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7 Frugal Ways To Save Money While Eating Out

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You can be frugal and still enjoy eating out. With a few frugal mindsets, you can take the family out for dinner and not bust your budget.

Who doesn’t like the fun of going out for dinner instead of making it at home? Even in this economy, Americans average $2500 per person annually on eating out. Eating out can be done frugally; follow these simple steps to eat out and save money while you’re at it.

#1 – Skip The Drinks

Eating out is expensive enough without adding drinks onto it. You can safely assume that your meal will probably cost at least $10-15 per plate. This can begin to add up if you are going out with your family. Where the restaurant really gets you though is when you start adding other things on to the bill like a soft drink or cocktail. Soft drinks cost next to nothing for restaurants and when alcohol comes in to the picture, steep markups come with it. By being frugal and avoiding the drink you can keep your dining bill down and perhaps save enough to buy that bottle of wine on the way home instead of just a glass of it at the restaurant.

#2 – Be Happy

Another way to be frugal while eating out is to check out the restaurant’s happy hours. Often times restaurants will use this as a way to entice you to dine at their establishment. They generally will offer deals such as a buy one get one free deal, appetizer or drink deals. They will commonly not be available on the full menu or require you to eat on the patio, but I have no problem eating on the patio if it means I don’t have to pay full price.

#3 – Be A Fan

Restaurants are always looking for ways to lure you in to their confines. A popular way for them to do this is through social media or email. More and more restaurants are viewing the electronic medium as an effective way to reach out to prospective clients. This often requires signing up to receive emails from them or “liking” them on Facebook. In exchange for your information, restaurants will send you emails with sometimes valuable coupons to come dine with them.  Some credit card companies also offer similar programs to get savings at various restaurants, just ask and they may have some in your area.

#4 – Take Your Kids

Many restaurants will have a certain night of the week where they’ll offer a free meal to your child for dining there. This is a nice way to keep the bill down and most little children love the idea of eating out as they can have something they may not normally have. Remember to read the fine print and make sure that if you have multiple kids that each meal will be free. Another benefit is that many restaurants make their children’s meals just a little smaller than a regular meal. My tip as a Dad to three under age five – split the meal in half and take the rest home for lunch the next day.

#5 – Eat At Their Expense

Restaurants commonly use services like Groupon and Living Social. My wife and I often only eat out if we have such a coupon as it can allow us to have part of the meal on the restaurant’s dime. If you watch for them you can easily snag deals that will work out just like a buy-one-get-one-free deal would. This also allows us to try new restaurants and be frugal at the same time. One thing to keep in mind in using such a deal is to make sure that you are wise in your purchases as you can easily spend more than you intended at the restaurant and lose out on any savings you may have realized. You can also accomplish the same thing by using any rewards points on one of your credit cards.

#6 – Be Frugal and Order An Appetizer

Restaurants often look at appetizers as a way of bringing in additional revenue. However, if you order an appetizer as opposed to a regular meal you can often beat them at their own game. If nothing looks appealing to you on the main menu, try looking at the appetizers as a meal option. You can leave with a happy stomach without the lighter wallet to accompany it.

You can be frugal and still enjoy eating out. With a few frugal mindsets, you can take the family out for dinner and not bust your budget.

#7 – Split It Up

If you’ve eaten out recently, you probably noticed that the portion size was quite generous. In fact, recent studies show that portion sizes have quadrupled since the 1950’s. Suffice it to say, we don’t need to eat that much when we go out for a meal as it could be harmful for a number of reasons. With this in mind, you can eat just part of the meal while at the restaurant and take the rest home. This provides the dual benefit of not eating such a big meal in one sitting, and giving you a lunch or two the following week.

 

Eating out is a fun thing that many people and families like to do. When done wisely, enjoying a night out and frugality are not mutually exclusive. Your social life as well as your pocketbook will both thank you for dining out frugally.

What are some of the ways you’re frugal when you eat out?

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I'm the founder of Frugal Rules, a Dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry. I'm passionate about helping people learn from my mistakes so that they can enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. I'm also a freelance writer, and regularly contribute to GoBankingRates, Investopedia, Lending Tree and more.

34 Comments

  • Great tips! We do almost all of these from time to time. I try to get Greg to split an entree with me sometimes….but he always wants his own. =)

    • John says:

      Yea, my wife usually does not have much luck with me on that either. 🙂 I have found though at some places that I am just find getting a kids meal if I like and still have plenty of food.

  • Jason @ WSL says:

    Great tips John! We only order water when we eat out and it’s likely that we’ll box a portion of the meal and that way we can get 2 for the price of 1!

  • AverageJoe says:

    We rarely split meals, but when we do we’re always happy we did. Lower cost but also I don’t go home feeling like I was a glutton….

