How to Save Money at Restaurants: Budgeting Tips for Dining Out
Whether you're looking for budgeting tips to accommodate restaurant dining on business trips, searching for affordable ways to grab lunch on bargain shopping days or trying to incorporate some occasional cheap dates as you balance affordable romance with family responsibilities, figuring out how to save money at restaurants can range from an occasional need to a huge priority. I'll discuss how and why next.
For some, eating out at restaurants is barely on our radar. It's something we occasionally do for special occasions, or while traveling for holidays. For others who have to drive long distances for work and shopping, or live in a city where lugging more than a power bar and bottle of water in the morning with their briefcase is a challenge, things get more complicated when it comes to cutting back on the number of times they eat out per week. Add in unpredictable work schedules, constant last minute business travel or multiple trips for medical appointments, and things get even tougher. Whatever your situation, there are strategies for keeping things reasonably under control financially.
A number of restaurants have half price drinks and food at certain times of day. If you are familiar with what chains offer this, scheduling your meals at this time when on the road can offer a tremendous value. It's not all deep fried unhealthy food either. I've seen Thai chicken pizza, grilled meats and veggie dippers.
I'm the first to admit I didn't want my date pulling one of these out when I was single. But once in a long term relationship, or when going out with family and friends during a shopping trip, there's no shame in using what these restaurants offer freely. Whether it's a two for one deal at your favorite Italian chain, or a short term bargain offering from a regional burger joint that you found in your weekend newspaper inserts, utilizing coupon offerings is a great budgeting tip for dining out.
Hit the Grocery Store Instead of a Restaurant
Many grocery stores have deli sandwiches they'll make to order that are wrapped in paper. If you decide to incorporate a bottled beverage and chips, you'll spend way less at a bargain grocery store than you would at a convenience chain, especially if you are feeding a family and getting drinks for everyone. I know, I'm the one who recommended sharing a foot-long as an affordable date. I still stand by that, but if you've got a family or moderate sized group of people stopping by, things add up differently. Besides, the lines are usually shorter (or non existent, depending on the time of day) at the grocery store, and you can hit the express lane. Another great family crowd pleaser for those days when homemade just isn't in the schedule are those larger pre-made fresh pizzas the chain stores all offer.
Incorporate a Few Homemade Knockoffs
If it's just about feeling like you're having something special, consider incorporating some easy restaurant knockoffs like a particular dip or soup that your favorite restaurant is known for and occasionally incorporating them. DIY mozzarella sticks that you can make ahead for the freezer is one way to go. Our own Thursday Bram has also written a post on affordable restaurant clone recipes that you might find helpful.
Consider a Hybrid
When considering how to save money at restaurants, going with the hybrid approach can be a particularly powerful budget tip. Think high quality frozen pizza with a made-in-minutes green salad, or an affordable rotisserie chicken with a pot of rice or baked potatoes and a simple side dish. Remember convenience foods don't have to be processed. Think bay scallops, snow peas or European string beans. All very low prep and ready in less time than it takes to wait for your takeout order. Here's a list of thirteen conveniences foods that are worth the money.
Practice Preventative Maintenance
I guess what I'm saying here folks, is plan ahead. Sometimes we're just stuck in our cars in traffic and there's nothing we can do about it. Having a few items on hand can mean the difference between stopping for fast food and making it home for at least that frozen pizza idea I mentioned above. Here's a post I wrote about dining in your car, and one from Andrea with ideas for food items to carry with you under just such conditions.
Go for the Combo
The combo establishment, that is. Many places offer eating options under the same roof while you shop, and for less money than you might expect. For example, at Costco they have a snack bar where a buck-fifty will get you a huge iced tea and a quarter pound Polish sausage or all beef hot dog. Not exactly glamorous but if you haven't had a chance to grab or pack anything else, this will give you some sort of protein packed power boost before you shop that comes out to around the cost of a power bar. Score! Also, Target has some affordable options as well, particularly if you are at a Super Target. Grab a grocery store deli sandwich and a fountain beverage at the snack bar and take advantage of their seating area. My husband's favorite option is a slice and a drink.
Got any other great budget tips for how to save money on restaurant dining? Let us know below. We also have a few other resources on Wise Bread, including Xin's piece on eating out cheaply, Paul's article on half price dining, Julie's post on bridging the gap from restaurant dining to eating at home (gotta love it when someone tells you before dinner snacks are a good idea) and Thursday's article on how to eat cheaply while traveling.