Tips For Eating Out Cheaply

by Xin Lu on 25 June 2008 28 comments

My husband and I eat out quite often because we just do not have the time and energy to cook on most weekdays. Even though we go out three times a week or more, we do not really spend that much money on food. These are some of the things we do to save money on dining out.

Cut the Alcohol - Most restaurants make the bulk of their profits on alcohol sales. Oftentimes one cocktail could cost as much as an entree. We try to limit ourselves to drinking water when we go out. Occasionally we would order a soft drink, but by not ordering alcohol we save quite a bit.

Split a Dish - Restaurants are often serving extremely large dishes these days, and we can often get full on just one dish. So for the sake of dieting and frugality, we often split a dish.

Cook Rice at Home - Sometimes one dish just is not enough to fill both of our tummies. So what we do is cook a couple cups of rice at home and then split the dish and eat it with the rice. This works very well when we order curry dishes from our favorite Thai restaurant.

Skip the Dessert - Dessert is something we rarely order in restaurants. It is cheaper to just buy a tub of ice cream and eat the dessert at home.

Use Coupons - Local restaurants often have coupons in the local Penny Saver or ValuPack. We actually sort these out and use them. Sometimes the discounts are quite good and we could feed ourselves for under $10 and still have leftovers.

I think eating out is often cheaper than cooking for us just because we do save quite a bit of time and energy. Additionally, we have gotten used to eating cheaply so when we do go out with friends, we end up spending less than our peers in the same restaurant. What are your tips for eating out cheaply?

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Guest's picture

We keep our expenses down my doing restaurant Mystery shopping. Since we have done it so long, I can say it is easy and we are able to eat for free or for virtually nothing on average about once a week. We love doing it and we get to try new restaurants all the time. It takes a little work to get started. It takes some experience and practice to feel comfortable with it. And it takes some discipline to follow through with commitments and type in the evaluations...but it is worth it.

Guest's picture
Naomi

For the cooking rice at home tip. Where do you eat it? At home or do you actually take it to the restaurant?

Guest's picture
Guest

that you don't go out to eat with friends who like to split the bill evenly (especially if they drink and you don't)!

Guest's picture
Jenny

When we eat out with friends, we tell the staff/waiter/waitress up front that we need separate checks. It usually works. We have gone out with friends who drink vodka drinks with expensive entrees and we are having water with salads and they want to split the bill evenly...not gonna happen. Needless to say we don't eat out with them often as they are big spenders and have the debt to prove it.

Guest's picture
Guest

Credit Card Roulette!

Guest's picture
Jen

What I've always done, is skip ALL the drinks.
I always order a glass of water. I like water, and it's free, so I save a few dollars right there.

Also, I've found that just ordering an appetizer, ends up being enough of a meal in itself! At TGI Fridays, or Applebees, or wherever, a chicken quesadilla is enough to fill even my Husband.

Appetizer, water, (which I have in the past, squeezed every drop out of the lemon the water comes with, and added a packet or two of sugar, and BOOM! Lemonade with your dinner....for FREE!!
So anyway, appetizer, water, check please!

For McDonald's, I feed my family of four, for under $10 every time we go.
I always have drinks in the car for the kids, and always have water for me and the kids to share, so why bother buying a huge soda that usually gets wasted? (soda is the antichrist, anyway!)

We order ONLY from the Dollar Menu. Plenty of choices.
I mean, come on...you're eating at McD's...how luxurious can you get?

So, our typical order for me, my Husband, my 5 year old Daughter, and my 9 year old Son, is:

5 double cheeseburgers. (which sometimes is subbed with a chicken sandwich...still a dollar.)
4 small fries.
________________
$9.54

Everyone's happy, everyone's full.
(my husband has the exta double burger, in case you're wondering!)
And if we don't have a drink in the car, we'll order a small ($1) drink, in place of one of the fries, cause after the double burgers, the kids are usually mostly full, anyway. They share one.

He loves my frugal ways.

