Dining out is rarely your most cost-effective option if you compare ordering four restaurant meals to preparing four meals at home. But there are many ways to make restaurant eating more cost-effective than cooking at home.
If you love to eat out, there are plenty of ways to save money at restaurants.
How to save money at restaurants
Some of these tips may not apply to you. And some of them, you may already have figured out for yourself. Remember: If you’re eating out for enjoyment, don’t follow any savings tip that’s going to make you enjoy it less.
Otherwise, what’s the point? Just follow the cost-saving tips that sound agreeable to you. Note: we’ve saved the very best tip for last!
- Bag up the leftovers unless you’re absolutely sure you won’t eat them. You can often get 2-3 meals out of a single restaurant trip because the portions are big enough for multiple meals, or at least a meal and a snack. That’s a great savings right there, and that’s why restaurant eating can actually be more cost-effective than cooking at home.
- Lunch menu! If you can eat while the lunch menu is still on (especially on weekdays), you’ll often get excellent bargains designed to lure in business people.
- Cut back on expensive beverages or drinks. Beverages and alcohol are where restaurants make their highest profit. Drink free water and you’ll be saving at least $2-3 per person per meal. If you don’t want to do that, you could try reducing the number of cocktails, beers or wine glasses you have when you eat out. If you drink soft drinks and don’t want to stop, just forget this tip.
- Bring your own bottle(s) of wine for the alcohol. In most cases, you’ll save a lot doing this. If the restaurant charges such high corkage fees that it makes up the difference, then consider ordering a bottle for the table rather than one glass at a time. Again, that will save you compared to everyone buying by the glass.
- Local coupons. Small local restaurants may offer coupons in fliers you get in the mail, in the newspaper (especially free newspapers for small neighborhoods or towns) or on their own websites or a website for your town or your town’s newspaper.
- Check out Restaurant.com and look for coupons in your Entertainment book. Entertainment offers local deals from local restaurants and shops. Restaurant.com sells gift certificates for less than their face value, but with a catch: you might, for example, get a $25 gift card for $10, but have to spend $50 to redeem it. That means you must be prepared to spend $50, and then you’ll save $15. If you use these sites strategically, you can save money and enjoy doing it.
- Frequent diner/rewards cards. Some restaurants offer cards that track your spending and give you freebies. Watch out: some of them give you an expiration on the points you collect to encourage you to come in more often so you’ll get your freebie. That’s a false economy: the best way to save money at restaurants is not to go more often than you really enjoy.
- Skip appetizers or dessert – or both, if you won’t miss them. You may find you actually enjoy your food more if you’re not filling up as much.
- Order for the table, not individually. If you can agree on what to eat, order a collection of meals and/or appetizers from which everyone will grab individual servings. Note that at most mid-price restaurants, appetizers are a fantastic value (twice as much food as the meals for a couple of dollars less), but at others, they’re a waste (almost the price of a meal, and maybe half the food). Generally, appetizers are a great value when shared by a table.
- Order an appetizer instead of a meal. There are lots of restaurant appetizers that make good meals: a nachos plate, a basket of chicken fingers and fries, a veggie plate, etc. In many cases, they’ll be at least a couple of dollars less than a meal, but just as filling and enjoyable.
- To-go food. If it’s not the dining experience you’re into – just the food – consider picking it up and taking it home. This way you can skip paying for beverages and tip altogether (actually, you should tip a couple of bucks on to go food, but that’s a lot less than 15+%).
- Split dessert. Not only is this better for your wallet: some restaurant desserts have up to 1600 calories all by themselves! And half is often more than enough.