Who doesn’t love dining out? Great food, everyone gets to choose what they want, and there’s no washing up at the end.
But with high mark-ups, extras, and tips, the cost of dining out can really add up. In fact, Americans spent a whopping $799 billion at restaurants in 2017.
So how can you enjoy the experience of eating out without dreading the check at the end of your meal? Here we list ten super easy ways to save money at restaurants and knock some serious dollars off your bill.
1. Fill Up On Free Appetizers
Many restaurants offer free appetizers to entice more customers through their doors. It might not seem to make much business sense to give away free food, but customers rarely take advantage of these appetizers.
One reason for this is that the appetizers may not be brought to the table until after you’ve ordered. Customers then don’t want to spoil their appetite so they forgo the snacks and wait for their food to come.
But, making the most of these free appetizers is an easy way to save money at restaurants. If you know the restaurant you’ll know what comes free. So, skip the starter and snack on chips and salsa or olives and bread before your food comes out and you’ll be more than satisfied with just your main after all that snacking.
2. Buy Restaurant Gift Cards
If you’re a regular at certain restaurants then buying one of their gift cards ahead of time can help you save money at restaurants. Often the gift cards aren’t priced at the value of the card so you can get deals such as $50 worth of food for a $40 card, and may even be able to save up to 50% on eating out.
Try the restaurant’s website for gift cards or check out sites such as Restaurant.com and Cardpool.com for a selection of discounted restaurant gift cards. In addition, warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club also sell gift cards with good discounts off the face value.
3. Wash Your Meal Down With Tap Water
Most people expect wine in restaurants to have a high mark-up. So, it might not be a surprise to hear that wine costs the customer about four times what the restaurant pays, or a mark-up of 400%.
However, the mark-up for soda is much higher, at an astounding 1,150%! Diners may feel that they’re saving by opting for a soda. But, they’re not getting good value for money by ordering the same glass of Coke they could get for a fraction of the price.
For a healthier and much cheaper option, order water with your meal to save money at restaurants. And we don’t mean bottled water, which also comes with an astronomical mark-up. Instead, ask for tap water. The water must be palatable for the restaurant to be able to serve it, so take advantage of a free beverage and cut at least $2 per person off your total bill.
For those of you trying to save calories when you eat out, taking regular sips of water before your meal will also help to fill you up, meaning you’ll order and eat less food. And, for an extra money-saving bonus, filling up on water also means that you’ll spend less money!
4. Eat Dessert At Home
Restaurants often try to tempt their customers to up their average spend with delicious-sounding desserts to finish off a meal. But, as mouth-watering as that warm chocolate brownie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sounds, most desserts are pre-bought and come with a very high mark-up.
Sure, restaurant dessert dishes might look pretty with whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles and a drizzle of sauce on the plate. But you’ll often find that you could buy the dessert you’ve just paid $8 for in the freezer aisle of your local supermarket.
So unless you’re ordering off a set menu where the dessert is included, head home to satisfy your sweet tooth with a much cheaper tub of ice cream or slice of pie.
5. Order a Starter as Your Main Dish
If the starters are grabbing your attention then opt for one of those as your main dish. Starters are often bigger portions than people expect, so ordering a starter and a side salad, or two starters instead of a starter and a main can easily fill you up for much less money.
Some restaurants will also list the same starters and mains on the menu with a big difference in the price but little difference in the size of the portion. Watching out for these kinds of traps can really help you to save money at restaurants.
6. Make the Most of Time-Sensitive Deals
Many restaurants offer deals to entice diners in on slower days of the week. Even more common are the early bird specials for diners who come in before 5 pm, and then there are many places with happy hours or deals on certain dishes on certain days of the week.
The easiest way to take advantage of these time-sensitive deals is to be aware of them in advance. If you go to a restaurant you like, make a note of any offer or deals they have and save the details on your phone. That way, when you’re headed out for an early dinner or want to make the most of nights where children eat free, you’ll know where to head for the best deals that day.
7. Split a Main
US portion sizes are usually over-generous to say the least. The average meal or snack eaten away from home is 134 calories more than that same meal or snack at a restaurant, which is often down to the large portion sizes most restaurants offer.
An easy way to save money at restaurants is to take advantage of these large portion sizes and order a main dish to share. You’ll still be more that satisfied with half a main portion and a side salad, but for a lot less money.
Your waistline will thank you for it too. It’s human nature to eat as much of what’s on our plate as we can. But, making the decision to split your main dish before it even comes is an easy way to preempt this habit of eating way past the point of being full.
8. Avoid the Specials
Like any business, restaurants are often guilty of using common marketing tricks to get you to spend more money. These can include offering extras and side dishes to complement your meal as a form of cross-selling, or up-selling with offers of larger portions or fancier wines.
But, one of the biggest marketing ploys in restaurants is the specials list. Rather than being the special deals the name implies, the specials are often more expensive than regular menu items.
What’s more, the specials are usually experimental dishes or ways to use up an excess of certain ingredients. Would you really want to pay extra to be the chef’s guinea pig or help the restaurant use up that fish that was about to go off?
Instead, save money at restaurants by ordering off the regular menu, and politely decline when your server asks if you’d like to hear the specials.
9. Go for Lunch
Packaged sandwiches and coffees-to-go at lunchtime can really add up. In fact, taking leftovers to work for lunch or making sandwiches at home is a sure-fire way to slash dollars off your daily spending budget.
With that being said, if you have the time to enjoy your midday meal in a restaurant then you often get a lot more bang for your buck by going to a restaurant for lunch instead of dinner.
The lunch menus in restaurants often include similar dishes to the dinner menu but at much cheaper prices. Buffet deals tend to be cheaper during the day too, and some restaurants offer set menus at lunchtime. These often allow you to order three courses and a drink for around the same price as you’d pay for a main at dinner time.
So, for those of you with a big appetite, heading out to eat at lunchtime is a smart way to save money at restaurants without ordering less food.
10. Watch Out for Online Deals
Make a point of following your favorite restaurants on social media to keep track of any deals or specials they might be offering.
You should also sign up for mailing lists at restaurants to receive news about offers, prize draws and discounts. A good tactic is to create a separate email address for these so that your regular inbox doesn’t get clogged up with mailers. Then simply check this email account when you’re planning a meal out to see if anywhere is offering you a good deal this week.
And finally, make sure to check sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial for discounted meals. These sites often have good deals to entice diners to newer restaurants, or to get people in on the slower nights of the week.
Save Money At Restaurants
By ordering smart and doing your research ahead of time you can slash dollars from your check when dining out.
And, by using these tactics to save money at restaurants, it means that you can afford to dine out more often.
If you’re looking for other great tips to save money on everyday expenses, check out our other blog articles for more ways to make your money go further!