*I admit though, that a lot of McD's have changed their dollar menu, and taken the double burger off of it....but not our local one yet!!*

Linsey Knerl's picture

For the rare times we eat there, we order:

The 2 cheeseburger meal with large fry and drink. Then I split it between me and the two younger boogers. My daughter gets her own $1 sandwich and $1 fry. We also get some waters. It more than feeds us for less than $8. Then we go home and gorge ourselves on apples from the fridge. :)

They also offer $1 Happy Meals from 4-8p.m. one night a week.  Although we never seem to make it, it's good to know it's available. 

Myscha Theriault's picture

Now that you've pointed it out, Xin, it seems so obvious.

But, I've never thought of doing it that way before with take out.

Good tip.

Guest's picture
Morgan

- Mystery shopping.

- Never order a drink, only water - as others have said, healthier and it saves a couple bucks.

- Order vegetarian options, they're often several dollars cheaper.

- Ask if the restaurant serves half portions - for items like salads and nachos, they usually will serve you half the dish for half the price.

- Order a kids meal - Many restaurants will serve kids meals to adults, especially if you call and order it to go - even if it's against policy.

- Coupons - you can buy a citypass book full of buy one get one free coupons for local restaurants for about $10 or $15, and you'll save this much in one meal. Not so good for singles, but great for couples and families.

- Salad bar at the grocery store - Skip the dressing. I run to the grocery store and indulge in their salad bar almost every day for lunch. I choose light items (skip the cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, load up on the onions, sprouts, mushroom slices, finely grated cheese, etc) and I keep a bottle of salad dressing in my office. My salad at Kroger is usually under $3 a day (they charge by weight), I can't even buy ingredients and pack a salad every day of the week for $15.

- Have a snack before you go out to eat - if you order when you're hungry, you'll order more.

- Look up the menu online and decide what you're ordering before you get there. Once you're in the restaurant and smelling the food, seeing other people's food, and looking at the pictures on the menu, you're more likely to overorder.

- Eat breakfast at home (a pack of oatmeal or a couple bananas will do) and you'll be less starving at lunchtime.

Guest's picture
Jay

Does Mystery shopping actually works?
Isn't it a scam?
and if is not how can I get in it, where should I start of go, call?
Thank you in advance.

Guest's picture
Guest

I really dislike eating out in part because the food is simply heavier, less healthy, and calorie laden. If you're trying to lose weight or keep pounds off, just about the number on thing to do is stop eating out. That said, one more thing I do is almost always eat only half or less of my meal and take the rest home -- the leftovers speed up lunch making for other days and so on.

Guest's picture
Pam munro

My husband & I like the Entertainment discount books. We always save more than we paid for them, & get to find new restaurants, too. They drop prices drastically in the last 6 months of the year for this year's book - and have other deals, too. I am trying to get my husband to pay attention to fast food coupons - as he grabs things on the road a lot.

Guest's picture
Joel

My tips is to only eat out for lunch when there are often reduced prices (and portions), and never for supper.

Guest's picture

I'm only allowed to eat out once a week and I always tty to only spend about $10 on myself. I never order a soda, always water, and I try to save some for left overs but I never seem to be able to eat them before they go bad.

Guest's picture
Guest

Many posh restaurants have happy hour specials in their bar area such as Cheesecake Factory, McCormick and Schmidts and others. For the price of a beer, you can have $1.95 half-pound burgers, seafood stirfry, spinach dip, mussels, etc. (I think it's $3.95 at the Cheesecake factory, and we take food home from there.) At Mortons, they will pass around little steak sandwiches for free at the bar. Of course, they also have drink specials, sometimes a glass of wine for $2. Usually it's a limited time offer from 4 to 7.

I also keep an eye on gift certificates on ebay. This time of year grads and dads may be re-selling theirs to make some cash. I aim for 10-15% off.

If you haven't signed up for email alerts from your favorite restaurant, try that. My birthday is next week and I have about 15 coupons ranging from free desert (without any additional purchase) to a free entree.

Expect good service. For example, once we ordered a salad, and as soon as we started eating it, our entrees came. We told the waiter we didn't even have time to eat our salads (which we paid extra for). They re-made the entrees, the manager came by and comped our desert, coffee AND cocktails. This was at the Great American chain, Costal Flats. Also, whenever we eat at Macaroni Grill and have left overs, they always pack a fresh loaf of bread with them.

