Who doesn't like to eat at a restaurant? You order your meal, someone brings it, you enjoy it with friends or family and then just get up and leave. Someone else clears the table, cleans up the pots and pans and handles all the things that make eating not as much fun. You pay for the convenience of not having to do any dishes.
Even if you're on a tight budget, it doesn't mean you have to stop dining out. With a few simple moves, you can make the casual dining out experience more affordable. These aren't tips like splitting an entree or ordering only water (those are fine tips, but they sacrifice too much).
So if you still want to enjoy dining out, here are some tips that will help you save money.
Dine early. Have you ever heard of the blue plate special? It was a popular term used in the 1920s through 1950s for a low-priced meal served on a blue plate. You won't see these very often now, but you'll see another term in its place – happy hour. Most restaurants offer a happy hour during the quieter periods before dinner, like 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and it usually means discounted drinks, half-priced appetizers and even two-for-one specials.
To take advantage, start your dinner just as happy hour ends, and part of your meal will be discounted even if the balance of the meal stretches into non-happy hour periods.
Go out for lunch, rather than dinner. You can take the "dine early" tip even further by going out for lunch. Lunch is often much cheaper than dinner, and you get the same quality ingredients and service you'd expect during dinner. Portions might be smaller and the options different, but so is the bill. Before heading to your favorite restaurant for lunch, review the menu to make sure your favorite dishes are still available.
Look for coupons. With the proliferation of group buying networks such as Groupon and LivingSocial, or even the more traditional restaurant.com, you may be able to find coupons or other discounts. This is especially true for new restaurants that need to drum up business. They turn to the buying power of Groupon and LivingSocial to help them reach a new audience quickly, which usually means big discounts just to get you in the door.
If you take advantage of coupons, or even happy hour, remember to tip your servers based on the quality of the service and the regular price of the items you ordered, and not the discounted price or amount after a coupon.
Skip, or bring your own alcohol. Alcohol is the highest margin product in a restaurant, which is why happy hours often have ridiculous deals on alcoholic drinks. Wine is often marked up two and a half to three times its wholesale cost, which is why an $8 bottle in a liquor store will set you back more than $30 in a restaurant. You can buy beer at $10 for a 12-pack at a beer store, but only get two beers in a restaurant for that price.
If you want to drink wine, call the restaurant to see if you can bring your own and what the corkage fee is if there is one. This will allow you to bring a bottle of wine you know you like and avoid the markup on the restaurant's wine.
Order dessert or coffee somewhere else. A post-meal dessert or cup of coffee might seem like the perfect ending to a dinner, but how often do those options fit what you're craving? Instead, go somewhere else for dessert – perhaps somewhere that specializes in desserts like a bakery. You're likely to find better options and avoid the higher-priced desserts at the restaurant.
Dining out is a luxury, but it doesn't have to be expensive.
Jim Wang is an entrepreneur, who founded Microblogger.com. For actionable advice on how to build your own business, join his free newsletter.