Whether you eat out a few times a week or have made it a special occasion in your household, stay within your budget by making some wise decisions about your dining destination. It’s much easier to stretch that dining budget when you know which local spots have the best happy hour specials, where to get two-for-one deals, and how to get coupons or discount vouchers to your favorite places. Many restaurants are active on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, making it easier than ever to keep up with daily specials and exclusive offers.
Here are some of the best ways to cut costs when eating out:
1. Don’t go too hungry. Eat a light snack or a mini-meal before you head to the restaurant so you’re not ravenous when you get there. Ordering on an empty stomach can be a recipe for disaster, and you’ll probably end up ordering much more than you can eat. A high-protein snack will curb hunger pangs. It might be an hour or two until you get to the restaurant and receive your order anyway, so plan accordingly.
2. Check out online deals. Check the restaurant’s website to get an idea of the average menu prices and also for any online-only deals and specials. Look at the restaurant’s Facebook page and Twitter feed for any special deals or promotions. Some restaurants will post printable coupons right on their website or on a blog, and they’ll also share exclusive deals for Facebook fans.
3. Search the daily deal sites. Daily deal sites like Groupon, LivingSocial, and some smaller local sites are a great resource for restaurant discounts. You’ll have to make a quick decision to purchase these deals, because most sell out quickly. Groupon Now deals only run for a single day between a certain time period and if you don’t end up using them, you’ll get a refund. These can be a valuable resource for dining deals at the last minute. Just make sure you read the fine print and can determine whether the coupon is valid for dine-in only or has take-out options. Remember that the tip and taxes probably won’t be included in the offer, and some restaurants exclude alcoholic purchases and other items from the deal.
4. Skip the chains. While chain restaurants do run some good specials now and then, you’ll probably get more value for your dollar by eating at a locally-owned restaurant. Casual restaurants and local spots that have been in business for years typically offer quality food for budget-conscious patrons. Some also post deals on daily deal sites (see tip 3), so you can add these to the dining list without breaking the bank.
5. Order appetizers and salads. Many restaurants serve generous portions that could easily be shared with someone. Avoid the risk of paying a “plate fee” to share and just plan on ordering an appetizer and a salad as your meal. You could order a few appetizers to share with a group and cut the costs per meal even further. Tip appropriately and your server will be more than happy to serve you an alternative to an entrée.
6. Purchase restaurant certificates. Sites like Restaurant.com sell discounted restaurant certificates that can be used toward an entire visit. This site also runs its own promotions, which means you can get an even bigger discount on a discounted certificate purchase. Like daily deals, these offers usually sell out fairly quickly—especially for some of the more popular restaurants in the area—so you’ll need to act fast.
7. Eat a late lunch for dinner. Plan on having a late lunch so you can take advantage of lunch specials on your visit. You can either skip dinner altogether or just have something light for that last meal. Eating out for lunch instead of dinner can help you save a significant amount of money in the long-run, especially if you eat out more than three or four times a week. If the lunch portions are large enough, take home half of the meal and eat that for dinner the same day.
Sabah Karimi writes for Wise Bread, where you can find more information on how to save money while eating out.