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My wife and I are always looking for ways to eat out for less, and one recent meal demonstrates a combination of several money-saving tactics we use.
We ate at Taco Giro in Tucson, Arizona. It’s a sit-down restaurant, but we eat at the bar, and always during happy hour on Tuesdays. That’s when they have 99-cent fish tacos, plus $1.99 margaritas and beer. We had two delicious fish tacos each, a basket of tortilla chips, and several different salsas (you can help yourself to the free salsa bar). Ana had a margarita and I had a Budweiser.
Our total, with a $2.40 tip and $0.64 sales tax (8.1%): $10.98. That’s right, dinner with drinks for two for less than $11!
According to the most recent Zagat survey, Americans spend an average of $36.30 each to dine out, so our $5.49-per-person dinner was pretty frugal. And that brings us to our first way to eat out for less…
1. Be a Frugal Opportunist
Rather than a specific tactic, this is a more general approach, but it’s an important one. Instead of starting with a particular restaurant or type of food in mind (the usual approach), first look for the least expensive places and ways to eat out, and then choose from those options. That’s opportunism.
For example, we eat out all over, but we’ll be at Taco Giro pretty often as long as they have that Tuesday deal going. When they discontinue that special, we’ll find another place with a great offer.
This approach lets you eat out for less and with a lot of variety, because coupons, promotions, and restaurants come and go.
2. Use Amex Offers
If you have an American Express card, login to your account and scroll down to “Amex Offers.” These offers are typically for a statement credit for spending a certain amount somewhere, and they include restaurants. I just logged in to one of my Amex accounts and of the 65 offers, three are for restaurants, including a $5 statement credit for spending $25 at Boston Market (probably not worth the trouble unless I combine it with other tactics).
Sometimes you can really milk these offers. For example, I once had an offer of a $10 statement credit for spending at least $10 on Newegg.com. I used three of my American express cards to buy three $10 printable gift cards for Applebee’s. The three $10 credits appeared on my accounts within a few days. We had $30 to spend at Applebee’s for a net cost of $0!
The Amex Offers Facebook and Twitter pages sometimes have deals you won’t find on your account page, so check out those too.
3. Use Receipt Scanning Apps
You may already use apps that pay you for scanning grocery receipts. But some of them also offer cash-back for scanning your restaurant receipts. Here are a few examples:
- Ibotta (get a $10 bonus after scanning your first receipt)
- Fetch Rewards (bonus code HH3MN for $1.50 bonus)
- Trunow ($2 sign-up bonus with code TOF19 after scanning your first receipt)
You can get also a rebate or reward with the Servy app. You just have to give some feedback on your experience at the restaurant.
4. Eat Close to Home
This isn’t necessarily a big deal, but a shorter drive to the restaurant does save you money. At a conservative figure of 33 cents-per-mile to operate your vehicle, going to a place that’s six miles further away (12 miles extra round-trip) costs about $4 more.
You might consider a nice walk as a money-saving prelude to eating out. We’ve walked to a dozen nearby restaurants in the couple months we’ve lived here. Doing so eliminated any car costs for those meals.
5. Use Discounted Gift Cards
There are a number of places online where you can buy discounted gift cards for restaurants. Here are a couple examples:
You can buy physical cards or, if you want them sooner, you can print out paper versions. I’ve bought gift cards for Chili’s at a discount as high as 20%, and a 15% discount is common for many restaurants. It can take up to 24 hours for the gift cards to arrive in your inbox, but normally they arrive within a couple of minutes.
You can also find discounted restaurant gift cards at warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club.
6 . Use the Right Rewards Credit Card
Any good rewards credit card will give you cash back of at least 1% or 2% on meals out. Even better, watch for restaurants to show up in the quarterly 5% categories for your Discover or Chase Freedom cards.
My US Bank Cash+ Visa, allows me to choose bonus categories that earn 3% and 5% cash back. If you have a credit card with this option and you eat out often, choose restaurants for the higher cash-back rate.
