In many books and articles about saving money, a common piece of advice about dining out is simply, “Don’t do it.” After all, when you eat out, you’re not just paying for the food – you’re also paying a hefty markup to have it cooked for you and served to you.
According to The Wall Street Journal, to make a profit, a restaurant generally has to charge about four times as much for a dish as it paid for the ingredients. So even if you can’t buy the ingredients as cheaply as the restaurant can, you’re still bound to pay less by doing your own cooking.
From a purely practical standpoint, this advice makes perfect sense – but it’s not much fun. Pretty much everyone has the occasional hectic, stressful day when they come home from work and just can’t face the idea of cooking. At times like that, being able to go out for a nice meal, or even just ordering a pizza, is a welcome relief.
Also, for many of us, eating out with friends is one of the main ways we socialize. It’s no fun being a wet blanket who has to turn down every single invitation for dinner, drinks, or coffee because it doesn’t fit into your personal budget. And if you’re the only one passing up those invitations, you could end up falling out of touch with your social group pretty quickly.
Fortunately, there are ways to enjoy the occasional meal out without throwing your budget into complete disarray. You can keep the cost under control by making strategic choices about where to eat, when to eat, what to order, and how to pay.
Where You Eat
1. Be Your Own Server
When you go out for dinner at a fine-dining restaurant, you can expect to pay $20 or more for an entree, according to FSW. Add in the cost of a salad or soup, a glass of wine, dessert and coffee, tax, and tip, and your total bill can easily add up to $50 or more per person.
Casual dining establishments are a bit cheaper, at about $10 to $15 for an entree. But if you want to save some serious money, you should choose a restaurant where you do your own service. Because these restaurants don’t have to pay for wait staff, they can afford to charge much less for food that’s just as tasty as what you get at a casual chain such as Red Lobster or Chili’s.
Types of self-service restaurants include:
- Buffet. At a buffet-style restaurant, food is laid out on a long table and you help yourself. This type of service can be a great bargain if you’re extra hungry, because there’s generally no limit to how much you can eat for one flat price. Casual buffet chains, such as Hometown Buffet and Old Country Buffet, charge about $12 for dinner service.
- Fast Casual. Fast-casual dining is a sort of compromise between fast food and full service. You order your meal at a counter, pay the cashier, and then pick up your order at the end of the counter. Fast-casual chains, such as Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill, typically charge between $7 and $10 for a main dish.
- Quick Serve. A quick-serve restaurant is any place where you order your food at a counter and receive it immediately. Quick serve isn’t just a euphemism for fast food – fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s are one type of quick-serve restaurant, but the category also includes sandwich shops like Subway and coffee shops like Starbucks. Quick-serve restaurants are the cheapest eateries of all, with a whole meal typically costing $6 or less.
2. Get It to Go
Another way to save on your meal is to eat at home – not by cooking your own meal, but by ordering takeout from your favorite restaurant. For example, at an inexpensive Italian restaurant you might be able to order lasagna, with soup or salad and a glass of wine, for $22 including tax and tip. However, if you get the lasagna by itself as a takeout order, you could pay as little as $11 with tax. If you live in a metropolitan area or college campus, check out Seamless and GrubHub to find options near you and easily order online for pickup or delivery.
Once you get your lasagna home, you can add on the extras yourself. You can quickly toss together a salad with about $1 worth of greens, and a glass of a modestly priced wine – say, $12 a bottle – adds another $2. The total cost of the meal comes to only $14, saving you $8.
When You Eat
3. Make It a Lunch
If the experience of eating out is what you crave, you can enjoy it much more cheaply at lunchtime. Many chain restaurants charge significantly less for the items on their lunch menu. Examples include:
- Applebees. Dinner entrees range in price from $8 to $18. Lunch combos, which include any two choices from a list of soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees, cost $7 to $8.
- Cheesecake Factory. Dinner entrees range in price from $11 to $30. Lunch specials cost between $9 and $14.
- Olive Garden. Diner entrees range in price from $12 to $20. Lunch entrees range from $7 to $13.
- Red Lobster. Diner entrees range in price from $13 to $33. Lunch entrees range from $8 to $12.
You don’t necessarily have to eat at midday to get these prices. Some restaurants extend their lunch hours into the late afternoon, so if you’re willing to have your “dinner” at an early hour, you could pay the lunchtime price for it. Try searching for restaurants in your area to see which ones offer extended lunch hours or early bird specials for diners who come in before 6pm.
4. Celebrate Your Birthday
Many restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club. All you have to do is sign up on the restaurant’s website, and when your birthday approaches, you receive a coupon by email for a free drink, dessert, or, possibly, entree. More than 150 eateries – and many other businesses – that offer birthday freebies are listed at Hey! It’s Free.
