When saving money, meals in restaurants are rightfully one of the first expenses to be cut, but if you hate to cook as much as I do, budgeting for a meal or two out each week may save enough of your sanity to be worth the expense. On the days you do choose to eat out, you need not empty your wallet to get a good meal. Here a few ways to save on restaurant meals:
Go out for breakfast or lunch. The 4:00 lines at Florida buffets may be fodder for amateur comedians, but those senior citizens know how to make their money stretch. Most restaurants have menus with lower price ranges for breakfast and lunch, so if you can plan to have your day’s largest meal during those times, you can keep your bill down by eating before the dinner crowd takes all the good tables.
Compromise on atmosphere. You may love to eat at restaurants that seem nothing like your own familiar dining table at home or that set the mood for romance or fun, but you’re likely to pay more for that trendy decor. Local, no-frills restaurants usually offer better food for lower prices. Those with families may have more fun at local restaurants, anyway. The kids can feel comfortable enough to be themselves, and the parents don’t have to worry about annoying the distinguished-looking business party at the next table.
Make an appetizer your meal. Appetizers’ portions are often as generous as those of pricier entrees, and today’s menus have a wide variety of food in the appetizer section.
Share entrees. Because restaurant entrees often have enough calories for two meals, why not make them into two meals? Find something on the menu that another person dining with you also enjoys and split the meal. If you can’t agree on an entree, you can still share. Accept any side dishes you don’t want (instead of telling the server to nix them) and pass them on to someone else at your table.
Skip drinks and dessert. These small items usually have proportionally high price tags. Ordering water in place of even non-alcoholic beverages (let alone cocktails) may save enough to cover a kids’ meal. If you crave something sweet at the end of the meal, stop at a grocery store on the way home and buy a gallon of ice cream — enough to feed the whole family for the price of one dessert at the restaurant.
Consider leftovers. When deciding where to go to eat, think about whether you will be able to bring anything home. Buffets can easily fill you once, but other restaurants offer enough food for two meals at a similar price. Be sure to ask for a take-home box for anything you can’t finish. Leftover restaurant meals make great lunches for the following day.
Fill up on starters. Italian restaurants often include delicious salads and breadsticks with your meal; Mexican restaurants have chips and salsa. Enjoy these extras when they’re offered and take home more of your meal for the next day. It may even be worth the expense to pay a bit extra for a good salad bar and save most of the entree to take home. (Likewise, check the prices on menus that offer just the salad bar for a set price. You may be able to get the salad plus an entree for about three dollars more than the salad itself. In essence, you get an extra meal for $3 – not a bad price, especially if you take most of it home.)
Use coupons. Clip them from the newspaper and direct mailings or buy an Entertainment Book, Bonus Book, or Kids Stuff Book if you eat out frequently enough to make the purchase worthwhile. Coupon books have the extra advantage of leading you to new restaurants you might not have tried before.
Check out Restaurant.com. Local restaurants and some chains offer reduced-rate gift certificates through this website ($10 certificates for $3 and $25 certificates for $10). Be sure to read the fine print; you will probably have to spend more than the certificate is worth. Nevertheless, buying ahead will allow you to enjoy a restaurant out of your intended price range. By the way, Entertainment.com is offering a worthwhile joint deal with Restaurants.com through the end of February — buy an Entertainment book for $10 off the regular price and get $25 to spend at Restaurant.com. (My family paid $22.79, including shipping, for our local Entertainment book and enjoyed a $39 meal for $14 last week.)
Tell the restaurant what you think. Check the bottom of your receipt to see if you can take a formal telephone survey. Some surveys offer sweepstakes entries in exchange for your opinion, but others will give you coupons toward your next visit. Even if you aren’t asked to give your opinion, some restaurants will send you coupons when you write to praise or complain about their service.
Wherever you choose to eat on a night out, be sure to enjoy yourself. No matter how much or little you pay, remember that you do not have to cook or clean up, and enjoy the company of others who are eating with you. The money spent on dining out buys more than just food; it buys some time out of the kitchen and a chance to sit down and relax with friends and family.
Image courtesy of SiFu Renka