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How to dine out and save money

How To Save Money While Dining Out at Restaurants

Updated on April 20, 2021

 Personal Finance

We all need to eat, and while we generally have food in the house, we all know that cooking isn’t always fun. There are days when all you want to do is kick back and relax while having a bite to eat without going through all that prep work before your meal. The stress that accumulates throughout the day can make doing so just one more chore that we would rather not do.

This is why we all love restaurants. The concept of going somewhere else for a meal is convenient and stress-free. Be aware that you are also paying for the experience, not only the meal. The preparation of food is also compounded by the staff that waits on you and cleans up when you are finished.

Often a restaurant offers a theme or general mood to entice customers. Going out for a meal is an experience that is about more than the food. These adventures can be quite expensive. In today’s economic climate, many are looking for ways to reduce the cost while still enjoying the event or at least not cooking themselves.

A few options exist depending on what you are willing to do. Some involve cutting corners, and others are about using tricks to reduce costs. By no means are these options exclusive. You can pull from any combination of techniques to create culinary moments that not only work for you but also save you the most money.

What Are You Willing to Cut from Your Dining Experience?

When trying to cut costs for something, one of the best answers is to go for something that isn’t considered top quality, whether this means service or taste. If you cut down on the costs of the experience, then the money that comes out your pocket will reflect that. As such, think of what you are willing to do without when you decide to go out for a meal.

Ditch The Atmosphere

Restaurants that don’t emphasize atmosphere can allow you to cut down on much of the cost. Don’t worry. A simple setting doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is any worse, but it will cut down on the cost of dining out.

Get Meals Delivered

The simplest and most straightforward answer is to have something delivered. When people think of delivery food, the thing that comes to mind the most is pizza. Pizza places have branched out to try and attract a broader audience. A quick look online can show where restaurants can deliver and how long it would take to receive your food.

Pizza places also often have sandwiches, salads, pasta, desserts, and a variety of other options. Because of the success of delivering food, many other cuisines also have decided to add that mobile element to their establishment. This means you can avoid the majority of costs by staying home and having the food brought to you (don’t forget to tip the delivery person because that’s how they make a living).

Get Take Out

If you still want to step out, you can either take it with you or have the delivery sent to somewhere of your choice. Make it a picnic or a day out and have the food ready at your destination.

Read Online Menus

While you are online many places also post their menus and any daily specials there as well. You can see what you want in a no-pressure way so when you walk in, you will know precisely what to order.

Buffets Can Save

If you do go to a restaurant, there are still some tricks that could come in handy. If you are willing to cut a few more costs, you can go to places like a buffet. You're the server, and you can sample a good variety of food.

Quick Serve

Other options include quick serve, where you get your food immediately at the counter. Minimal wait times are their specialty, and you can grab and go. While this includes fast food, it is not limited to those kinds of restaurants. Chains like Subway, Starbucks, and various coffee shops also provide speedy service for less cost.

Fast-Casual Eateries

The final option is the fast-casual eateries such as Panera Bread or Chipotle Mexican Grill. These places take an order, and quickly prepare it for you at a second pickup point. Again, you are bypassing servers for a faster meal and often are a little cheaper than most sit-down restaurants.

Kids Meals

Once you decide on your meal, some further options are still possible. If you are dining with a family, don’t be afraid to search out places that offer cheap kid’s meals. If not, then it comes down to controlling an order.

On the subject of kid’s meals, they can be a lighter option if you don't want to have a big and heavy entrée. Often the quality is just as good as the main menu. Most places will charge you a lower cost with smaller food portions for children and seniors because they don't eat as much.

Share An Entrée

The meal is often oversized if you do get the full entrée. You can split the meal with another person, that way you can cut the cost in half. Most restaurants will allow you to order an extra plate with your meal. Something that you should know is that you will not be able to share food when you go to a buffet, they usually charge per person.

If you don’t end up eating all your food, make sure to take the leftovers home for a nice snack or lunch the next day. Now you're paying once for several meals.

Cut out Appetizers, Desserts and Drinks

Of your supper choices, be aware that what you order can drastically alter the bill. Some people have found that the appetizers and sides are as good as, if not better than, the main meals.

Appetizers Or No Appetizers?

