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Save Money at Restaurants

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Save Money at Restaurants

Save Money at Restaurants

Follow these tips to save some big money at restaurants

I thought I'd compile a few tips for saving money at restaurants. Before I get started I'd like to recognize a couple of things. First, one of the best way to save money at restaurants is to avoid them. Cooking at home is usually the cheapest way to eat. Second, many people consider restaurant time as "pampering time" - and thus not something to be skimped on. That's fine if it's fits within your budget and your means. If not, perhaps these tips can help you save a few dollars.

  • Be an Early Bird - Some people joke that only senior citizen take advantage of early bird specials at many restaurants. There's no rule that you have to be a certain age. It's perfectly fine to eat an early dinner - it might even open things up for an evening snack. As a bonus, you may even be in time for happy hour.
  • Go for Lunch not Dinner - Lunch menus are often a good deal cheaper than dinner menus. Some Asian places that I like often have tremendous lunch deals for around $7.00 a plate. I've noticed it's often only a slightly smaller option than the $12 or $13 dinner. I've always had too much food anyway.
  • Turn One Meal into Two - Amongst friends, I'm famous for this magic act. At Olive Garden, I'll take advantage of the delicious salad and breadsticks - and eat only a small portion of my entree. I will bring the rest home and I've got lunch for another night. This also works well at many steakhouses. A quick look at my local Outback Steakhouse menu shows that I could get an 8 oz. prime rib for a penny shy of $17... while a 16 oz. is just $5 more ($21.99). That's more than $2 an ounce for the first 8, but less than 63 cents an oz for the last 8 ounces.
  • Split a Meal - It's the same idea as above, but in this case you split your dinner with someone else. Some restaurants discourage this by charging a fee for such a thing. I understand fees for some kind of extra service or a penalty for being late, but I never got the split-plate fee. It seems like restaurant is simply saying, "We don't care about our customers."
  • Eat on off-nights - I noticed that the local Chevy's Fresh Mex offers free children's meals on Tuesdays. Restaurants generally do most of their business on Fridays and Saturdays. You won't likely find a deal then, but Tuesdays and Wednesdays are very good candidates for a deal.
  • Take Advantage of Coupons - A lot of restaurants in my area send me coupons in the mail. Occasionally they are of the type of Buy One, Get One Free. That's a good savings for a couple. If your area doesn't have that look towards an Entertainment Book or Restaurant.com. I've heard that in the UK you can find good coupons from VoucherStar.
  • Look For a Restaurant Without a Liquor License - Of course it's much cheap to save the drinks for home, but many people prefer wine with their meal. I've found a few local places that for some reason don't have a liquor license. They allow you to bring your own wine and not pay a corkage fee.
  • Drink Water - Most restaurants won't bat an eye at giving you water with a couple of lemons. I have a friend who adds a little Splenda packet to finish off a free lemonade.
  • Consider a Mid-range Restaurant - Some chain restaurants like T.G.I. Friday's and Applebee's are hurting for customers now. They've lowered their prices and some have introduced some under $10 meals.
  • Consider Taco Bell's Fresco Menu - I know it sounds really cheap and probably not that appetizing for a dinner out. I found it to be a lot tastier than it appears. It scores extra points for me because it's not only cheap, but it's fairly healthy and convenient. Subway's Five Dollar Foot-long campaign also weighs fits the bill for my tastes. Plus the commercials for a "yum rocket" just makes me laugh every time I hear it.

It may be easy to think that you are skimping too much when you follow these tips. Instead of focusing on the skimping, I think about how much money I'm saving and how how many more times I could go out to eat on my budget.

Last updated on November 14, 2011.

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21 Responses to “Save Money at Restaurants”

  1. Here in the central Florida area, most of the Bennigans are closing down. For quite a while recently they offered a “Cash Crunch Lunch” which was a pretty good selection of entrees for $4.99, and that included a drink. Since we go out to eat every Sunday for lunch, this was a no-brainer. Feed a family of 4 for $20? That’s a deal!

  2. Lazy Man – Don’t forget the baby boomers. Some restaurants offer discounts at all times or at certain times for the over-55 crowd. (Excludes beer unfortunately). Don’t be shy about your age when that opportunity arises.

  3. Lazy Man says:

    I thought I included them (at least in passing) with the early bird mention.

  4. Thanks for the frugal tips Lazy Man. Of course the best tip that you gave us was at the beginnig of the article – eat at home :-)

  5. JD says:

    Damn man I’m actually feeling sorry for you. Where do you live where your choice of restaurants are things like Outback, Applebees, Chevys, and TGIF??? I wouldn’t eat at any of those places if the food was free. You only live in this world for a fairly short time, enjoy it and get out more. You’ll have an eternity to experience nothing ever again.

