Let’s face it. We’ve all had stressful days when we come home from work and just can’t face the idea of cooking. And eating out with friends or family is one of the primary ways we socialize. It’s no fun skipping a meal out because it doesn’t fit into your personal budget.
Fortunately, you can enjoy the occasional meal out without throwing your finances into complete disarray. It’s a matter of making strategic choices about when and where to eat, what to order, and how to pay.
Ways to Save Money Eating Out at Restaurants
As a rule, eating out costs much more than cooking at home. A restaurant meal can cost anywhere from three to six times as much as the cost of the ingredients. The extra cost pays for amenities like the service and the atmosphere.
Fortunately, there are ways to minimize these extra costs so you can enjoy a night off cooking duty with less guilt.
1. Be Your Own Server
At fine-dining restaurants like The Capital Grille or Morton’s, dinner entrees can cost $50 or more. Add in soup or salad, a glass of wine, dessert, coffee, tax, and tip, and your bill could be $100 or more per person.
Family restaurants like Red Lobster and Chili’s are quite a bit cheaper. Most entrees there cost only $10 to $20. But if you want to save some serious money, choose a restaurant where you primarily serve yourself. Because these places don’t have to pay for waitstaff, they can charge much less for food that’s just as tasty as what you get at a casual chain.
Types of self-service restaurants include:
- Buffets. Buffets allow you to help yourself to food laid out on a long table. Most charge a flat price for all you can eat — a great bargain if you’re extra hungry. There are few casual buffet chains in the U.S., but some local restaurants use this pricing model.
- Fast Casual Joints. Fast-casual dining is a middle ground between fast food and full service. You order at a counter, and a worker prepares your food from fresh ingredients. These chains offer a nicer atmosphere and sometimes bring your order to your table. Fast-casual chains like Panera and Chipotle typically charge $5 to $10 for a main dish.
- Quick-Service Restaurants. At a quick-service restaurant, food is cheap and often premade rather than to order. These chains usually feature drive-thrus and late hours. The category includes fast-food chains like McDonald’s, sandwich shops like Subway, and coffee shops like Starbucks. You can get a whole meal for around $5.
2. Get It to Go
Another way to save on your restaurant meal is to eat it at home. When you order takeout from your favorite restaurant, you can provide your own service.
For example, suppose you go to a modestly priced Italian restaurant and order lasagna with soup or salad and a glass of wine. Including tax and tip, the whole meal might cost around $30.
But if you get the lasagna by itself as a takeout order, you could pay as little as $15 with tax. If you live in a metropolitan area or college campus, ordering online is easy with Seamless or DoorDash. Just choose the pickup option to save on the delivery charge.
Once you get your lasagna home, add the extras yourself. You can quickly toss together a salad with about a dollar’s worth of greens. A glass of inexpensive wine — say, $15 a bottle — adds another $3. The total cost of the meal comes to only $19, saving you $11.
3. Make It a Lunch
If the experience of eating out is what you crave, you can enjoy it much more cheaply at lunchtime than dinnertime. Many chain restaurants charge quite a bit less for the meals on their lunch menu. Examples include:
- Applebee’s. Dinner entrees range in price from $9 to $18. Lunch combos, which include any two choices from a list of soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees, cost $7 to $9.
- Cheesecake Factory. Dinner entrees range in price from $12 to $30. Lunch specials cost between $12 and $20.
- Red Lobster. Dinner entrees range in price from $13 to $33. Lunch entrees range from $8 to $12.
You don’t always have to eat at midday to get these prices. Some restaurants extend their lunch hours into the late afternoon. Check local restaurants to see how late their lunch hours run. If you’re willing to have “dinner” early enough, you could pay the lunchtime price for it.
4. Go for Happy Hour
Many chain restaurants have happy hours before or after the dinner rush. During these periods, they offer special deals on food and drinks. At some chains, such as Applebee’s and Red Robin, you can get drinks for as little as $2 or appetizers for half price.
Other chains offer early bird specials during the pre-dinner hours. The difference between these and happy hours is that they’re only for food, not drinks.
Some early bird deals are just for diners over 50. For instance, some Golden Corral restaurants offer a senior early bird buffet deal on weekdays. Other deals, like the weekday Early Dinner Duos at some Olive Garden restaurants, are open to anyone.
5. Celebrate Your Birthday
More than 200 restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club. All you have to do is sign up on the restaurant’s website. When your birthday approaches, you receive a coupon by email for a free drink, dessert, or entree.
Of course, there’s no way to take advantage of all this free food 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 the day of.
For example, I belong to the Baskin-Robbins Birthday Club. I get my coupon for a free scoop of ice cream by email a week before my birthday. I can then cash it in any time over the following 10 days.
6. Drink Water
If restaurant food is pricey compared to home cooking, the drinks are even pricier. Restaurants charge about four or five times as much for a glass of wine or beer as they pay for it.
But avoiding alcoholic beverages won’t solve the problem. In fact, the markup on soft drinks is even higher. A fountain drink costs a whopping 20 times the restaurant’s cost. And a cup of tea costs you up to 10 times what the restaurant paid for the tea bag.
A better solution is to skip the drinks altogether and drink water with your meal for nothing. Ask specifically for tap water. Some restaurants charge over $3 for a bottle of mineral water that costs them 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.
7. Bring Your Own Bottle
If a meal just doesn’t taste right without a glass of wine, look for restaurants that let you BYOB — bring your own bottle. An $18 bottle costs you less than $4 per glass. By contrast, a glass of the restaurant’s house wine could cost up to $12.
