Money spent on eating out is set to reach an all-time high this year, and if you’re anything like me, eating out takes up a healthy portion of your monthly budget.
Although I do eat out a lot, I’m typically very frugal and look to save money wherever I can. It also helps that I have the option of eating lunch for free every day at work, which greatly reduces my necessary food spending.
In essence, while I do eat out a lot, I save money in other areas and am as frugal as I can be about eating out, so the overall impact on my spending is not much more than it would be if I ate every meal at home.
Even so, eating out is a growing aspect of our modern lives due to the convenience and ability to socialize, and it can be a serious budget-buster.
While going to the supermarket will always save you more money, if you eat out a lot like me, or even if you only eat out occasionally, the following tips will help you to get the most bang for your buck.
Here are nine ways to save money when eating out.
1. Happy Hour
Let’s start out with something you’re all familiar with, but it’s still worth mentioning as a money-saving tool.
Although days and times for happy hour vary by location, almost all happy hours will offer discounts on drinks and menu items and possibly even free appetizers.
The downside to happy hour is that it’s typically earlier in the evening (between 3 and 6), and you must sit down in the restaurant to take advantage of the deals.
However, if you’re planning an evening out with friends or your partner and like to have a drink or two, hitting up your local spot at happy hour is a great way to save money on eating out.
Another way to save money eating out that you may be familiar with is the kids eat free offer.
While most restaurants offer a kid’s menu with lower-priced items, some will even offer a meal to kids under a certain age for free.
A lot of the restaurants that offer this deal are either buffets or faster-food type places, but if you have kids, it’s worth checking out which restaurants in your area might offer a discount for your kids’ meals.
Check out this list of restaurants where kids eat for free.
3. Look For Special Deals
This one applies mostly to fast-food restaurants, but it can also apply to chains.
Taking advantage of special or limited-time deals is a great way to save money when eating out. These deals could be discounts on regular menu items, special food/drink combinations, or even discounts on certain days.
Special deals could really be anything, but the common theme is that you’ll be saving money on the food purchased.
Some examples that come to my mind are the $5 boxes from Taco Bell, the Applebee’s 2 for $20 special, Olive Garden’s unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks, and Red Robin’s $6.99 burgers and bottomless fries.
4. Join Rewards Programs
Yet another way to save money when eating out is to join rewards programs.
While you’re probably familiar with rewards programs for companies dealing in travel, gas, and credit cards, you may not realize that most chain restaurants offer them as well.
Like travel or fuel rewards, restaurant rewards programs are free to join and can save you a pretty penny if you like to eat out.
For instance, one of my favorite reward programs is the one offered by Red Robin, which gives you a plethora of rewards, including a free birthday burger, every 10th item free, and special rewards for teachers and military members.
Another prolific rewards program that could save you money is Starbucks rewards. While we wouldn’t recommend drinking Starbucks all the time (there are many cheaper options), joining the rewards program will save you money on the coffee you do drink and any snacks you may purchase.
Although joining rewards programs will likely only be possible with chain restaurants, there is a way you may be able to utilize rewards for your local hangouts as well.
We’re not sure they have an official name, but many local restaurants offer a card where you can receive a free meal or another item after a certain number of purchases. Sometimes these are presented as punch cards, and sometimes a stamp or signature is required.
No matter how it’s presented, the effect is the same as any large chain rewards program, and the end goal is free food.
5. Drink Water/Free Refill Drinks
Now that we’ve covered ways to save money when eating out when it comes to specific restaurants or types of restaurants, let’s transition into ways to save money that you can use anywhere.
First up is to skip the alcoholic beverages and stick with water or free refill drinks.
Of course, the way to save the most money with drinks is to stick to water because it won’t cost you a thing. Plus, drinking water while eating out will help you reach your recommended daily intake of 6 to 8 glasses a day. You can save money and be healthy!
If water isn’t your thing or you feel like splurging a bit, you can also save major money by picking a drink option that offers free refills. These drinks typically include soda, tea, and coffee.
