Our culture revolves around food. It seems that nearly every social event we are invited to includes eating and drinking. But going to restaurants is expensive. Eating out cheap kind of sounds like an oxymoron, but today we are going to share some of the things we've done to stay within our budgets while still eating out.
Like with everything else, moderation is key. We all have friends that never eat at home and eat every meal outside of their house. There are also those that are self-made chefs and rarely venture out. We realize most of you, like us, are probably somewhere in the middle.
Preparing meals at home is usually the best way to save money, especially as your family grows in numbers. But it's not always possible to prepare every meal at home. In fact, we have a line in our budget specifically for restaurants. We enjoy going to restaurants and giving it up completely is something we'd love to avoid! We also found that this was the most variable expense in our budgets, which can make it more difficult to predict than a fixed cost like car insurance.
By using the tips we are going to share with you we can now predictably stay within our restaurant budget every month. Ready to see how eating out cheap is possible?
1. Look at the Menu Before Arriving
This is simple, but it's amazing how effective it is. Whether you are heading to Chipotle after a long day at work, or heading to lunch with a co-worker, this is clutch.
Take 5 minutes before you get to the restaurant and decide what you're going to order before you even walk in the door. Take appetizers, entrees and dessert all into consideration. Leave nothing to chance. You are the most vulnerable and most likely to make an impulsive decision when you have the menu in your hands and the waiter or waitress is going around taking orders.
By knowing exactly what you want, you'll no longer be receiving surprises when it's time to pay.
This is also a great strategy for those looking to shed a few pounds. It is really easy to over-order when placed on the spot, especially when all your friends are doing the same. Make your picks ahead of time and more importantly, stick to your choices! Not only will your wallet thank you, but your waist line and heart will too. That cheeseburger will seem the most tempting when you are about to place the order, but the good news is that eating out cheap should still be delicious!
2. Save Half or Share
Meals at restaurants are HUGE. We learned this when we studied abroad and finally saw what meals in other parts of the world were like. After living in Italy for 6 months, it became painfully obvious that “never ending pasta bowls” is something that only exists at Olive Garden.
One trick that's easy to do is to only eat half or split a meal with your significant other/friend/sibling. If you eat half, that meal can actually feed you twice, or if sharing, can save you half of the cost. We promise you, you won't die of starvation! In fact, while doing research during medical school at the Mayo Clinic, I learned that calorie restriction has been shown to reduce mortality. It doesn't take a medical degree to realize that most Americans are more likely to die from obesity than starvation though!
3. Drink Water
Stick to water when placing your order. The full bar or free refills of soda always sound tempting, but stay strong. You can avoid all the empty calories and sugar, too. If you want to have alcohol, it is always more affordable to have a drink at home afterwards, or simply stick to one! Not to mention that you can also save by not needing a cab/Lyft/Uber if you’ve had too many drinks.
You are probably starting to see the theme between saving money while also improving your health. If you don't like plain water, add a lemon for flavor or try sparkling water to change things up.
4. Calculate Tip From Subtotal
When you tip the restaurant staff you are paying them a percentage on the items you ordered. The subtotal on your receipt is the total for the items you ordered. Many people often tip based on the “Total” which includes tax. Some restaurants automatically calculate the tip and include the amounts for your convenience. In our experience, restaurants often calculate the tip based on the grand total which includes tax, so be sure to double check. Saving such a little amount might seem trivial, but over time this can really add up and every penny saved counts!
If you receive great service and want to go above and beyond the standard 15%-20% tip that is great! Many service workers rely on tips for their livelihood, so a generous tip is a wonderful thing.We just want you to be aware that you may be paying a tip on the taxes that go to Uncle Sam, rather than on just the items you ordered.
5. Use Coupons
If you know you will be going to a certain restaurant ahead of time, look for coupons online. Sometimes you can find them on their website or their social media pages. You can also sign up for their rewards club for offers. If a coupon requires a certain amount to be spent, combine your order with a friend and split the bill afterwards. With Venmo, Zelle, and other similar apps, paying your friends back is really easy.
Be careful not to buy more just to get 10% off as you might actually end up spending more than if you had just skipped the coupon. Remember, the point here is to be eating out cheap!
Pro tip: restaurants will sometimes honor a competitor's coupon or even accept expired coupons, just ask!
Also, don't spend all day looking for a coupon that will save you $5. But spending 5 minutes of searching is well worth it and is something that most people don't consider even though they'd love to be eating out cheap.
6. Use Gift Cards
Many people get gift cards for birthdays or holidays and never use them. After a few days it’s easy to forget they are there. In fact, over $1billion of gift cards go unused every year.
These are a great way to reduce the amount you spend, which is the point of a gift card! Put your gift cards where you will see them so you don’t forget you have them. When we get gift cards for restaurants we try to use them right away or schedule dinners to make sure we use them.
Pro tip 1: remember to take a picture of yourself enjoying your awesome dinner and send it to the person who gave it to you and thank them again!
Pro tip 2: If you know far enough of advance that you're going to a specific restaurant, use one of the gift card exchanges online to buy a gift card for a fraction of its value. Cardpool and Raise are two sites where you can go and search for gift cards and buy them at a discount! Just make sure you buy a digital card or buy the card early enough to give the card time to arrive in the mail before you use it.
Finally, if you simply can't give up going out for nice meals and don't want to sacrifice your experience, it may make a lot of sense to make money on the side so that you can afford it.