AJ & KJ: There are a lot of tips and tricks that we use when dining out. Our largest, regular expenses are meals out. However, we have continuously improved on our methods to eat out more frequently, but to spend less.
At the restaurant:
– Share meals. When we go out to eat, we often share meals. Meal portions are far greater than one person should eat, and this approach allows us to order an appetizer to share in addition to one meal. Most appetizers are typically 50% less than the price of a full meal. The hardest part about sharing a meal is typically agreeing on what sounds best to both of you. Take the time to review a restaurant’s menu, discuss options, and agree to a reasonable budget for the meal.
– Look for Happy Hour deals. The main way we can save when dining out has less to do with coupons and more to do with planning around happy hours or special offers. We recently went to a restaurant we eat at regularly but sat in the bar for a drink with friends and discovered that with simply a drink purchase in the bar you get free nachos. That’s a great way to subsidize the cost of the meal if you’re planning to have a drink anyways.
– A la carte. Order a la carte when available. This a particularly useful technique when ordering at Mexican restaurants where most meals come with the standard rice and beans which cost less as individual sides when added to a la carte options.
– Avoid soft drinks and alcohol. This is sometimes hard for us to do! We try our best to reserve buying drinks out for special occasions or really trying days. It’s not just a monetary commitment: keeping this perspective will help you save in your wallet and on your waistline. Think life balance.
Before the Restaurant:
- – Sign up for restaurant e-mail clubs. Most restaurants offer discounts, promotional items, or periodic announcements of their specials. In a similar vein, birthday offers have gotten progressively better over the years (gone are the days of just a free dessert, and that’s good for those of us that like to celebrate!). Many companies offer a free meal, and some are generous enough to offer up to $30 off. These discounted offers can extend to anniversaries and other special occasions and are well worth the occasional spam email for the one or two times a year where they offer real value. This is another area where we choose to share a meal. Budget for an appetizer or salad and share the free meal. It will allow you to enjoy another meal out later on or help you get ahead on savings.
– Utilize gift card offers. Watch for alerts when a company is promoting a discount on gift cards. We don’t pay attention too much to places that offer these rewards where we do not regularly visit, but there are a couple that are worth noting. Some restaurants periodically do a ‘VIP’ card as part of their commitment to donating to a good cause which when purchased, offers significant savings off their regular dinners. Another tool we use frequently are the offers to get $125 when you purchase $100 worth of a gift card. Several other places do this and the best way to stay on top of new offers are through e-mails and those little table-top cards you always move out of your way.
– Use coupon/gift card sites. There are websites dedicated to restaurant coupons/gift cards for cheap. One such site is Restaurants.com. Keep in mind that purchasing offers or gift cards is only a way to get ahead if they are places you typically frequent. Just because it seems like a good value does not mean it’s a good deal if you weren’t planning to eat there previously. The local Entertainment books can be a good resource too. We have found these books useful only later in the year when they are highly discounted since we feel they usually reinforce a lot of our bad habits of eating too much fast food and typically aren’t the items we have our hearts set on when we do decide to eat particularly unhealthily. They are also typically geared towards families with children, so if you don’t have children, consider what is actually being offered before you purchase $20 worth of coupons that you only plan to use $5 of.
– Use add-on credit card rewards. There also some airlines or credit card programs that offer bonus rewards. American Airlines has a dining program where you can earn miles on your credit card(s) just by linking them to the program. For no additional cost or commitment, all you have to do is link your credit card. If the charge at the merchant qualifies, they will automatically begin to credit your account with airline miles. This is another great example of a benefit that simply requires you to take the time to set up the option. We never go out of our way to eat at a restaurant where we will earn miles, but it is a nice bump when we happen upon a restaurant that we chose that qualifies us for rewards.
Consider that eating out is not just the menu price, but the cost of the entire meal including taxes and tip (and possibly the valet or parking). Consider options that reduce the overall cost of your bill prior to taxes and tip so you can enjoy other meals later on.
The key to any offer is to disregard the places you aren’t particularly interested in and to not fall into the trap of ordering something you won’t actually use! Stick to the products and services you know you will use, otherwise, you are doing little for you and your budget.
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