Save Boodles on Your Noodles (at Restaurants)

Summary: These simple tips on how to save money at restaurants can keep thousands of dollars a year in your wallet. (Tweet This!)

Today, I thought I'd write about some more ways to Save Money. In the past I've written about how it is important to spend less than you earn, which lead to me writing about these high level tips on how to save money on almost anything. One of the items that I mentioned were the cost of "outings..." and the obvious example is the cost of going out to restaurants.

Save Money at Restaurants

Save Money at Restaurants

The average American spends thousands of dollars a year at restaurants. I've got nothing against restaurants. I'll be the first to admit that the food is generally better than I can make at home. However, I don't think it is that much better. I will say that my taste buds and sense of smell (which factor into taste) are, well, defective compared to most people's.

That said, I think for many people, there are ways to save money at restaurants. Here are some basic tips:

Avoid Restaurants

It shouldn't come as a surprise, the best way to avoid spending money at restaurants is to avoid restaurants. It is easier said than done. There are restaurants everywhere - and people need to eat. The combination of the two has made going out to eat an important social aspect of our lives. A lot of people don't go to restaurants for social reasons - they just want the convenience of a quick meal.

It's reasonable to fall for the social value eating out - a lot of people do. That said, it's worth suggesting an alternative such as a pot luck dinner. If your difficulty is in finding time, the answer is easy. You can make a few minor changes to your daily schedule and enjoy great quality food at a great price. I suggest you follow some of the tips in Be Better Now's Productivity category.

You want another reason to avoiding restaurants? It's often difficult to find nutritional information of the food (unless it is a large chain). If you are fortunate enough to find nutrition information, you'll quickly realize that it's next to impossible to maintain a healthy diet or lose weight, if that's your goal.

If you can't avoid restaurants the next best thing is to limit the damage to your wallet. So let's look at:

Top Ways to Save Money at Restaurants

  • Do Lunch Instead of Dinner - Lunch prices are typically significantly cheaper. Not only do you save money, but the portions are usually smaller and you are less likely to knock down a days worth of calories.
  • Save Half Your Meal for Leftovers - I sometimes ask for a take-out dish right away, so that I'm not tempted to eat the whole thing. This is another tip that's about health as much as it is about money. If a restaurant is going to give me 2,000 calories of food or more, I might as well space them out over a couple of days.
  • Split a Meal - Similar to above, the idea here is to split something with your companion. My wife and I do this regularly for lunches. She loves the salad and half sandwich. A half sandwich and fries (or steamed vegetables if I feel like being better) is enough for me. She orders the salad. I order the sandwich. I give her half with her salad. Sometimes a restaurant will charge a "split-plate fee." Some call this tacky, but I think you could just claim it's for portion control.
  • Cash in on your Seniority - If you are a senior citizen, you can often get a discount. You've earned it.
  • Skip the Alcohol - The margins that restaurants make on wine and other alcoholic beverages are tremendous. If you can save the drinks for home, you'll not only save money, but also avoid any nasty DUI incidents.
  • Look for Restaurants with No Corkage Fee - Bringing your own bottle of wine can lead to savings. If you find a restaurant that can't get an alcohol license it can lead to big savings. My wife and I found a pasta restaurant in western Massachusetts that allowed this. Cheap pasta and your own wine is a big win.
  • Take Advantage of Happy Hour - If you can't skip the alcohol and the corkage feeds are high, maybe you can get a half-price or 2-for-1 special during happy hour. They work equally well if your companion wants a drink too.
  • Cash in on the Early Bird Specials - There's a lot of money to be saved by dining at off-peak hours. This can also be nicely combined with the above tip about happy hour. Have a drink at the bar and bring it to your table. While on the topic of early bird specials I'm reminded of this great moment in Seinfeld history from the episode The Cadallac:

    "MORTY: Alright, are you ready to eat?

    HELEN: (glancing at her watch) Oh, right, let's go. Jerry, let's go, it's time
    to eat. We're going to dinner.

    Jerry wanders into the room. He's in a t-shirt and sweatpants, and holding a
    comic book he's been reading.

    JERRY: (confused) Dinner? W..What time is it?

    HELEN: (pulling on a coat) It's four-thirty.

    JERRY: (bewildered) Four-thirty? Who eats dinner at four-thirty?

    MORTY: By the time we sit down, it'll be quarter to five.

    JERRY: I don't understand why we have to eat now.

    HELEN: We gotta catch the early-bird. It's only between four-thirty and six.

    MORTY: Yeah. They give you a tenderloin, a salad and a baked potato, for
    four-ninety-five. You know what that cost you after six?

    JERRY: Can't we eat at a decent hour? I'll treat, okay?

    HELEN: You're not buying us dinner.

    JERRY: (emphatic) I'm not force-feeding myself a steak at four-thirty to save a
    coupla bucks, I'll tell you that!

    HELEN: Alright, (sitting on the couch) we'll wait. (pointedly) But it's unheard
    of."

    I'm with Morty and Helen. Grab that tenderloin, salad, potato for $4.95 (or whatever the incredible special price is). I'd probably aim to eat closer to 5:30, but other than that it sounds fantastic.

  • Eat on nights with "specials" - Many chains and even local restaurants offer incentives (i.e. good deals) during their slower nights of the week. You won't many specials on Friday or Saturday, but it's fairly common to find a good deal on Tuesdays (as one example).
  • Drink Water - Not only is water healthier than soda it's cheaper. In this case cheaper equals "free."
  • Use Coupons - There are a lot of coupons out there. Many of them offer a buy one get one free meal. You can sign up for Groupon and get free daily deals. You could also buy an Entertainment book an Entertainment Book full of coupons. You might also consider Restaurant.com a website where you can by vouchers for very cheap dinners (though they often come with restrictions).
  • Buy a Gift Card at a Reduced Rate - On Ebay you can often find people looking to get cash for their gift cards. With a quick search, you can save 10% or more.
  • Use a rewards credit card geared towards restaurants - If you can't find a gift card or don't have the time to wait for delivery, this is a good back-up. Some credit cards offer 3-5% or more cash back at restaurants. Some credit cards give you cash back at grocery stores or drug stores. You can take advantage by buying a gift card and using that for your bill.

With any and all the above tips, use your common sense. Don't try to split a meal with your boss. Have an alcoholic drink (if that's your thing) with a colleague. Don't pull out the coupons on the first date. In short, be smart and pick your spots.

Bonus Tip: Though it won't save you money, we like to think about health here at Be Better Now. Americans underestimate the calories in restaurant food by 642 calories (Official study by American Journal of Public Health).

That's another reason to share or save half of your meal for leftovers the next day.

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Money / Personal Finance, Save Money, Smart Spending

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