7. Eat During Happy Hour
This is one of our favorite strategies, because during happy hour at restaurants with bars there are usually drink and food specials. We make a meal of whichever appetizers are half-price and drink whichever beers or cocktails are on special.
8. Fill Up on Appetizers and Sides
Even when there isn’t a happy-hour special, appetizers and side dishes can often be a cheaper way to fill up. We buy a few and share them all for a wider variety.
9. Eat Out at Casinos
We used to get free meals at a local casino. We played nickel slot machines for a half-hour before the designated mealtime, and we rarely lost more than the $5 each they gave us for walking in the door, so we actually got paid to eat out.
The deals aren’t always this good, but it’s worth checking. At the very least, if you’re at a casino that offers free drinks while you play, you can order fruit and vegetable juices to get a few healthy and inexpensive calories before you look for a more substantial meal.
Of course this strategy works best if you aren’t a compulsive gambler (we get bored with gambling pretty quickly).
10. Check Menus Online
It sucks to go to a restaurant for the first time just to discover that it is too expensive. An easy way to avoid this is to check the menu out beforehand online. Most restaurants have a website, and for those that don’t you can use AllMenus.com.
Besides helping me locate the less-expensive restaurants, I’ve found that checking menus online beforehand let’s me choose what to order before we arrive. That saves money because in a dark restaurant or when in a hurry we sometimes miss the best deals on the menu.
11. Go to a Potluck Dinner
Part of the pleasure of eating out is simply getting out of the house. That doesn’t mean you have go to a restaurant. If your homeowner’s association, church, or another group is having a potluck dinner, it’s an opportunity to eat out for a lot less.
Of course you have to bring something to share, so how much you save depends on what you bring. You can find a list of cheap potluck recipes online or, to keep it simpler, just buy some prepared food to bring.
12. Eat With a Vegan or Vegetarian Group
We were briefly part of a vegan group, and about once per month a member hosted a potluck meal in their homes. It was a nice way to get out to eat and talk to people.
To keep it cheap we just opened a can of Dolmas ($2.49 at Trader Joe’s) and arranged them nicely on a plate with some olives ($1.29). You can find vegan groups on Meetup.
13. Eat Out for Lunch
At most restaurants lunch costs less than dinner, even when they serve the exact same menu items. So a simple way to eat out for less is to go out for lunch instead of dinner. Or try the next strategy…
14. Eat an Early Dinner
Lunch and dinner times vary, but many restaurants consider it to be lunch time until 4 p.m. If you go out early for dinner and are seated by that time you get the cheaper lunch prices (ask your server if lunch is still being served as a reminder that you’re there in time).
By eating an early dinner you also can take advantage of happy hours at places that have a bar. Often these run until 6 or 7 p.m. and can include deals on appetizers.
15. Eat Free Samples
They used to cook “meal samples” consisting of several items at a Publix supermarket near us. We were regulars. Check out a Publix or two near you (individual stores vary quite a bit in terms of what kinds of promotions they do).
We still get samples of some sort every time we go to a Trader Joe’s. They even do wine tasting events where they have crackers and other free snacks as “palate cleansers.”
Perhaps one of the best places for free food samples is Whole Foods. We’ve eaten as many as ten different free foods on one trip. Ask an employee which days and times are best for free samples. Once you learn which places have samples you can plan a route to make a meal of these freebies.
Of course, filling up on free samples is not exactly a “dinner out” experience. It’s more of a treasure hunt/snack buffet. But it does get you out of the house, you can make a meal of it if you do it right, and it is inexpensive.
16. Watch for Pricing Inefficiencies
I used to eat at a restaurant that had a salad bar for $5.99 by itself or for $1.99 with any sandwich purchase. I just bought the cheapest sandwich (grilled cheese) for $1.99, added a salad bar, and the total was $3.98, or $2.01 less than just getting the salad bar (which is what I really wanted).
Watch for similar “pricing inefficiencies” when you look at menus. For example, sometimes an entree with two sides can be had for less if you buy the items a la cart.
17. Drink Water Only
In restaurants beverages are the highest-profit-margin items on the menu, so drink up if you want to help the owner. If you want to help your own dining budget, drink water. If the restaurant has bottled water be sure to specify plain or tap water to keep it free.
