Eating out is fun, relaxing, tasty…and darn expensive! The current tough economic times have forced a lot of people to trim their dining budgets, but it’s a hard thing to give up altogether. So in the spirit of indulgence — but within a budget — here are eight tips for saving money at the restaurant:
Split a meal
Most restaurants offer portions that are larger than a person would normally eat at home, so save the price of one whole meal by splitting an entree with your partner. Same goes for the kids — if you know neither little Sammy nor little Janey will eat a whole chicken fingers dinner, why buy two? Some restaurants charge a fee to split the meal, but it’s way less than another whole entree would cost.
Don’t split the bill
If you go out with a group, ask for your own bill. That way you won’t have to subsidize your buddy Buster’s six Dutch imports while you sip a Diet Coke. Everyone has a story about spending way more than planned because someone in the group overindulged (or worse yet, forgot her money). Even if everyone else in the group is sharing a bill, beg off by saying you need to leave early or something. You’ll be glad you did when you see the rest of the group struggle over that giant bill.
Drinks can add up to a serious part of your dinner tab if you’re not careful. Four options: 1) certain restaurants, especially those without liquor licenses, allow patrons to BYOB. They may charge a “corkage” fee to open and serve the liquor you bring in, but you’ll still save a ton of money; 2) drink specials are often worth it — a bucket of Bud Light for $15 is a much better deal than buying six separate imports; 3) bottomless drinks? Yes please!; and 4) water is almost always free, and everyone knows how healthy it is, so drink up.
Stick with the specials
Restaurants promote specials, such as buy-one-get-one-free deals, to get you in the door. They hope you’ll buy drinks, appetizers, dessert, etc. to make your visit profitable. But they won’t complain if you just take the special without the extras (and guess what, they’re still making more money than if you didn’t show up at all). So take advantage of those deals. Same goes with Groupon and those other seemingly amazing “daily deals.” You’re saving money, the restaurant’s making a little money, and everyone is happy in the end.
Become a regular
Regulars are treated better, get the best tables, and generally have way more fun than the customer who shows up once a decade. But how do regulars save money? A couple of ways. First, no one cares if a regular comes and nurses one beer for two hours. So if you just want the restaurant experience without spending much money, go to your regular joint. Second, regulars get clued in on the best deals, get offered the most lucrative loyalty cards, and sometimes get free stuff. They get all this because the owner values loyalty, and if he gives you a free dessert tonight you’ll tell your friends how great it is tomorrow. So soak up the pleasures of being a regular, including a slightly fatter wallet.
Use the doggie bag
Don’t be embarrassed to take your leftovers home. You paid for them, right? If it was great for dinner tonight, it will be nice for lunch tomorrow.
Go for lunch instead of dinner
If your schedule allows, enjoy the restaurant experience at lunch rather than dinner. The prices are almost always lower…sometimes even on the same dishes! Plus many restaurants have quick lunch specials that beat any dinner special, because they know most workers on lunch break are on a tight budget and tight schedule.
Don’t stiff your server
No matter what you do, don’t think the tip is a place to save money. Servers work hard for you, so if the service is decent, give them the full 20 percent. Trying to save a buck by paying a measly tip will only bring you bad mojo. If you just can’t stomach paying the tip, go to a restaurant that doesn’t have table service. You’re not limited to fast food — every town has a decent cafeteria-style or counter-service restaurant.
Dining out is a major social event, and even the thriftiest tightwad wants to enjoy a restaurant now and then. If Scrooge follows these tips, he can have his fun and still have a fat wallet.