6 tips to save money in restaurants

Man smiling in a restaurant and holding a credit card.

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It is possible to strategically dine out and save money.

Key points

  • Inflation has hit restaurant prices hard (like everything else).
  • Consider skipping the alcohol and ordering an appetizer for your meal.
  • By choosing the right credit card for dining out, you can earn cash back or points for your restaurant spending.

Dining out is one of those everyday luxuries that almost anyone can afford, at least from time to time. It is very nice to walk into a restaurant, sit down, order what you want and have it served to you, without having to cook or wash the dishes afterwards. That said, it’s extremely easy to blow your budget by overindulging in dinner.

The most recent Consumer Price Index report showed that the cost of “eating out” (as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics designates spending on non-groceries) rose 8.5% from November from 2021 to November 2022. Thank you, inflation.

I’m a fan of small, non-chain restaurants in my town, and I’ve definitely been feeling the pressure to pay more for my meals lately. I’m happy to continue buying restaurant meals, because I want these businesses to survive; It’s been a tough couple of years for restaurants, too. To that end, I’ve been collecting little ways to save money when dining out. Read on for some ideas to try the next time you’re out.

1. Avoid alcohol

Ordering alcohol at a restaurant has a huge immediate impact on your bottom line. The markup on alcohol at restaurants is typically around 200%, according to How Stuff Works. Also, a restaurant that serves alcohol requires an additional (and sometimes expensive) license, especially if it serves hard liquor and not just beer and wine. For this reason, it’s a good idea to skip the alcohol if you hope not to spend a lot of money on your credit card on your night out.

2. Consider the appetizers

I am frequently in the position of being more interested in the appetizer section of the menu than the meals. If it’s you too, why don’t you bow? You can save some money by choosing an appetizer over a full meal, and if you don’t feel “full” enough, throw in a salad. You can also specify to your waiter that you want them to bring it with meals (I have never felt sorry for this).

3. Look for coupons or deals

It’s a fantastic move to use coupons or other direct ways to spend less. You can find restaurant coupons through various websites, apps, and even in your mailbox at home. It’s worth flipping through that wad of coupons you might get from time to time to see if there are any for the restaurants you frequent. Also, check to see if your favorite places have deals like happy hour prices, free kids’ meals on certain nights, and discounts for members of the military or seniors. Finally, your credit card may have cash back offers with certain restaurants. Your card’s mobile app is a great place to find them.

4. Do not order something that you would cook at home

This is my mom’s trick, and I absolutely use it too. Dining out should be special, and as such, I try to order food that I don’t prepare at home. For one thing, I know how to cook a steak to the perfect medium, and I’ve yet to dine at a restaurant that can handle it. On the other hand, if I order that steak, I’ll feel bad because I paid three times what I would have to cook it myself. If you really want to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth in a meal, order something you like but make for a rare treat. Note: I’m not giving you permission to order the $40 lobster if it’s not within your budget!

Every time I go to try a new restaurant, I look up the menu online. This prepares me in several ways. I make sure the restaurant really appeals to me (ever been to a restaurant where nothing on the menu sounds good?). And I can also see the prices. This is an especially useful trick if you’re on vacation and you’re not sure which restaurants are more expensive. If you know you have $30 to spend on lunch, and based on menu prices, that restaurant will sell you a $50 lunch, you know you need to find a different place.

6. Use the right credit card

While using a restaurant credit card won’t save you money directly, you’ll have the opportunity to earn some cash or points on your restaurant spend, and that’s definitely a good thing.

One of the most common ways to save money that you’ll find mentioned everywhere is “stop dining out!” While restaurant meals can be expensive, I would say that if something adds joy to your life, the best thing to do is find ways to save money. If you can change the way you approach dining at restaurants and end up keeping more money in your bank account, that’s a win-win.

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