And be careful with coupons involving drinks. If the offer requires a drink purchase it may be cheaper to get water and skip the coupon.
18. Drink Your Own Wine.
Corkage is becoming more common. It’s the practice of bringing your own wine to a restaurant. Unfortunately it’s not allowed in all states, and even restaurants that allow it are not thrilled about it. Plus you will typically pay a “corkage fee,” which limits or eliminates your savings.
Other options include skipping the wine, having a glass at home before you go out, or hitting a happy hour with cheaper wine before or after your restaurant meal.
19. Skip the Appetizers
I honestly don’t know where people find the room for appetizers and a meal. Restaurant meals usually provide more than enough food, so skip the appetizers to save money. Or do as we sometimes do; skip the entrees and eat just appetizers.
20. Sign Up for Mailing Lists
If you like a restaurant, sign up for any online mailing lists they have so you’ll get special offers. For example, I just received coupons in my email for Sweet Tomatoes, and I regularly get offers from Olive Garden.
21. Sign Up for Text Messages Alerts
Fast food restaurants sometimes let you sign up for text messages with special offers. At least once per week I get a text from Subway, for example, offering a deal. And I got a free sandwich for signing up.
22. Eat at Free Investment Seminars
Despite warnings about seminars offering free meals, we still attend them. If you’re susceptible to very convincing sales pitches, you should probably stay away. But in 30 years of eating at these events I’ve never bought a thing.
And I’m an amateur. Earl Bronsteen ate 50 free meals in a year this way. Aside from offering a free lunch or dinner, the seminars are often interesting and entertaining.
If you go, make one simple commitment: No matter what they say about the need to act right now, wait three days before buying anything. My experience is that the excitement is gone in a couple days, and a more rational decision is possible. Meanwhile, enjoy the free meal and “show.”
23. Pig Out at Buffets
You get more food for your money at a buffet, but you might still pay more than you would have for a meal elsewhere. Fortunately you also save money because you won’t need to eat again that day — at least that’s my experience. And there are things you can do to make a buffet restaurant meal less expensive, including:
- Use coupons.
- Go to the lunch buffet rather than the more expensive dinner buffet.
- Avoid any extras (drink water and eat only what’s included).
24. Split Your Meal
My wife and I very often split a meal to save money. Only once have we paid extra (a “plate charge”) for doing this, and the $2 fee was worth it.
As a money-saving strategy this works especially well in two types of restaurants; those with big meals and those that bring freebies to the table. Some do both. Our favorite meal-splitting restaurants are Mexican places where we can be half-full from the chips and salsa before our single order of Fajitas arrives with the extra plate.
25. Eat the Specials
It’s an obvious suggestion, but it’s easy to forget to ask about specials. They can be several dollars less than any of the regular menu options. If it’s a daily special that’s repeated the same day each week you can probably find it on the restaurant’s website.
Be sure it is a special price though. Sometimes the specials cost more than many menu options.
26. Use Coupons
I’ve used coupons at restaurants more times than I can count. But despite a lot of experience I do sometimes make mistakes in understanding the terms.
Consider BOGO (buy-one-get-one) coupons. It is great when you find the no-catch deals where you buy an entree and get one free. But usually it’s something like “Buy an entree and get one for ½ off.” That’s only a 25% discount, and if you also have to buy two beverages instead of drinking water, you might not save anything at all.
Still, if you read the fine print and use the right ones, coupons are a great way to save money and/or try out new restaurants. Local weekly newspapers often have restaurant coupons, and you can also find them online at Valpak (just enter your location).
27. Go to Two Restaurants in One Night
There might be restaurants you would love to visit if they weren’t so expensive. For my wife and I this has included a beach-front place in Lake Tahoe and a revolving restaurant on top of the Hyatt in Phoenix. With places like these it’s sometimes less about filling up on fine foods, and more about enjoying the environment and views.
