The following post was written by Michael from CreditCardForum, which is a review portal for credit card deals. His specialty is writing about cash back credit cards but in addition, he also regularly blogs about general personal finance advice.
10 Best Ways To Save Money at Restaurants
I remember eating out at restaurants was such a rarity when I grew up. Other than family events (and when my grandma simply wanted to spoil me) we would always eat at home. But these days, it seems that the typical American eats out much more often. I know a number of people that make average (and even below-average) incomes, yet they eat at restaurants multiple times per week, sometimes up to seven days per week!
However I must confess, over the past few years I’m also guilty of dining at restaurants much more often then I should be. I may have a busy schedule but that’s still not a valid excuse. I guess I justify it by saying to myself “everyone else is doing it” but again, that’s not an excuse. After all, if us Christians made all choices based on what the masses are doing, we would be in pretty sad shape!
So lately, I’ve gave myself an “allowance” on the number of times I’m allowed to eat at restaurants per month and it has helped me cut back tremendously – I recommend everyone give it a try. Furthermore, when you do treat yourself to eating out, here are the top ten tricks I’ve learned over the years for saving money at restaurants.
#1 – Skip the drinks
Just having one alcoholic drink can easily raise the price of your tab by up to 70% (i.e. a $10 entrée and a $7 drink). But even a soft drink can easily cost you an easy 25%. Conclusion? Stick with water and a wedge of lemon!
#2 – Going out for lunch instead of dinner
Many restaurants charge a lower price for their lunch menu than for dinner. For example, at an Olive Garden I recently visited the “Lasagna Classico” costs $7.25 and lunch, but $10.95 at dinner. So if possible, try and go for lunch at places that do this.
#3 – Signing up for email lists
Both local and national restaurants often have an email newsletter, Facebook group, Twitter account, etc. From my experience, these can be a great way to score coupons. Many also send you an especially enticing coupon on your birthday, too!
#4 – Using discounted gift certificates
There are a number of sites like Restaurants.com and Groupon which sell discounted gift certificates for selected restaurants. Restaurants.com usually charges $10 for a $25 certificate, but throughout the year they feature promotions where they offer them for only $2 each! The catch is that you usually have to spend a minimum amount to use them (i.e. $25 voucher can only be used on $35+ purchase).
#5 – Credit cards with higher cash back at restaurants
As someone that blogs about credit cards, it’s probably no surprise that I am mentioning this technique. Some of the best credit card deals are those which offer a higher rebate at restaurants. For example, the Discover More and Chase Freedom card both offer 5% for a few months each year. Alternately, the Costco American Express gives 3% at restaurants all year long. Of course, these cash back credit cards all have ridiculous interest rates, so there’s no point in using them if you are going to carry a balance.
#6 – Redeeming credit card rewards for gift certificates
Many credit card reward programs allow you to redeem your cash back for restaurant gift cards. If the conversion is only on a 1 for 1 basis (i.e. $50 in cash or $50 gift card) there’s no real rhyme or reason to do it. However, some programs increase the value of your rewards when you go the gift card route. For example, Discover will give you a $25 Black Angus Steakhouse gift card for only $20 worth of credit card rewards.
#7 – Avoid the appetizers and extra salads
In my personal opinion, appetizers and salads at restaurants are rarely worth it… they are simply too expensive. Now if you’re eating the salad as your entrée, it’s understandable. But if you’re getting a salad and an entrée, that can double your cost. This is because a lot of times the salads cost almost as much as the meal itself! So just think long and hard whether that appetizer or salad is actually special enough to warrant the price.
#8 – Choose entrees that give the most bang for your buck
Obviously not everything on the menu has the same profit margin. Some things involve pricier ingredients and are more time consuming to make, yet ironically, they still may be the same price as the basic plate of spaghetti! To maximize value, I always keep this in mind when picking out my meal. After all, there’s no point in going out to eat and just ordering something simple that can be quickly made at home for a small fraction of the price.
#9 – Families should take advantage of kids’ specials
Many family-oriented restaurants have one night per week where they have a family special on kids meals (usually it’s on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday – the least busy nights for dining out). For example, there is one restaurant in my neighborhood where kids eat free on Tuesday night. Taking advantages of these types of promotions can significantly bring down the cost of eating out if you have children.
#10 – Check the weekly mailers and local newspaper
In the internet age most people don’t even subscribe to newspapers, but if you do, they can still be a great place to find coupons. If you don’t, most of use still get those “junk mail” weekly coupon mailers that usually come around the middle of the week and they almost always include restaurant deals. So instead of instantly tossing them in the trash, check them out to see if there’s anything you might be interested in.