Of course, there’s no way you could possibly take advantage of all these deals in a single day, and you’d make yourself sick if you tried. Fortunately, with many birthday clubs, you don’t have to cash in your freebie coupon on your birthday itself.
For example, I belong to the Baskin-Robbins Birthday Club, and I get my coupon for a free birthday scoop emailed to me a week before my birthday. I can then cash it in any time in the following two weeks.
What You Order
5. Split a Meal
At many restaurants, the amount of food you get on a plate is far more than what you actually need. If you finish the whole serving, you’re overeating, and if you leave half of it on the plate, you’re wasting food. And either way, you’re paying for more than you need.
One way around this problem is to split a single entree with a friend. At some restaurants, you can simply ask for one main course and an extra plate and divide the meal when it arrives – although there may be a nominal “extra plate charge” of a dollar or two. Another option is for one of you to order something small – a salad, soup, or appetizer – while the other orders an entree, and then you can share both dishes.
Suppose you’re eating at a casual dining restaurant where an entree costs $16. If you share that single dish with a friend, each of you saves not just $8, but nearly $10 once the tax and tip are factored in. If your friend orders a $7 salad and you share both, each of you still saves around $5.50 compared to ordering two entrees. And the lighter meal is easier on your waistline, as well as your wallet.
6. Take Home Leftovers
Another way to deal with oversized portions is to split the meal – not with a friend, but into two meals for yourself. Instead of eating everything on the plate, stop when you’re full and ask for a to-go container – or bring your own – to take home the leftovers. That way, tonight’s dinner can double as tomorrow’s lunch.
If you have trouble disciplining yourself to stop eating while there’s still food on your plate, ask for the container at the start of the meal. Then you can put the to-go portion in the box right away, before you even start eating.
Taking home leftovers doesn’t save you as much money as sharing with a friend, because you’re still paying the full cost of an entree. True, you get two meals out of it, but your restaurant leftovers are likely taking the place of a brown-bag lunch that would only have cost a dollar or so to make. So all you’re really saving is the $1 or $2 you would have spent on your homemade lunch – but it’s still better than letting that extra food go to waste.
7. Skip the Drinks
If the food you order at a restaurant is pricey compared to home cooking, the markup on drinks is even higher. Restaurant buyers interviewed by SFGate confess that they charge about four times as much for a glass of beer and four to five times as much for a glass of wine as they actually pay for it.
Avoiding booze won’t solve the problem either. In fact, the markup on soft drinks is even higher. A cup of tea costs you nearly eight times what the restaurant paid for the tea bag. A can of soda also costs about eight times what the restaurant paid for it, and a soda fountain drink costs a whopping 20 times the restaurant’s cost.
A better solution is to skip the drinks altogether and just have tap water with your meal, since many restaurants don’t charge for that. Remember to ask for tap water specifically – some restaurants could charge as much as $3 for a bottle of mineral water that cost the restaurant around $0.65. At a casual restaurant, choosing tap water instead of soft drinks can save you around $2 a glass, and it’s easier on your waistline as well.
If a meal just doesn’t taste right without a glass of wine to go with it, look for restaurants that will let you BYOB – bring your own bottle. An $18 bottle costs you about $3 per glass, as opposed to $12 per glass for the restaurant’s house wine. However, be aware that some restaurants charge you a “corkage fee” for opening and decanting the bottle for you. According to the wine site Vinepair, this fee is typically between $20 and $40 at upscale restaurants, but some elite restaurants charge as much as $150 – so make sure to ask the corkage price before you BYOB.
8. Have Something Special
At first glance, it seems like the best way to minimize the cost of a restaurant meal is to order the cheapest item on the menu, or at least the cheapest item you like. Speaking strictly in dollar terms, it’s clear that you pay less for a $14 plate of pasta than for a $30 bowl of bouillabaisse – but that doesn’t necessarily make the pasta a better bargain.
After all, pasta is a dish you could easily make for yourself at home, even if your cooking skills are minimal. You can cook a dish of creamy zucchini fettucine in your own kitchen for around $1.17 per serving, according to Good and Cheap. So by ordering pasta instead of bouillabaisse, you’re not really saving $16 – you’re wasting the $12.83 extra that you paid to have this dish in a restaurant instead of making it yourself.
When you eat out, the bulk of your bill isn’t going toward the cost of the food – it’s the premium you pay for the service and the atmosphere. So if you’re going to pay that premium anyway, you might as well get your money’s worth by ordering something special that you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) cook for yourself. It’s not really worth going out for spaghetti and meatballs, but it might be worth going out for duck a l’orange.