The trick to affording them is to first eat a meal at an inexpensive place. Afterward, go to the expensive place for the cheapest dessert on the menu, or just for a drink. We’ve used this trick to have a great night out that ends at a pricey place, while still spending less than $30.
28. Eat Pizza at a Friend’s House
If you really just need to get away from home offer to buy a friend a pizza dinner and bring it to his or her place. It can be cheaper than eating out in a restaurant, and maybe you have a friend with a swimming pool or other amenities.
29. Have a Picnic
If you do it right a picnic will save a lot of money versus a restaurant meal. Just use what you already have rather than buying fancy foods or fancy baskets.
Of course part of your reason for eating out may be to avoid doing any of the food preparation yourself. In that case buy takeout food for a picnic and you might still save money versus a sit-down restaurant meal.
30. Have the Kids Eat Free
Eating out as a family can be expensive! Fortunately there are a number of restaurants where kids eat free on certain days and at certain times. Normally you’ll be required to buy an adult entree or two, but you can still save a lot of money at these places.
31. Eat Freebies on Your Birthday
Any good list of birthday freebies will include a few restaurants. Usually they offer something small, or even just a free drink on your birthday, but it’s better than nothing. You might also get a birthday discount if no freebies are offered.
32. Become a Mystery Shopper
What’s better than a cheap meal out? Getting paid to eat at a restaurant.
Restaurants and other businesses pay market research companies to send in “mystery shoppers” in order to see how well the business is doing from a customer’s perspective. The market research companies hire shoppers (like you) and reimburse them for purchases as well as paying something for their time.
33. Use Groupon Deals
Many restaurants have limited promotions through Groupon. These are not typical coupons but certificates you buy. For example, a pizza restaurant here in Tucson is offering 2 “Groupons” good for $15 each for a total of $17. In other words each one gives you $15 worth of food for $8.50.
If you’re a first-time user of Groupon you can also get a bonus for signing up. Just be sure to watch those expiration dates. The offer mentioned above expires after 120 days, after which time the Groupons are redeemable for only the $8.50 paid for each.
34. Grow Older
Some restaurants offer senior discounts to those who are over the age of 65 or even 55. Also, iff you’re an AARP member there are special dining deals your membership entitles you to.
35. Get a Student Discount
If you’re in college you may get a discount using your student ID. In fact, one big list of places that offer a student discount includes several national restaurant chains.
36. Eat and Pray
My wife and I love Govinda’s here in Tucson. It’s a regular vegetarian restaurant during the week, but every Sunday evening there is an “evening of chanting, singing, dance and discussion on Bhakti yoga,” followed by a seven-course feast, for a suggested donation of $5 each. We have no plans to become Hindus, but we’re going to the event for the first time this Sunday.
I’m not sure how common opportunities like this are in other parts of the country, but keep your eyes open.
37. Watch for Community Organization Meals
Local veterans groups and social clubs sometimes have a “Friday Fish Fry” or other meal events that are open to the public. Often the price for these meals is very reasonable, and tipping is not usually necessary.
38. Eat From Dollar Menus
Rankings of the best value menus will change over time, but at any fast food restaurant those menus are where you’ll usually find the best deals. Two spicy chicken sandwiches from the dollar menu, along with a free cup of water, doesn’t make for the healthiest meal, but it might fill you up for two bucks (plus sales tax).
39. Take Home Leftovers
It makes sense to bring leftovers home, but don’t be tempted to order more than you need just to have something to take home. Eating at home isn’t dining out, so why pay restaurant prices?
On the other hand, if you happen to have food left over after eating out, why not save some money on your grocery bill by taking those extras home?
By the way, Olive Garden breadsticks are pretty good when microwaved for ten seconds, and we’ve been allowed to take them with us even after we finish eating unlimited soup and salad lunches.
40. Skip the Tip
There’s frugal and there’s unfair. Don’t leave your server making just the Federal Minimum Wage of $2.13 per hour.
On the other hand, there are places where tipping is not expected, and places where a smaller tip is the norm. These include fast food restaurants, sandwich shops and other eateries where you’re not waited on at a table. Most of the time the prices are lower at these restaurants and you save the tip.