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

We love to eat out. I'm one of those people that believes that any dish that I can cook tastes better in a restaurant. There are probably health related reasons for this, but also because eating out is fun and convenient. But it's also expensive. I think no matter how you slice it, you spend more money eating out, even if it's fast food, which might taste good but is tantamount to feeding your family garbage.

We've managed to decrease out expenses substantially but simply doing one thing-eating out less. It's made a huge difference, and when we do, we employ many of Xin's ideas, and it works.

Thanks for the advice, great tips as always.

Guest's picture
Shelle

For fast food, we have only a few choices, but at our local Wendy's I have gotten to know most of the employees there, and I am always finding extra B1G1 coupons, free drink coupons, etc in my bag. I have never asked for the favor, but it definitely keeps me coming back!

Also, at local restaraunts (not chains), we have a few that we have become very friendly with most of the waitresses. We notice when it's a waitress that we know we get much larger portions (good for take home bags).

I have never asked for preferential treatment, and that's not why we are nice to people. But, we have really noticed a payoff there.

Also, just for reference, it's just me and the hubby. We do tend to eat out a good bit, the weeks we know that we'll be out alot I buy much less at the grocery store. If we had a child or two, I don't think it would balance out, but for us it pretty much does. My husband likes big meals at times, and it's so much easier to go out for one meal of fried chicken than to destroy my kitchen and have enough fried chicken for many days. One high calorie meal vs several high calorie meals.

Shelle

Guest's picture

A lot of places in my area do specials, depending on the night. For example, a local ale house does dollar burgers on monday nights, another does a prie fixe meal on Tuesday nights for $20, but that includes app, entrees, desert, and one glass of wine (which can last all meal), and auto gratuity. Sounds like it's too good to be true, but the food is fantastic. The only problem I've found with on these nights is trying to get a seat!

Guest's picture
Jeff

I'm a huge fan of keeping a wide variety of frozen vegtables in the freezer and using them to stretch semi-prepared, quick meals. For instance, bags of chopped broccoli are 97 cents for a 16oz (1 pound) bag at the Super Target where we shop. They recently had several varieties of those new Bertolli frozen skillet meals on sale 2-for-12dollars. I'll cook up the "Chicken, Rigatoni, and Broccoli" Bertolli bag, and add a 1/2 pound more of chopped frozen broccoli. This yields enough to feed a family of four, and makes it healthier in the process because you're diluting a finite amount of salt, fat, etc. with straight-up veggies. Another example is if I'm making mexican food, I'll buy those cans of Spanish Rice from La Preferida when they're on sale, and mix one can with 2 cups (prepared) of plain long grain white rice. There is so much salt (2790mg) and spices in the can to begin with that I couldn't imagine actually eating it "straight" without diluting it with an equal volume of plain white rice. My last trick is this: Guys, I know how it always seems like there's never enough food is those frozen dinners. Again, keep veggies in the freezer and augment whatever veggie came with the frozen dinner. If your entre has peas as the veggie, add more peas. If your entre has carrots, add some more frozen carrots. Eat a bite of meatloaf (or whatever it is), then a bite of carrots, etc., repeat, and when you're done you'll feel more satisfied and be less likely to heat up another one!!!!

Guest's picture
Alexandra

I agree with Jeff that adding frozen veggies is a quick way of stretching meals. For instance, when the writer mentioned ordering one dish of curry for two people, but making extra rice at home, she could add a bag of frozen veggies to the rice cooking water (toward the end of the cooking) for no extra effort or cleanup, and add good nutrition and bulk.

Another simple addition is fruit. Cutting up a couple of apples is easy and nutritious. Easier yet, a bowl of grapes. Don't even have to cut them up. And it's good for you!

Guest's picture
Marcie

I recommend eating at a restaurant during happy hour. Many restaurants or bars offer Happy Hour specials on their food (hoping you'll order a drink obviously!) but when you don't get a drink sometimes you can spend as little as $5 for a meal!
Plus, it won't be crowded since happy hour is normally between 3-6pm.