However, before you order one of these beverages, make sure you double-check to see if the menu says free refills. If it does not say free refills, make sure you ask a server before ordering. Plenty of places charge for refills on non-alcoholic drinks and zing you for $2 – $3 a pop, and you don’t want that unpleasant surprise when it comes time to pay the bill.
Either way you look at it, avoiding alcoholic beverages when eating out will save you tons of money.
In fact, one of the quickest ways to derail your entertainment/eating out budget is to consistently go out and have drinks. While you can save money during happy hour, most beers will cost you at least $5 a pop, with mixed drinks costing even more.
A few drinks can quickly double or triple your bill.
6. Bottomless Foods
This option may not be as common, but you can still find deals for bottomless foods out there.
For example, Red Robin offers bottomless fries, house salads, broccoli, and a few other options. Many other restaurants offer free bottomless breadsticks or biscuits, and Olive Garden offers a never-ending pasta bowl option.
And of course, you will have bottomless everything if you visit a buffet!
Whether it’s a buffet or a specific menu item, choosing bottomless food options will help you cut down on your spending by allowing you to order less or to order a few items that you can share.
This brings us to our next tip.
7. Share a Meal
Sharing is caring and, in this case, frugal.
Most of the meals you get at restaurants give you way more than one person should be eating. In fact, most restaurants give you portions that are two or three times the recommended serving size. This means that a typical meal at a restaurant supplies you with enough food for two or three people.
With so much food, a great way to save money when eating out is to share your meal. You could also share with a group of friends by ordering a few meals and then sharing with everyone.
Of course, sharing a meal may leave one or both of you wanting more. In this case, try ordering a cheaper appetizer or a salad as opposed to a full second meal. You’ll save money and limit the calories you’re consuming.
8. Save Some for Later
Building off the tip above, if you’ve ordered a meal you can’t finish, you can always pack it for later.
In fact, eating half of your meal and saving the rest for another time is a great way to save money when eating out and is an active part of my strategy for saving money.
Being single, I often grab food on the go, and one of my favorite things to do is to get food I know I’ll be able to use for more than one meal. There have even been times I’ve been able to stretch my food into three meals!
Combined with some of the other strategies above, stretching your eating out into more than one meal will save you some serious dough.
9. Avoid “Fancy” Restaurants
Our last tip to save money when eating out may seem a bit bizarre, but it’s worth being aware of.
Have you ever noticed that the more expensive the restaurant, the less you seem to get?
It isn’t just your imagination.
Fancy restaurants, those with high-priced food and drinks, don’t have high prices because you get more food or because it’s necessarily better food (although that may be the case sometimes). They are higher priced primarily because of the ambiance and the prestige that comes from eating at them.
In other words, your money is paying for the status that comes with eating at these restaurants, not necessarily the food you get.
While a fancy dinner out once in a while is warranted for everyone, for more regular eating out, it’s an unnecessary expense.
After all, most people eat out for the food, not for the status.
Next time you are thinking of eating out, carefully evaluate what it is you’re after. If you want great food, then a local place or a chain will do the trick. If you’re after status and ambiance, then a fancy restaurant may be best.
Just be prepared to pay for it.
Moral of the Story
Many of us are guilty of eating out way too much, myself included.
However, with a strategy and some planning, eating out doesn’t have to be as spendy as it’s made out to be.
There are plenty of ways to save money when eating out, and if your savings in other areas can accommodate a larger dining budget, more power to you.
Just make sure you take advantage of happy hour, kids eat free, special deals, rewards programs, and bottomless foods. You can also drink water/refillable beverages, share a meal, save some for later, and limit your trips to fancy restaurants.
Tawnya is a 34-year-old Special Education teacher in the sixth year of her career. Along with her partner, Sebastian, she runs the blog Money Saved is Money Earned. Tawnya has worked extremely hard to reach her goals and remain debt-free.
She holds an Honors BS in Psychology from Oregon State University and an MS in Special Education from Portland State University and has had a pretty successful writing career, first as a writing tutor at the Oregon State University Writing Center, and in recent years, as a freelance writer.
Tawnya and Sebastian have a wealth of knowledge and information about personal finance, retirement, student loans, credit cards, and many other financial topics. It is this wealth of tips and tricks that they wish to pass on to others.