41. Don’t Eat Out on an Empty Stomach
If you eat less you spend less, so don’t go to the restaurant starving! In any case, you probably eat out to get out of the house, enjoy the ambience of a restaurant, and have some good food, not to pig out on expensive menu items, right?
Of course you don’t want to ruin a nice meal out by eating too much beforehand. For a nice balance we’ve found that eating a piece of fruit is a good idea before going out to eat. It leaves you hungry enough but not desperate.
42. Eat Vegetarian Options
A menu item is likely to cost more if it’s advertised as vegetarian or vegan. On the other hand, because meats are expensive, vegetarian dishes that are not promoted as such often cost less. For example, we find stir-fry dishes at Chinese restaurants are usually about a dollar less when they are with just vegetables (or even with tofu) versus those with chicken or beef.
43. Ask for Extras
Instead of paying for more food at a restaurant, ask for more freebies. For example, many Mexican restaurants will bring you a second bowl of tortilla chips at no extra cost. If you’re eating fast food, you can have a healthier and more filling sandwich by asking for extra lettuce, and most places do not charge extra.
44. Eat at Places With Condiment Bars
We have two nearby restaurants with condiment bars available for customers to use at will. One has four different types of salsa plus pickled carrots and hot peppers. I can just about fill up on those, especially with the free tortilla chips they bring to the table.
When you really want to keep it cheap, go to a restaurant that has these extras available at a self-serve bar. Then order the cheapest menu item and dress it up with all of those freebies.
45. Eat Out at a Soup Kitchen
I’m not suggesting you take advantage of people’s generosity if you’re doing fine. On the other hand, if you can’t afford to eat out even using the strategies here, you might qualify for some help. And at least one soup kitchen is set up as a restaurant, complete with greeters at the door and menus on the table (what a great idea!).
46. Get Out of the Office With a Bag Lunch
Sometimes eating out is just a convenience, like when you go out for lunch every day at work. An alternative that still gets you out of the office but costs a lot less, is to bring a bag lunch. Take it to a nearby park, a roof, or some other interesting place to eat.
47. Follow Restaurants on Social Media
Some restaurants announce specials on their Facebook or Twitter feeds, so follow your favorite places on social media. Besides watching for deals you can also ask if they’re going to have any specials on… (insert your favorite menu items here). You might be informed of an upcoming deal or convince the restaurant to create one.
48. Use Your AAA Card
If you’re a AAA member you can get a discount at some restaurants with your card. To find these deals, click “AAA Discounts and Rewards” on the member benefits page, and then find “Dining” in the category list.
49. Join a Rewards Program
Some restaurants have their own rewards programs. The Subway Rewards Program, for example, gives you points for purchases, which you can redeem for free food or discounts.
Then there is iDine, a program which pays 5% to 15% back (in the form of an American Express Reward Card) at more than 1,100 restaurants. To earn your rewards you link a credit card to the program, pay using that card, and then submit a review of the restaurant.
50. Eat Slowly
Have you ever left a restaurant only to realize that you ate too much? Our stomachs take a while to tell us they’re full, so slow down. If you eat more slowly you’ll probably enjoy the meal more, but you’ll also realize you’ve had enough before you order that dessert. That will save you money.
51. Start With Cheap Restaurants
Even some expensive restaurants can be affordable if you find the right deals, but a sure way to reduce the cost of eating out is to start with the cheapest restaurants in town. Use Google to find them. I just searched “cheapest restaurants” and got several nice lists of the best values in Tucson.
52. Stack Your Savings When Eating Out
Deal stacking is a powerful ways to save money on most things, and restaurant meals are no exception. In this context the basic idea is to use as many ways to save money as you can on the same meal.
For example, you might use a cash-back credit card to buy a discounted gift card for a local restaurant you can walk to, and then use it for a lunch (cheaper than dinner) where you and your significant other split a meal, and drink only water. Six ways to save money, all applied to one meal — that’s how you eat out for less.
Do have a trick for eating out for less that you can add to our list? Tell us about it below, and happy frugaling!