Guest's picture
Marcie

I recommend eating at a restaurant during happy hour. Many restaurants or bars offer Happy Hour specials on their food (hoping you'll order a drink obviously!) but when you don't get a drink sometimes you can spend as little as $5 for a meal!
Plus, it won't be crowded since happy hour is normally between 3-6pm.

Carrie Kirby's picture

I just bought some "gift certificates" at Restaurant.com after Wantnot.net tipped me off to a 60% off sale there. So I paid something like $4 for $25 certificates. However I know there are some restrictions such as restaurants requiring you to spend $35 to use a $25 certificate and I haven't tried mine yet so I can't recommend it without qualification.

 I am signed up for one mystery shop company that is not a scam, it's called Customer Perspectives, however they have never sent me any opportunities to try restaurants. I'm intrigued! Anyone care to share the names of reputable companies that do restaurants?

And by the way we usually cook our own rice at home too, because we like brown rice and not all restaurants have it, and of course to save a little. Altho not all Asian restaurants even charge for the white rice. 

Guest's picture
Me

Mystery shopping is for real. But services which offer to get you into the business are fake. Go to volition dot com and start reading the boards, just don't compete in my area.

To sign up with the different companies, you'll need to write a narrative of some sort. Whatever you write, keep it concise. The best way to get the jobs and maintain your rating is to understand what a company is looking for. Get names, give exact details and keep the report concise. Only write the facts and reserve your opinions unless asked specifically for them. Never vary from the guidelines and never cancel a job.

My wife and I both shop and have been doing so for almost 15 years. Restaurants are mostly a reimbursement with a few dollars extra thrown in. Video shops pay the most and don't require any narrative or written report. Remember, companies will file a 1099 on you, as you are considered an independent contractor.

If you are grammatically challenged, you need not apply.

As for signing with a company and not being offered jobs, it may be that they are not operating in your area. There are various other boards. Jobslinger dot com acts as an aggregate for a variety of boards and you can find companies there which are looking for shoppers in your particular area.

Most will require you to handle a small shop to obtain a rating before you are offered one which pays a bit more.

You'll have a hard time finding out which companies shop a particular restaurant, but if anyone knows where, I wouldn't mind seeing that list myself.

We do a lot of fine dining, however those shops usually are limited to one visit, per location, per year. Average is around $120 - $180 in expenses, including bar tab and valet.

Invest in a small digital recorder. The time stamp will make it easy to calculate timings and allow you to more accurately recall details of interactions. The most grueling of my reports takes me about an hour, including scanning the receipt.

Guest's picture
Guest

My Spouse and I travel a lot for work. We always pack snacks for the trip to eat healthier and be able to postpone a meal in a restaurant or share one. One of our biggest tips that my mother passed on to me is using the Entertainment Card. It is the same card for each city. There's no need to buy a separate card or book for each city. You just have to look up the restaurants for that city online or go to a bookstore that sells Entertainment books and see what restaurants are listed for that city. We have saved huge doing this and also by using Restaurant.com for coupons. Otherwise we follow the tips above people have used for happy hour specials, sharing entrees, etc.

Guest's picture

Xin Lu, I live in Silicon Valley like you, and find the San Jose-area Entertainment Coupon Book to be a great deal for eating out. The selection of restaurants is pretty decent. Most of the coupons are for 2-for-1 entrees, so the book pays for itself in about 3-4 meals. It works best if you're not the kind of person where coupons entice you to eat out more often (I'm not).

Guest's picture
n. bono

i work at On the Border and we have a great happy hour. we see lots of people who admitedly are there to save money. it's 3 to 7 mon. thru friday. cheap margs and beer and half off most appetizers. it's a steal and the food is great.

Guest's picture
FrugalCat

I bring a container with me into the restaurant. A nice Rubbermaid one with lid-lock latches. As soon as the food is delivered, I divide it in half and put half away. Out of sight, out of mind. Half a portion is plenty from most restaurants. So then I have another meal for the next day. Yes, all resturants have to go containers but I like the heavy duty, washable, reusable, microwave safe ones I bring. Plus it keeps disposable Styrofoam out of landfills.