  6. Lazy Man says:

    I try to write for a national audience. If I were to stick to places in San Francisco like House of Nanking and House of Prime Rib, few people would know what I was talking about.

    Of course, I find Outback, Applebee’s, Chevy’s and TGIF good restaurants for the price. I’d certainly eat there for free. If I were to go to much better restaurants, I’d have stay in a lot more or go bankrupt.

  7. Jim says:

    I’ve used the Restaurant.com gift certificates and they work fine for us.

    Their normal price is $10 for a $25 certificate but they are always running deals like 50% off so it shouldn’t be hard to get them for around $5. I hit a sale and got mine for $4.

    So all told I’m cutting about $20 off the cost of a dinner for 2.

    THe only problems I see with them is limited restaurant selection and restrictions on use. Different restaurants have different rules, but generally there is a minimum purchase requirement of $35-50 and some restaurants require a mandatory 18% gratuity. But if a restaurant you like takes them and you’re aware of the rules then it can be a decent bargain.

  8. guinness416 says:

    I don’t do chains, and don’t generally like to share :) But we have a favourite Thai place that, in addition to having great food, serves gigantic portions (to the point that we wonder how they turn a profit). We generally get two dinners plus a lunch out of one twelve-buck entree, which is wild.

  9. Matt says:

    Nice list – keeping the alcohol of the bill is definitely a great way to spend less at a restaurant. But if you’re trying to be incredibly frugal about your eating why eat at a restaurant?

    Some places also have specials like wing nights where they offer a big discount on a specific food type; if you happen to like it then you can really save some coin.

  10. David says:

    I just used a restaurant.com certificate last evening for my wife’s birthday dinner. I bought the $25 voucher for $4 on the website. Another nice thing about it is that they partner with local restaurants, not just the chains.

    I agree that some of the restrictions can be annoying, but we found some were much more lenient, and the wait staff doesn’t always take the time to read the restrictions anyway.

    Of course, using coupons for dates may not be the best move, but my wife and I are well past that point! :)

  11. mackb says:

    All of your tips are good with one partial exception:
    Drink water is fine. Request lemon is fine. But do NOT make pauper’s lemonaide in a restaurant.
    1. It is tacky
    2. Water with lemon is a cost to the restaurant and a courtey to the customer, don’t abuse it.
    3. Your waiter will see you as a cheap-ass and presume you’ll also be skimping on the gratuity. Your service will be lousy.
    4. Your waiter counts on you paying for drinks to up the bill as most people tip based on a percentage of the bill. It is the same amount of work for them to get your makings for lemonaide, but they see no bump to the bill (and tip).

    So: Drink water, even with lemon. Don’t make your own lemonaide as it is rude, tacky and cheap. Don’t cheap out on the gratuity, unless you never plan to visit that restaurant again.

    Other tips to save when dining out:
    1. Look for smaller independant restaurants – They often have fresher, made in house food and have reasonable prices. O.G. is factory food that comes out of plastic bags and is microwaved.

    2. Table de Hote menu/Price fixed menu – Many restaurants offer a multi-course menu for a set price, often well below the price of ordering individually.

    3. Befriend your waiter – Find a place that suits you and visit often. Get to know the staff and tip well. Once they know that you are not a high cheque, but you tip reliably, they will guide you to the best values available. Remember, most people in the industry have to live on pretty tight budgets too.


  12. Lazy Man says:

    I presume that restaurants make up the cost of water with lemon via other means. For instance, water with lemon and sugar would likely be more expensive than the syrup of soda. If one is a courtesy, why is the other two dollars?

    I don’t buy the tacky argument – it’s subjective. Splitting plates may be considered tacky in the United States, but in France it’s common place and sometimes referred to as a reason why the French maintain a healthy lifestyle.

    The waiter shouldn’t make assumptions. If he/she assumes that someone is cheap and gives bad service then his/her tip will likely reflect that. However, if he/she gives everyone good service, I’m sure they’d be surprised by a good tip at least some of the time… it’s better than a poor tip nearly 100% of the time.

    As for the waiter looking for a higher bill because people tip based on a percentage of the bill, I don’t see how drinking free water with lemon is going to up the bill. Whether someone adds a sugar packet that’s already on the table isn’t going to impact that.

    I’d like to befriend the waiter as you say, but the “visit often” is very counter-productive to saving money when eating out.

