7 Non-Extreme Ways to Slash Your Restaurant Bill

by Shawanda Greene

Dessert in cafe - Save Money Dining Out“STOP EATING OUT!”

Due to the popularity of this advice, I assume it works for many people. But what if you enjoy great food prepared by someone else’s hands in someone else’s kitchen with someone else’s dishes? Perhaps you can afford to pay for a few modest luxuries and still save money.

If you’re like me, cooking and consuming every meal at home is laughable.

Stop eating out? Unh-unh. Cut back? Yes. But stop? Never!

Unless your finances are particularly abysmal, you probably can afford to patronize restaurants. Just be smart about it.

Here are seven practical tips to save money when eating out.

Use discounted gift cards: Visit CardPool and Plastic Jungle where you’ll find marked down gift cards from well-known eateries such as OutBack, IHOP, and *shudders* Applebee’s. Discounts frequently range from 10% to 25% off the value of the gift card.

Order gift certificates from Restaurant.com: You likely won’t uncover bargains for national restaurant chains on the website. However, tons of local and regional establishments offer gift certificates through the company. Coupon codes, which are often available, can chop another 70% to 80% off the already discounted price. A few years ago, I snagged a $25 La Tasca certificate for $4.

But don’t go too crazy snatching up these deals. They’re attached to a lot of strings. For instance, you may not be able to use your certificate on Friday and Saturday–the days when most people get a hankering to go out for dinner. Alcohol is usually excluded. And the minimum total of your meal (before tax and tip) will probably exceed the face value of your certificate.

Take advantage of daily deals: Some offers are available infrequently and open for a short 24 to 72 hour period. For those, you may need to wait a day or so before you can use your voucher. But some restaurants sell instant deals that are usable immediately . The Groupon and LivingSocial smartphone apps will identify your location and recommend deals provided at nearby restaurants.

Vouchers from daily deal websites have few restrictions. Unless specifically noted, alcohol is covered. Unlike Restaurant.com certificates, your deal is good whenever the restaurant is open–not just when it’s slow. More likely than not, your coupon expires at some point. But even then, in many states, companies must honor your deal for its original price. For more tips, check out How to Make the Most of Daily Deal Websites.

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Buy, Sell, and Trade Gift Cards at Cardpool.com!
Eat during happy hour: Believe it or not, happy hour isn’t just for people who like to get smashed at the end of the workday. Many  happy hour menus include food options. And they’re not limited to hotwings and nachos either. Case in point, my favorite sushi spot has half-price rolls during happy hour. See what’s on your favorite restaurants’ happy hour menus.

Switch to fast casual restaurants: Frequent meals at full service restaurants can quickly blow a hole in your budget. You don’t have to relegate yourself to fast food joints in order to save money. Instead, try  fast casual restaurants. The food is slightly more expensive as well as higher quality than straight up fast food. But it’s more affordable than what you’ll find at a full service restaurant.  Some of my favorite fast casual restaurants are Chipotle, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Vapiano, Nando’s Peri Peri, and Merzi. Not all mentioned here are national chains so look for fast casual restaurants in your area with a website like Yelp.

Open your mind to food trucks: Lower overhead means lower prices. Because of concerns about cleanliness, some people are reluctant to experiment with food trucks. In my county, food carts are regulated and licensed similarly to restaurants. And I’m sure most localities won’t allow any random person on the street to sell food to the masses. But honestly, even if I knew full well the seller was unlicensed, I can’t say that I wouldn’t order a basket of fried chicken wings and french fries from them.

Go out when your kids eat free: MyKidsEatFree.com tells you which days and times your kids will receive complimentary meals. I don’t have any kids, but I’ve sat down to eat with enough of them to know a lot of parents waste good money on kid’s meals. When I become a parent, I think I’ll pre-feed my kids, i.e, give them food before we enter a restaurant. I’ll probably be one of the few parents in America who purposely spoils her kids’ appetite.

Of course, to save money and accomplish other financial goals, you may need to cut back on your food bill, but you can still enjoy the experience without blowing your budget.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Holly@Clubthrifty.com July 6, 2012 at 9:31 AM

My husband and I share an entree all the time. Also, sometimes I get an appetizier for dinner.

Also, we rarely take our kids out to dinner with us. They are happy eating at home…so why pay $4.99 or more for a kids meal that will likely end up mostly on the floor?
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Michelle July 6, 2012 at 10:20 AM

We always try to use some sort of discount, such as Restaurant.com certificates. Definitely helps out!
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Daisy @ Add Vodka July 6, 2012 at 10:24 AM

Hearing the whole “don’t eat out” advice makes me want to gauge my eyes out. I’m not 70 something, I’m 20 something, and eating out is a big part of my entertainment budget. These are great tips. I also try to get Groupons to try new restaurants that are a good deal.
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Jacob @ iheartbudgets July 6, 2012 at 4:42 PM

I call this “ballin’ on a budget”. My wife and I love eating out together. We get to chat, enjoy good food and wine, and relax. When we’re at home, there’s always the burden of getting something done. We try to take a date once a week (if possible) to keep us sane and to enjoy each other, instead of always “doing”, we get to just “be”.

I actually posted someone’s personal budget today that I modified, and added in a “date” line item!

Thanks for posting this, needs ot be heard.
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Jon Rhodes July 6, 2012 at 4:46 PM

Great tips! Another one is to avoid buying alcohol with your meal. They can significantly increase the cost, almost double it sometimes! Drink a couple of non alcoholic drinks and if you must have alcohol, buy some in ready for when you get home. You’ll also enjoy your meal more as you will more focus on the food.
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femmefrugality July 6, 2012 at 4:49 PM

I never knew that about happy hour! I love that there’s restaurants.com for local places…supporting small business and getting away from mass-manufactured menus makes me pretty happy. And I <3 Plastic Jungle. Thanks for all the great tips.
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Lance @ Money Life and More July 7, 2012 at 1:49 PM

Lots of restaurants have been giving out coupons lately and sometimes they are really good.
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Kathleen @ Frugal Portland July 8, 2012 at 12:28 AM

I agree with daily deals and sharing entrees. I think eating in restaurants helps you experience your city’s culture (or another city’s!).
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LittleFrugalista July 11, 2012 at 6:09 PM

These are all great tips! I just wrote a post about a horribly cheap family that comes into the restaurant where I waitress and feared that you would reiterate some of the cheap habits I hate, so I’m glad you shared frugal tips, not cheap tips! You rock.
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