If you still feel guilty about paying $20 or more for your entree, you can comfort yourself by reflecting that you’re probably paying a lower markup to the restaurant when you order an expensive dish than you would with a cheap one. According to the SFGate article, restaurants charge anywhere from six to ten times what they spend for some pasta dishes – but on steak and seafood dishes, they often do no better than break even.
How You Pay
9. Look for Discounts
The total at the bottom of your restaurant bill doesn’t necessarily have to be the actual price that you pay. There are many ways to lower the cost with discounts and coupons. These include:
- Restaurant.com. Many restaurants offer discounted gift certificates through Restaurant.com to bring in more customers. You can search the site for restaurants in your area and click to buy a $25 gift certificate for as little as $10. But be careful, as the gift certificates often come with restrictions. For instance, many restaurants require you to spend at least $50 to use your $25 certificate – so you end up spending at least $35 total ($25 for the $50 meal minus the gift certificate, plus $10 for the gift certificate), not just the $10 you paid for the certificate.
- Entertainment Books. The Entertainment Book provides coupons for restaurants and other attractions all over the country. By entering your city name or ZIP code on the website, you can see a list of all the restaurants and retailers in your area that are included. You can pay $5 a month to subscribe to the mobile app for your area, or spend a flat $35 for the year and get a printed Entertainment Book thrown in for free. The Entertainment site promises savings of “up to 50%,” but there’s no way to view the actual coupons that are available before you buy, so it’s hard to be sure how much value you’ll get out of your subscription.
- Group Deals. When you sign up for group buying sites such as Groupon or LivingSocial, you essentially join forces with other shoppers to get group discounts at local businesses, including restaurants. Each day, you get an email offering a special daily deal, and restaurant deals offered through these sites can save you 50% or more. Check the terms carefully before you sign up for a deal, since they often have expiration dates or other restrictions.
- Coupons. You can find coupons and discounts for local eateries through sites such as Valpak and SmartSource, or through your local newspaper. Valpak even has a mobile app so that you can display the coupon right on your phone when you pay, instead of having to print it out.
- Local Deals. Local businesses such as restaurants often sell discounted gift cards as a promotion – check their website or Facebook page. It’s a way to attract budget-minded customers without having to lower their regular prices. In addition, some restaurants give you access to special coupons and other deals if you like them on Facebook or subscribe to their online newsletter. Discount deals include straight discounts, ranging from 10% to 25%, and buy-one-get-one-free deals, which can save you up to 50% when you eat out with a friend.
One thing to remember when you use coupons and discounts is to calculate the tip based on the original amount of the bill, not the reduced amount you’re paying. After all, your server is still doing just as much work, whether you’re paying full price for the meal or only half. Besides, with all you’re saving on the meal itself, you can definitely afford to tip generously and still come out ahead.
10. Get Cash Back
Your savings on your restaurant meal don’t have to stop after you’ve paid the bill. By paying with a cash back credit card, you can get anywhere from 1% to 5% of your money back from the credit card issuer.
Some cash back cards just offer a flat-rate discount on everything you buy. However, others pay a higher percentage on purchases in specific categories, which can include restaurants. In many cases, the categories with bonus cash back change every three months, so it’s worth keeping a slip of paper in your wallet to remind you which categories are currently getting the best discounts for each card in your wallet. That way, you always know which card to pull out at a restaurant to maximize your reward.
Another way to get cash back at restaurants is to register your credit or debit card with iDine. With this program, every time you use your card at one of the 11,000 participating restaurants, bars, and clubs, you get an invitation to write a quick online review about your dining experience. Once you complete your review, you earn credit for it – from 5% to 15% of the amount you paid at the restaurant. Whenever you accumulate $20 worth of credit on iDine, the company sends you a $20 American Express gift card.
The iDine program does have a few catches. First of all, you have to agree to receive marketing emails from the site. However, you can get around that by setting up a new, free email account to use with the program. Also, to earn the higher levels of benefits, you have to spend a certain amount eating out at qualifying restaurants over the course of a year – $250 a year to earn 10%, or $750 to earn 15%. On the plus side, if you choose a rewards credit card to register with iDine, you can earn cash back two different ways every time you eat out, which is definitely a delicious deal. Similar dining program for travel rewards include American Airlines AAdvantage Dining and Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining.
Additionally, be sure to make dine-in reservations through OpenTable, which has a rewards program that sends you gift certificates after a certain number of restaurant visits.
There’s no way around it: No matter how much you save, restaurant meals aren’t as easy on your budget as home-cooked meals. So if you’re trying to live a frugal lifestyle, you don’t want to be eating out all the time. But a delicious meal, complete with service, can definitely be a worthwhile splurge for a special occasion. And the more you manage to save on the cost of dining, the more often you can afford to treat yourself.
How often do you eat out? What strategies do you use to control the cost?