At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, ordering in became the new dining out. In June 2020, Restaurant Insider reported that eateries’ weekly sales through online ordering had increased by more than 800% between February and April. And even as states began to reopen restaurants for indoor dining, takeout remained a popular choice. In September, Statista projected that delivery from restaurants would grow by 17% overall in 2020, and orders from food delivery services such as Grubhub and Uber Eats would grow by 25%.
Unfortunately, while ordering takeout can be safer than eating out, it’s not always cheaper. According to The New York Times, ordering dinner through a food delivery app can cost as much as 91% more than getting the same meal in the restaurant. Some restaurants raise their prices for takeout orders, and most apps charge delivery fees and other service costs on top of that.
Multiply this by two or three takeout orders a week, and having food delivered can turn into a real budget buster. However, there are ways to fight back. You can save money on food delivery by making smart choices about what you order, where you order from, and how you place your order — in particular, how you use discounts and rewards to your advantage.
Place a Cheaper Order
According to a 2018 Forbes article, the average cost of having a meal delivered from a restaurant is over $20 per person. At some chains, it can exceed $30 per person. The easiest way to cut this cost: Think twice about what you order.
1. Choose Cheaper Items
The most obvious way to save money on your takeout order is to choose a cheaper item from the menu. For instance, at the IHOP nearest my house in central New Jersey, most sandwiches cost around $10, while hot dinners like chicken, steak, or seafood cost between $11 and $15. It’s not a huge difference, but it adds up if you order food often.
2. Choose a Smaller Portion
Another way to lower your bill is to choose a smaller portion. For instance, if you’re old enough to order from the senior menu at IHOP, most entrees are under $10. Light eaters can also save by ordering an appetizer as their main course.
3. Split a Dish
If you’re placing a to-go order for your whole family, consider splitting your entree with a family member. It automatically cuts the per-person cost in half and also helps you avoid overeating.
If you’re at home by yourself, consider splitting the dish in half before you start eating and setting aside half of it to reheat for tomorrow’s lunch. This is cheaper than placing two separate, smaller orders since you only pay the delivery fee once.
4. Skip the Extras
Piling on extras like appetizers, desserts, and drinks can more than double the price of your takeout order. It’s much cheaper to supply these yourself — especially the drinks. There’s no point in shelling out $3 for a soft drink when you can get a whole 2 liters (about eight servings) for $2 at the grocery store. Better yet, skip all that added sugar and drink tap water for practically free.
5. Hit the Grocery Store
Here’s a less conventional way to save money on takeout: Get your meal from the grocery store instead. Many large supermarkets offer a wide variety of prepared foods, including rotisserie chickens, cold salads from the deli, and even pizza.
You can pick up your meal yourself — possibly while doing your regular grocery shopping — or have it delivered along with your other groceries through a grocery delivery service. There could still be a delivery fee, but you’ll save by spreading it across a whole week’s worth of food.
Reduce Delivery Fees
When you order out, the price of the food itself isn’t your only cost. Delivery fees and service fees can add between $2.50 and $10.50 to each order, according to The New York Times. Finding ways to cut those costs can help keep your overall takeout budget under control.
6. Seek Out Free Delivery
While there are almost no eateries that offer free delivery all the time, you can sometimes get this perk as a limited-time offer. For instance, as of December 2020, Popeyes is offering free delivery on any order. In addition, food delivery apps like DoorDash and Postmates sometimes team up with local restaurants to offer free delivery as a promotion, particularly on your first order.
7. Compare Delivery Fees
Delivery fees can vary widely between restaurants and delivery platforms. Spending a little time comparing the fees at different local restaurants could save you several dollars on every takeout order you place.
In addition to looking at how fees vary across different restaurants, check out how much they vary for different delivery services that partner with the same restaurant. The New York Times analysis found that the cost of the same two sandwiches could vary by nearly $9 depending on whether you ordered them through Grubhub, DoorDash, Postmates, or Uber Eats.
8. Avoid Double Tipping
Restaurant delivery drivers work hard, and I’m not about to suggest you stiff the delivery person for a tip. However, before forking over cash at the door, it’s worth checking to make sure you haven’t been charged for a tip already.
Some food delivery services — including Grubhub, Seamless, and DoorDash — automatically add a tip to your order’s price at checkout. The default tip is often around 20%, so if you add a 20% tip of your own to that, you’ve just tipped the driver 40%. That’s a wonderful gesture to make if you can afford it, but it’s probably not a great idea when you’re on a tight budget.
9. Pick It Up Yourself
The most straightforward way to avoid delivery fees is to skip the delivery. Instead, get some exercise and hoof it down to the restaurant to pick up your own order. This allows you to skip both the delivery fee and the tip without guilt.
Take Advantage of Discounts
When placing an online food order, don’t assume the price you see on the menu is the price you have to pay. More often than not, you can find a coupon, promo code, or other discount offer to knock something off the price. It’s all a matter of knowing where to look.
10. Check Your Mail
Do you receive envelopes in your mail stuffed full of coupons for local businesses? If you do, don’t just assume they’re useless junk mail. Sometimes, they contain coupons for local eateries that you can apply to your takeout order at checkout.
Circulars for local grocery stores are another possible source of coupons. Before tossing them in the recycling bin, shake them to see if any useful coupons for local eateries spill out.
If you don’t receive coupon-stuffed envelopes from Valpak, you can still use this service’s website to look for local offers. Just go to Valpak.com and enter your ZIP code to find restaurant and delivery service coupons for your area.
11. Check Your Receipt
When you receive a food delivery order, take a look at the receipt. Some restaurants try to attract repeat business by printing coupons at the bottom that you can apply to your next order. Check the food bag before tossing it too — some places tuck coupons or discount offers in along with your meal.