With some judicious choices, you could go into a restaurant and order the choice appetizers and perhaps a few side dishes and leave quite happily. These items tend to be cheaper than the main meals, and you still leave full.

Conversely, you could avoid the appetizers and sides altogether and only order an entrée. If you get both, it’ll start to add up real quick, and your bill can be quite high. Pick one or the other, and it might surprise you how cheap you can eat and still leave happy.

Drink Water To Save Money On Your Meal

Another point to bear in mind is what to drink. Notoriously expensive, drinks can have a significant effect on your bill especially if refills cost you. Stick to water to keep costs down.

When you almost finish your meal, servers will usually try to get you to order a few desserts for your table with some superfluous words and flattery. Please don’t fall for it! If you insist on wanting to eat a dessert after your meal, considering stopping at the grocery store on the way home and grabbing some ice cream or brownie mix and spend time with the family while making your dessert to end the night.

Watch The Clock

When you go out for a meal can be as big of a factor as anything else. Keep an eye on when in the day, week, and year you decide to indulge and save some serious money.

Dining Day To Day

If you need to enjoy a time out aim for earlier in the day. Lunch specials are often well worth a look with smaller portions to avoid waste and lower costs to entice customers. This can extend into the late afternoon where you might be able to take advantage of the time between lunch and dinner to get an excellent deal.

Happy Hour

It is also worth mentioning to consider happy hour. This is a perfect time to seek out a meal if you are willing to make a couple of concessions. For instance, many restaurants with a bar will offer to sit there instead of a table. Saying yes can have you bypass a waiting list and be seated relatively quickly. While there, you can order appetizers and similar foods for a lower cost aimed at being combined with drinks. Seating faster with less expensive food can be a winning combination.

Best Days Of The Week

Beyond the daily concerns, you can begin to consider ahead of time when is the best time to go for a meal. The slowest days of the week tend to be around Monday or Tuesday, so these are your best times to find deals. Restaurants trying to drum up business will often give special deals on these days.

Know The Best Birthday Specials

Also, consider going out on your birthday. Many places offer special deals or coupons for future visits if you tell them it is your special day. This goodwill offering by businesses can be quite handy.

Avoid Holidays

That said, businesses are also aware of the nature of holidays. These days are rather busy and tend to be the reverse situation. They will charge a little more because many will be out and would rather eat than pay attention. Do your best to avoid eating out around holidays and notably Mother’s Day. That is the busiest day of the year for many restaurants, regardless of their fare.

Plan Your Dining More Than You Do Now

Regardless of the tips and tricks you employ, very few options will allow you a completely free experience, so it becomes a challenge to continue saving if you eat out too often. Several options are still available, most depending on the amount of planning you want to put into your meal out.

Look Online

The first step would be to consider looking online for deals and coupons. Many eateries use a variety of forms of advertising, and saving money is often a great way for them to get customers in the door. Purchases of a discounted meal are better than no purchases at all.

Social Media

Sites like compile various deals and online savings for a quick lookup. Additionally, if you know the restaurants you are considering, their social media presence can provide insight into what deals and coupons are best for you.

Groups And Coupon Books

Other sources such as entertainment books, group deals, and coupon books can often provide some ideas and options on how to save on your meal.

Email Lists

Many places also have mailing lists for exclusive deals. For the hassle of some spam either in your mail or email inbox, you could be kept aware of some good options.

Pay Attention To Expiration Dates

Regardless of where you get the deal, be careful to pay attention to the details and expiration dates. If you are not careful, the deal will fall apart and you spend full price.

Smart ways to use Credit Cards and Discounted Gift Cards

Credit cards can offer a variety of incentives to both gain and use their services.

Use Credit Cards With Rewards

One option that helps is cash back for general use. Some even provide gift cards as rewards to certain restaurants in your area. Paying with a credit card that offers such a boon gives you money back for the purchase effectively lowering your out-of-pocket expense.

Buy Cheap Gift Cards

Another card to consider is gift cards. While you can purchase them at most restaurants, if you go online you can buy them from sites like What makes these options better is that you can get cards that the current holder does not want anymore. That makes them open to selling the card for less than it is worth to that establishment.

You can buy a $20 card for less than that amount, giving you free money for that location. Savings of 20% or more are not uncommon, depending on the value of the card and the market for it.