Note that some restaurants charge a corkage fee to open and decant the bottle for you. At most upscale restaurants, this fee is between $10 and $50. And some elite restaurants charge as much as $150.
At that price, BYOB is no longer a bargain. So ask the corkage price before bringing a bottle.
8. Have Something Special
You might think the best way to save on a restaurant meal would be to order the cheapest dish on the menu — or at least the cheapest one you like. And in dollar terms, it’s clear that you pay less for a $14 plate of pasta than a $30 bowl of bouillabaisse.
But that doesn’t make the pasta a better bargain. Restaurants charge a much higher markup on inexpensive foods like pasta than on pricier ingredients like steak and seafood. Thus, these high-value dishes offer more bang for your dining buck.
Moreover, pasta is a dish you can easily make in your own kitchen, even if your cooking skills are minimal. And a plate of spaghetti Bolognese cooked at home could cost as little as $1. So by ordering pasta instead of bouillabaisse, you’re not really saving $16. Instead, you’re wasting the $13 extra you paid to have this dish in a restaurant.
Remember, when you eat out, the bulk of your bill isn’t going toward the cost of the food. You’re paying a premium for the service and the atmosphere. And you pay that premium no matter what you order.
So you may 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 can be worth going out for duck a l’orange.
9. Split a Meal
At many restaurants, the amount of food you get is far more than you 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. There may be an extra plate charge of a dollar or two, but it’s still a savings.
Another option is for one of you to order something small – a salad, soup, or appetizer – while the other orders an entree. 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 $8 on the dish, or around $10 with tax and tip.
Even if your friend orders a $7 salad and you share both, each of you still saves around $5.50. And the lighter meal is easier on your waistline as well as your wallet.
10. Take Home Leftovers
Another way to deal with oversized portions is to take home the leftovers. Instead of eating everything on the plate, stop when you’re full (or halfway done) and ask for a container. That way, your dinner can double as the next day’s lunch.
For some people, it’s hard to stop eating while there’s still food on the plate. If that’s a problem for you, ask for the container at the beginning of the meal. Put the to-go portion in the box right away before you even start eating.
Taking home leftovers doesn’t save as much money as sharing with a friend. Even if you get two meals out of your entree, your leftovers are only taking the place of a cheap brown-bag lunch.
If you usually spend a dollar or two packing a lunch, that’s all you save by keeping your restaurant leftovers. Still, it’s better than letting food go to waste.
And speaking of waste, the to-go containers many restaurants provide are big foam clamshells you can’t recycle. If you don’t like all that waste, bring your own reusable containers when eating out.
11. Look for Discounts
Once you’ve finished your restaurant meal, you have to pay for it. That gives you one last opportunity to lower the cost with discounts and coupons. Options include:
- Restaurant.com. Many restaurants offer discounted gift certificates through Restaurant.com. You can buy a $25 gift certificate for as little as $10. But read the fine print, as gift certificates often come with restrictions. For instance, you may need to spend at least $50 to use your $25 certificate.
- Entertainment App. The Entertainment website and app provide coupons for restaurants and attractions all over the country. A subscription costs $3 per month or $25 per year. You can try it free for 30 days to see which local restaurants it includes.
- Group Deals. Through group buying sites like Groupon or LivingSocial, you can join forces with other shoppers to get group discounts at local businesses. Their restaurant deals can save you 50% or more. But check the terms carefully since deals often have expiration dates or other restrictions.
- Coupons. You can find coupons and discounts for local eateries through Valpak, SmartSource, or your local newspaper. And with Valpak’s mobile app, you can display the coupon on your phone when you pay instead of having to print it out.
- Local Deals. Local businesses like restaurants often sell discounted gift cards as a promotion. Look for them on the restaurant’s website or Facebook page. Some also offer discount deals like buy-one, get-one-free meals when you subscribe to a newsletter or follow them on social media.
When using coupons and deals, remember to calculate the tip based on the full price, not the reduced amount you’re paying. Your server is still doing just as much work. And with all you’re saving on the meal itself, you can tip generously and still come out ahead.
12. Get Cash Back
Your savings don’t have to stop after you’ve paid the bill. You can get anywhere from 1% to 5% of your money back from the credit card issuer by paying with a cash-back credit card.
Some cash-back cards offer a flat-rate discount on everything you buy. Others pay a higher percentage on purchases in specific categories, which can include restaurants.
You can often get the best savings with a restaurant rewards card, such as the Capital One SavorOne Rewards credit card. If you don’t have one, check your other cards to see which currently offers the most cash back at restaurants.
With some cards, bonus cash-back categories change every three months. To keep track of which bonuses each card offers when, keep a note in your wallet or on your phone. That way, you always know which card to pull out at a restaurant for the biggest reward.
Another way to get cash back at restaurants is through Neighborhood Nosh. Link your debit or credit card to earn cash back at participating local restaurants, bars, and clubs.
You earn 5% when you first sign up for the program. When you’ve spent $750 in a single year, you become a VIP member and start earning 10%. Once you accumulate $20 in rewards, you receive a $20 American Express reward card by mail.
Better still, the card you register with either program can be a rewards credit card. That allows you to earn cash back two different ways every time you eat out, which is definitely a delicious deal.
There’s also Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining. It works much like Neighborhood Nosh, but it gives you travel rewards on your dining dollars instead of cash back.
Finally, make dine-in reservations through OpenTable. It has a rewards program that gives you points each time you book a table. You can cash them in for a gift certificate to your favorite restaurant on the OpenTable platform.
The easiest way to save money on dining out is not to do it at all. A meal at a restaurant just costs a lot more than the same meal at home. So cooking all your own meals makes sense.
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 out, the more often you can afford to treat yourself.