Trying to make the thrifty choice in every situation of your life can be exhausting. Take for example the frugal decision to cook for yourself instead of eating out. While that’s a good plan to have the vast majority of the time, who doesn’t enjoy the chance to splurge a little and take an evening off?
A couple of years ago, my wife and I decided to start “Together Tuesdays.” While this weekly event can technically involve a number of different date options, it usually means dining out in some capacity. Although this might not be the most frugal idea we’ve ever had, we’ve managed to keep things in check by making efforts to keep our spending to a minimum and still enjoy the benefits of a nice meal out.
So how do we do it? Here are six of our top tips for dining out on a budget:
Check the Specials First
One of the best ways to save money when dining out starts before you even get to the restaurant — and maybe before you even choose where you want to dine. These days there are several ways you can research dining options, ranging from review sites like Yelp to Facebook pages run by the owners of each establishment. Beyond getting an idea for what people think of each restaurant, you can also garner some important information about what types of specials and promotions they may offer. In some cases, these specials may be tied to a certain day of the week (typically weekdays), a special event, or even a time of the year. Meanwhile, other promotions can be more random and will require a bit more research to spot.
If there are certain restaurants you enjoy going to, you can also sign-up to receive their e-mail alerts. Not only will this ensure you’ll be the first to know about great deals but these blasts may also include exclusive coupons or offers. It also doesn’t hurt to follow some of your favorites on social media for similar reasons.
Split a Dish or Take Some Home
This one may feel a bit obvious but it’s important to mention nonetheless. As you’re doing your pre-meal research, you’ll also want to get a sense for the portion sizes any given restaurant offers by looking at various photos and reading a couple of reviews. By doing this, you may decide that you and your dining mates will be able to split a dish (or dishes) and still leave with full stomachs.
I’ll admit that splitting entrees isn’t exactly my favorite pastime. Not only does it sometimes lead to awkward exchanges with the wait staff but certain restaurants may even tack on an additional charge or “split fee” as a result. Instead, if I anticipate that a single order will leave me with extra food, I’ll plan ahead and resolve to take the rest home with me for subsequent meals.
There are a few things to note with the “take it home” strategy, not the least of which is understanding what items can travel and which can’t. A classic example of this is french fries, which even when reheated in an oven can rarely be revived to their former glory (and don’t even talk to me about trying to microwave them). Because of this unfortunate truth, I may elect to finish my fries and take more of whatever they were on the side of home for future lunching.
Another important note is to plan your itinerary properly so that your leftovers aren’t sitting out for too long. While most foods can safely make the trip home, leaving items in the car for an extended period of time can increase your food safety risks. Because of this, if you don’t intend on heading home from the restaurant in a timely manner, you may want to rethink your options.
Skip the Show and the Flash
Have you ever been to Benihana? The purveyor of Japanese cuisine has become a popular destination for celebratory gatherings thanks in part to the fun experience that comes with each meal served. Not only is your meal prepared before your eyes by a skilled hibachi chef but the cook tends to throw in some fun gags and stunts along the way. While these show elements make for a great night out, they also comes at a price.
Don’t get me wrong — I love hibachi style meals, but that’s exactly why we skip Benihana and head to other establishments that exclude the show elements. By accepting that our food is going to be prepared in a normal kitchen instead of beside our table, we’ve been able to enjoy food that’s just as good but at nearly half the price.
Of course this is just one specific example, but there are similar lessons to be learned for other restaurants. Often times things like trendy decor, location, or a chef’s name on the door can raise the price per meal significantly. In some cases, having these unique experiences may be worth it to mark a special occasion or event. As for the rest of the time, you’re probably better off dining at a venue where the prices are based on the food and not the flash.
Stock up on Gift Cards and Join Loyalty Programs
Even though my wife and I make a point to dine out on a near weekly basis, she sometimes mocks me for always wanting to eat at one of small list of favorite restaurants. What can I say — I like what I like! Luckily, such loyalty can sometimes save you money thanks to the way some locations push their gift cards.
Seeded strongly in my regular restaurant rotation is Red Robin. I mention this because I’ve often seen offers from them where you can get a free $5 gift card just for purchasing $25 in cards. Although this is surely aimed at those giving gifts, there’s no reason you can’t take advantage of these offers yourself as long as you plan on making use of the balance.
Speaking of Red Robin, another thing I like about the chain is their strong loyalty program. For every nine burgers you purchase, you get one for free. Additionally, I always look forward to my free birthday burger each year (sidenote: I swear they’re not paying me to write this). That said, loyalty programs are far from exclusive to Red Robin. So whatever your favorite dining spots are, it may be worth looking into what types of programs they have for fans like you.
Nix the Booze (and the Dessert)
If the first half of this section title didn’t make you gasp, surely the parenthetical did. While enjoying a craft cocktail and/or concluding the meal with a decadent dessert can be half the fun of dining out for some, there’s no denying that these add-ons are often overpriced. In fact, how many times have you been at a restaurant where a single drink costs as much as an entree does?
For those who really want to sip a drink while dining out, you may want to aim for locations that offer happy hours or other drink specials. As for dessert, unless there’s some specialty your sweet tooth just can’t resist, you might consider heading home to truly conclude your meal experience or perhaps stopping off at a quick-service option that can satisfy your craving. In each of these scenarios, you’re bound to save some money on the night.
Use a Rewards Credit Card or Cash Back App
These days, there may be ways for you to save money when dining that don’t even really involve the restaurant itself. For example, in recent years, dining perks have been a big selling point for some rewards credit cards, leading to enhanced cash back when you use your card at restaurants. Personally the 4% back on dining is a major reason I decided to get the Uber Visa card. Similarly, I always look forward to the times when my Discover It card makes restaurants its quarterly 5% cash back spending category. Such kickbacks can help take a little bit of the sting out of each check.
What’s even better than these great credit card rewards is combining them with cash back deals from apps and services like Dosh, Visa Local Offers, and others. I’ve even been able to earn as much 14% back from dining out when you add up my Dosh and Uber Visa cash back — not even including any specials or coupons the restaurant offered. Needless to say, it’s definitely worth checking out these third-party apps and offers when choosing where to eat.
Sure dining out may not be the most frugal option in most cases, but there’s nothing wrong with splurging once in a while. Additionally, if you want to enjoy a night out without feeling guilty about your spending, there are several efforts you can make to save money on your meals. With a bit of pre-dining planning and research, some specials or loyalty offers, and the help of rewards credit cards and apps, you can have a great dining experience that won’t cost you a ton.
This article was first published on Money@30.