When people talk budgeting and saving money, almost everyone suggest that you eat out less and make more meals at home. While we agree that those suggestions definitely curb spending, we also see the virtue in a nice meal at a restaurant once in a while. With this in mind, we went hunting for ideas to help you dine out on a budget.
- Check for specials: Before heading out the door, do some homework: Who offers mid-week specials for less popular nights of the week? Google “Kids Eat Free” and see what comes back. Try coupon searching on the restaurant’s website – major chains often put offers there that you don’t see anywhere else.
- Time it right: Still having trouble deciding? Try switching up the time you go out. Lunch out is often just as great as dinner and almost always cheaper. Buffets are cheaper then too (especially on weekdays). Try an early bird special (there is a reason seniors are all over these). Often just doing appetizers and drinks will feel like a full meal and cost you way less.
- Drink wisely: When it comes time to order, ask yourself if it is worth paying the restaurant premiums to get a drink there. Ice water is better for you anyway and lets you really taste your meal. Sure, special occasions deserve a glass of wine, but the average meal out can stand on its own and drinks can wait for when you get home.
- Make it count: Look over that menu and ask yourself another question: What do I like and never make at home? Order yourself something you find hard to make and the treat of going to a restaurant becomes even better.
- Take advantage of big portions: Most restaurants (especially the chains) serve portions that are too big for the average diner. Don’t be shy about asking for a box to take leftovers away in. This turns your dinner out into twice the deal: an awesome meal at night and an envy-worthy lunch to take to work the next day.
- Coupons: Time to settle up the bill – here you can get help from Groupon, WagJag, Living Social and the social media pages of the restaurant itself. Check out the Facebook and Twitter feeds to see if the offers are out there before you arrive, but if you forgot, a little searching on your smartphone might save you a fare amount at bill time. Get on mailing lists too – a quick email sign-up will keep the offers flowing for your favourite dining establishment. If the restaurant doesn’t offer any of these options, they may offer a discount for paying cash, so keep that idea in mind too.
- Loyalty Programs: The other thing to watch for is a loyalty program. Stamp cards can often be filled up using lunches and then redeemed for dinner, making them even more frugal-tastic. Some businesses have Kids Clubs with even more offers to be had for making family dining more affordable.
- Save dessert for at home: While restaurant desserts always look amazing, we find we’re usually too full to really enjoy them. Rather than add another item to your bill that you won’t get maximum enjoyment out of, try saving dessert for later when you’re at home. Conversely, when the sweet tooth is really calling, eat your main meal at home and then visit a place with an amazing dessert menu for the crowning touch.
- Tip the wait staff: Frugal doesn’t mean cheap. If you used a Groupon or some sort of discount on the meal, keep in mind that your server still had to do a full bill’s worth of work to get it to you, so tip accordingly.