12. Check Out Delivery Service Sites
If you’re planning to order food through a delivery service, check its website for promo codes first. Because restaurant delivery is such a competitive business, these services regularly offer discount codes that waive or reduce their fees in an attempt to attract customers. To maximize your savings, go with whichever service offers the best promo codes that particular day rather than being loyal to just one.
To stay in the loop on delivery service discounts, sign up for these services’ newsletters. They’ll let you know when a special offer goes live.
13. Search Online
If none of these sources turns up a coupon or promo code, don’t give up yet. You can often find one just by doing a basic online search for “coupon code” or “promo code” with the name of the restaurant or delivery service you want to use.
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14. Use Discounted Gift Cards
A final way to get your delivery order at a discount is to pay for it with a discounted gift card. Restaurants sometimes run specials that give you an extra gift card for yourself whenever you buy one as a gift, such as a $10 bonus card to go with a $50 gift.
You can also find discounted cards on a site such as Raise.com, where people can go to buy, sell, or trade unwanted gift cards. Or buy discounted e-gift cards from Restaurant.com that you can use at thousands of restaurants across the country. Discounts on this site vary, but they can sometimes be steep. For instance, in October 2020, Restaurant.com offered a two-for-one sale: two $100 gift cards for just $40 total, a discount of 80%.
Better still, you can “stack” these discounted gift cards with other deals and discounts, such as a promo code. For example, if you buy a $50 gift card, get a $10 card free, and combine them with a 10% off promo code, you could get $66 worth of food for $50 — a discount of around 24%.
After using coupons and promo codes to reduce the amount you spend on your takeout order, you can take advantage of various rewards programs to make back some of what you spend. You can earn rewards from the restaurant itself, from a shopping app, from a cash-back credit card, or all three at once.
15. Join a Restaurant Rewards Program
If you have a favorite restaurant — or several — that you order from again and again, check out its website or social media account to see if it has a rewards program. At many eateries, signing up for an email list can score you special discounts and freebies, such as free food on your birthday.
Some rewards programs, such as the Texas Roadhouse VIP Club, deliver perks such as coupons and gifts straight to your inbox. Others, such as Chipotle Rewards and Dunkin’s DDPerks, use a points system. Each time you place an order at the restaurant, it adds points to your account, and when you earn enough, you can cash them in for free appetizers, drinks, and other rewards.
16. Use a Cash-Back App
For instance, when you use the Rakuten app, you can earn up to 11% cash back on Grubhub orders and up to $7 back on Postmates. The deals are best for new subscribers, but returning customers can still earn a modest rebate. These apps can also pay you cash back when you sign up for a delivery subscription (discussed below).
17. Pay With a Rewards Credit Card
For instance, the Savor One Rewards card from Capital One pays an unlimited 3% cash back on dining and entertainment purchases. Thus, a $35 takeout order would put $1.05 straight back into your wallet.
18. Try a Subscription Service
If you only use delivery services once in a while, your best bet is probably to switch around as much as possible so you can get the new customer discount at each service in turn. However, if you use these services a lot, you can probably save more by signing up for a delivery subscription.
Most of these services come with a one-month free trial. If you really want to game the system, you could try each of them in turn, cancel it after a month, and get unlimited free delivery for several months. However, you don’t have to play this game to save money with a subscription service. All you have to do is use it enough to make the cost of the service cheaper than what you’d otherwise pay in fees.
Here’s a look at how the math works for several leading services:
- DoorDash: When CNET tested DoorDash’s delivery service, they paid $3 for the delivery fee, plus $3 for a service fee. However, if you sign up for its subscription service, DashPass, you get unlimited free delivery on orders over $12 and reduced service fees as well. DashPass costs $10 per month, so it will pay for itself if you use it at least four times per month.
- Grubhub: CNET’s order with Grubhub cost $6 in delivery fees. Its subscription service, Grubub+, provides unlimited free delivery for $10 per month. That means it will only take two orders per month to pay for itself. (Grubhub also owns Seamless, and its Seamless+ service offers the same perks.)
- Postmates: Delivery fees from Postmates range from $1 to $10, according to CNET. A subscription to Postmates Unlimited costs either $10 per month or $100 per year and provides unlimited free delivery on orders over $12. Thus, it could pay for itself in as little as 10 orders per year, or it could take up to 10 per month. For a clearer idea of the value, check delivery pricing in your area.
- Uber Eats: CNET paid a $5 delivery fee (plus a $4 service fee) for a takeout order from Uber Eats. A $10-per-month Eats Pass would have given them not only free delivery, but also a 5% discount on any order over $15. Thus, if you place an order this size at least twice a month, you save more with Eats Pass than you pay for it.
Of course, there’s one way of saving money on food delivery that’s simpler than any other: just don’t use it so much. No matter how many tricks and strategies you use to cut the cost of having food delivered, the fact remains that ordering food from a restaurant is a lot more expensive than cooking it yourself. Forbes found that, on average, it costs about five times as much to have food delivered as it does to prepare the same meal at home.
There’s no denying that cooking dinner at home is more work than just grabbing your phone and having food delivered straight to your door. However, there are ways to make it easier. For instance, you could sign up for a meal delivery service like Freshly or HelloFresh that regularly sends you a recipe and fresh ingredients, all prepared and ready to cook. Forbes found that using a meal delivery service is about three times as expensive as cooking from scratch, but it’s still significantly cheaper than ordering in.
To save even more, look for easy and inexpensive recipes you can prepare from scratch. Check out our article on family dinners at home for ideas.