This is a guest post by Andrea Woroch.
When I was growing up, going out to eat was a special occasion reserved for celebrations like a birthday or graduation. Even then, my parents chose restaurants that offered all-you-can-eat buffets and free kids’ meals. These days, it is more common than ever for individuals and families to dine out a few times during the week. This habit doesn’t come cheap: the average consumer is spending approximately $2,500 annually on restaurant meals.
This high figure is leading more people to cut back as nearly 30 percent of Americans say they plan to spend less on dining out this year. Plenty of studies support cooking at home and brown bagging lunch as money-saving measures, but you don’t have to completely eliminate dining expenses from your budget.
To enjoy your next dinner out for less, review this list of restaurant savings tips and take a bite out of your spending without sacrificing your tastebuds.
For many of us, happy hour is the light at the end of the tunnel that is the 40-hour work week. Though these discounts are offered in the late afternoon and early evening, you can typically find late-night specials as restaurants and pubs aim to attract patrons during the slow time. If you’re not sure where to find the best deals, download the Happy Hour Finder App or keep an eye out for a free, local guide which usually includes a listing of local food and drink specials.
If you have a favorite restaurant or take-out spot you frequent often, ask if there’s a loyalty program where you can earn points for future discounts and even free meals. For instance, California Pizza Kitchen offers a $5 reward for every $100 spent. You can even earn dining gift certificates for simply making a reservation at OpenTable through the company’s Dining Rewards program.
Reap Rewards for Swiping
Credit card companies have increased the quality of their reward programs over the last few years, making it easier to earn points on dining out. This way, you get something back for the money you spend at the restaurant. If you need help finding the right reward card, consult this list of the 5 Best Credit Cards for Dining Out from Wisebread. Keep in mind, you must pay your balance on time and in full each month to ensure that interest or late fees do not cancel out the rewards.
As some restaurant chains report a decline in earnings this year, it’s no surprise dining establishments are looking for new ways to get people to their tables. This means you’re more likely to find freebies and deals through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and even Foursquare. Recently, Chipotle promoted a buy-one, get-one free deal on Facebook for Manhattanites who participated in a local bike tour, while Chili’s Bar & Grill currently offers a free order of chips and salsa for those who “check in” via Foursquare.
Grocery stores aren’t the only place to redeem coupons. Plenty of restaurants offer deals for free appetizers, discounted entrees or dollars off the total bill. Some dining establishments will email you these offers while others can be printed from home via coupon sites like CouponSherpa.com, which offers hundreds of different restaurants deals including like a free entree at Outback Steakhouse, $5 off $25 at Lone Star Steakhouse and a free appetizer with two adult entrees at Olive Garden. Those who prefer to stick to local restaurants will also find plenty of neighborhood bargains with Restaurant.com providing gift certificates up to 60-percent off.
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Yelp is a popular site for local business reviews and I find it especially helpful when searching for places to eat while traveling. Review comments to find a restaurant offering options most suitable to your taste and read recommendations for the best menu options so you don’t waste your money on a potentially lackluster meal. There’s nothing worse than blowing your budget on a bad dinner! You can also search for “dining deals” as well as “cheap dinner” based on your location to uncover deals and you may also stumble upon special discounts through the listings, too.
Though the price of prime rib might seem steep when you’re perusing the menu, the markups on meat don’t even compare to those of drinks. Both alcohol and soda are some of the most pricey things you can order at a restaurant. If sticking with water won’t work for you, watch for happy hour specials where you can order cocktails at a respectable price. Otherwise, enjoy a nightcap at home of your favorite wine or beer.
Pass the Plate
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average restaurant meal today is four times larger than it was in the 1950s. With our adjusted standards, one plate probably won’t feed a family of four. However, there’s no reason it can’t satisfy two. Sharing with another person is an easy way to cut costs in half and leave an extra allowance to treat yourself to an appetizer or dessert.
Use Gift Cards
Gift cards practically have their own economy these days, and the popular plastic presents offer an easy way to save yourself some money on food. GiftCardGranny.com is the leading gift card exchange site, with an average discount of nearly 13 percent on restaurant cards. Members of warehouse stores like Sam’s Club and Costco should also look for gift card deals. Currently Costo has a number of restaurant gift cards available at a 20 percent discount.
Choose Daily Deals Selectively
We’ve all experienced daily deal fatigue with the overabundance of tempting offers constantly arriving in our inboxes. However, I’ve enjoyed some of the best meals at 50-percent off by using some of those dining offerings. To manage the copious amount of email, check Yipit.com which aggregates deals from Groupon, LivingSocial and other daily deal sites into one place so you can search for top discounts easily. Remember, these vouchers have limited redemption periods so only purchase those that you plan to use immediately.
Check the Bill
When you’re working in a fast-paced restaurant, mistakes are bound to happen. This is why it’s essential to review your bill before you pay. Catching errors like being charged for a large instead of a small or full-price instead of happy-hour deals may only add up to a few dollars at the time, but can end up saving you big in the long run.
Split the Bill (Fairly)
Going Dutch has become increasingly complicated as dining parties get bigger and budgets become more diverse. There’s nothing more frustrating than consciously selecting an affordable entree and getting stuck cost-sharing everyones’ drinks and appetizers. The easiest way to avoid this scenario is to request separate checks when you order. Otherwise, use apps like Billr to quickly determine who owes what.
Andrea Woroch is a nationally-recognized consumer and money-saving expert who has worked with CNN, Fox, NBC, and many other media outlets to provide personal finance advice to their audiences. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter orFacebook.
Image Credit: Keisuke Omi