict the deals to midweek evenings and exclude other deals and promotions. If you live in a major city, check out some of Groupon’s local competitors too (e.g. Living Social); you’ll find even more deals right around the corner.
8. Frequent Flyer Dining Programs
Most airlines are affiliated with dining programs that allow you to earn frequent flyer miles when you visit eligible restaurants. If you’re an active member with a particular carrier, or if you use an airline credit card, you can automatically receive bonus miles by charging meals at member restaurants. It’s a great option if you don’t want everyone to know that you’re getting a kickback; these transactions are very discreet.
While a limited selection of restaurants may qualify for your favorite airline’s program, when you find a deal you can easily combine this discount program with OpenTable and other coupons too. This three-pronged attack maximizes your savings.
9. Discounted Gift Cards
Even high-end chains offer gift cards, and many of them will give you a discount on gift cards. You might get a few dollars off if you ask at the end of your dining experience. More commonly, you’ll find discount gift cards at stores like Costco. Check restaurant websites for these too; sometimes they’ll sell $100 cards for $80 online. Plastic Jungle, an online marketplace for discounted gift cards, is another good one to check out especially for restaurant chains.
Unless you are cooking lobsters and fillet mignon at home, it will always be less expensive to stay home than to go out. But even on a tight budget, you’re allowed to treat yourself and get a nice relaxing meal at a restaurant. Just because you are eating out at a nice place, doesn’t mean you can’t still be frugal. By utilizing all of the available coupons and discount programs, you can trim your dining expenses to a fraction of the menu price while still enjoying your favorite restaurants. You can even order dessert without feeling guilty (about the money spent anyway).
What are your favorite sources of restaurant deals and coupons, and what’s the best deal you’ve gotten recently eating out?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)