  13. While these are good tips, cooking at home trumps doing all of these things. :)

    As for splitting plates, I think it’s fine if you want to do that and if you think it’s tacky, then don’t do it. If the waiter makes an assumption and gives bad service, then you’re right, they get a bad tip. :)

  14. Good article. Most savings and budgeting tips always list “dining out” as a big no-no in the world of savings. Taking the time to find the best deal is a great way to enjoy your success in budgeting. People who find they can still reward themselves for a job well-done are probably more likely to stay on the right path to succesful savings.

  15. Luca says:

    Well well, it was so nice to read all these way to save money at restaurant.

    I’m writting from Italy and really It would be so nice if over here you can do one of these things eheheh

    The only thing that you can do is eat at home even if go out.

    For all the other things here there’s no way to pratice. Here we don’t have coupons that give you so much discount, at least you can find something for about 2/3 euros (uhm let’s say 5 USD) discount…buy a discount at 5 USD and use for 25 ahahah that’s a dream!

    The water in all the restaurant is not free….we don’t have any kind of fast food or restaurant that give you something to drink for free…and 1 litre water make you pay from about 2,5 / 3 USD….

    And never think to ask to take you home the food you hadn’t eat!…even if you go in a place where they give you a lot of food …sometimes there are people that try to ask and find out incredible stories like “please can you put this in a box for my dog / cat” …or something like that…and immediatly all start to look at you as a miserable because nobody really think that you are taking this out for your dog or cat!

    Split meals?? ahahah at max at Mc Donald’s you can split fries or chicken but at a restaurant (evenif you haven’t 2 little babies and they don’t cook baby portions) they will never let you split a meal….

    So guys believe you are very very lucky to have all these opportunities.

    Fortunatly I visited States different times and really it’s another world…you can’t imagine how much lucky you are!!!

    Ok just to write to you from the other side of the world ;)

    Ciao ciao

  16. kaitlyn says:

    I felt the need to comment on the make your own lemonade. Yes, it’s free, but it does make the server hate you, and you do receive lesser service. When I was a young, naive server, I treated everyone equally, red flags or no. Ha! It didn’t take long to notice that people that made their own lemonade didn’t tip worth crap. As a rule, if you too cheap to pay $1.99, you are too cheap to tip.

    Did I lose out on a couple of possibly much better tips by not giving above and beyond service to trash that made their own lemonade? Maybe. On a select few number of tables. That is far outweighed by the stress I saved not giving excellent service to people that weren’t going to tip me anyway, no matter what I did. I can’t tell you how soul-crushing it is to hear “oh sweetie, you did such an excellent job! You’re the best server! Have $5 on our $100 check.”

    Want an actual server secret towards saving money at restaurants? Become a regular and tip amazingly. We will bend over backwards and give you all sorts of free things to keep a regular that tips well happy.

  17. Lazy Man says:

    The problem is that becoming a regular is a horrible way to save money.

  18. kaitlyn says:

    Then I suppose if you keep to your plan of saving that absolutely necessary $1.99 (and for the record, when I go out to eat, I order water – but I don’t make my own lemonade), then you are going to get crap service much of the time. You have clearly never been in the industry, because you are wrong about the hope for one good tip making up a whole bunch of bad tips. Those servers don’t last long. Their spirit gets crushed, and the industry spits them out.

  19. Lazy Man says:

    Note that I didn’t say that I did the lemonade thing. I said that a friend of mine did. When I think about it, it was more at self-serve places where there is no waiter service.

    Does this make a difference? If so, why?

  20. Michael says:

    I’ve waited tables for over 10 years low and high end and found that its easier simply to give your best service all the time and those Cheapskates become fewer and fewer. Eventually they begin to recognize your efforts on their behalf. I’ve also found other patrons extremely supportive when dealing with penny pinchers and often make up the difference. I’ve been tipped pennies on Hundred dollar tabs a few times but have on quite a bit more receieved Hundred dollar tips on $10 tabs. Most people who go out to eat are out to spend money. So one or two water and lemon drinkers don’t affect tips in any significant way.If your waiter has a problem with you making paupers lemonade he shouldn’t be in the business and should find a different line of work.

  21. Terry says:

    I recently read that restaurants are thinking twice about the adding lemon slices to your water due to the increased cost. Its not a free commodity. The folks that I dine with order water simply because they want it as a beverage.Nothing more, nothing less. Although I am sure people who order water because they don’t want to pay $2.50 for a glass of tea. That’s almost half the cost of the plate of food.Servers should not blame people for budgeting their money. Just because a patron is ordering a glass of water does not mean that he/she will stiff the waiter on the tip.

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