  • Savvy Scot says:

    Love these tips. I especially watch the drink prices… this can often be the most profitable area for restaurants. Groupon is a great way to sample a place too – my wife and I frequently take advantage of discounted eating out! Im afraid that I can never limit myself to just a starter…. 😉

  • We always skip the drinks. I always order water and it isn’t just to save money. It is what I prefer. I think my partying college days turned me off booze. I hardly ever drink it now.

  • Pauline says:

    I try to Google the place I am going to, in order to look for offers. Chain restaurants almost always have something going on. I also exchange my credit card or supermarket rewards for restaurant credit. If there is no special occasion but I have to eat out, I usually opt for all you can eat buffets, for $7-$10 I have a (very) large meal with salad, sushi, hot dishes and dessert.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Pauline. I’ll do that from time to time as well to see what they might be offering or what specials they have going on at the time.

  • We essentially do all these things (except #4 since we don’t have kids). Eating out for cheap isn’t impossible if you plan correctly!

  • We pretty much rock this whole list every time (minus bringing the kids, for now). We ALWAYS split one appetizer and one meal, or just fill up on happy hour food. We get water only, unless we’re treating ourselves, and then we get a glass of wine or a drink.

    We pretty much have cut our date dinners down to about $25 or less, everytime. Frugal FTW!

    • John says:

      That’s great Jacob! My wife and I are usually looking for ways to have date nights and be frugal at the same time. We rarely get drinks while going out, unless it’s for a special occasion, as the drinks can be as much if not more thans the dinner itself.

  • Ornella @ Moneylicious says:

    Awesoe tips. Splitting your food is a big one. I’ve heard it takes 15 to 20 minutes for your brain to register you are full. I’ve used Groupon for other services, but I’ve seen great deals on restaurants!

  • John says:

    I agree Ornella, splitting food is huge. Many restaurants just give you so much food that it’s entirely too much for two people to eat. We’ve had times where we split the meal and still have enough to take home for a lunch the next day.

  • We don’t go out very often, maybe once a month. We use coupons when we can. Signing up as a fan is a great idea. We don’t ever get alcohol, but do like to order ice tea. It’s part of the treat for us.

    • John says:

      We’re the same way Kim. We like to limit the alcohol as the markup is so high. I commonly get tea in order to avoid the extra calories in a soft drink.

  • I rarely ever order a drink at a restaurant because sometimes they’ll charge you $4 for a non-refillable pop! No thank you. Water is just fine, and it’s free.

  • John says:

    Same here, especially when you can buy at least a 12 pack of the same thing and have it at home.

  • I actually eat a little bit beforehand so I won’t be as hungry when I get to the restaurant. Thus, I will either order an appetizer or one of the cheaper entrees on the menu. Although sometimes I find doing the latter defeats the purpose of going out to eat, when you know you can most likely make the dish yourself for way cheaper.

    I’ll even offer to take my friend’s leftovers home or eat their food if they can’t finish it. I hate seeing food go to waste. I find this way I get more food that what I paid for. lol.

    • John says:

      Great point on both eating beforehand and making something cheaper at home. Your last point is a good one as well. There’s no shame in helping a friend clean their plate. 😉

  • Cat says:

    I always get water. I prefer going to lunch than dinner if I have the choice. And splitting definitely works for me!

    • John says:

      Great point on going out for lunch. My wife and I will do that from time to time. The meals are usually cheaper in price and if we work it right really don’t need to eat dinner at home.

  • I like a salad with dinner, so I’ll often eat one at home before I go out. This keeps me from being starving and diving into the bread as well. 🙂

  • John says:

    Great points. Often times a salad can cost as much as an appetizer and you get little more than some iceberg lettuce and a few tomatoes.

  • Veronica @ Pelican on Money says:

    BF and I always split a meal, they’re just way too big! I see people who don’t even bother to take leftovers home.

  • Great article. I find the best way to stay on budget when eating out is to check the restaurants menu and the attached prices before committing to dining there. Most places have a website where you can check it out before booking in or turning up.

    If it is too pricey then you can start looking elsewhere.

    • John says:

      Thanks Glen. That’s a great point. I usually try and do the same thing too, especially if it’s somewhere I’ve never been before. I do find though that some restaurants won’t list the prices online.

  • Kay Lynn says:

    We do most of these. Our kids are grown and we never split the entree but do split salads sometimes.

    I also would recommend checking in on foursquare as soon as you get to the restaurant. You can often save with special coupons ranging from a percentage off to free appetizer.

  • No Waste says:

    #7 (Splitting) is such a slam dunk.

    The problem is that I get to the restaurant and my eyes are bigger than my stomach so I insist on ordering my own meal.

    Then on the way home, I inevitably say, “We should have split a meal!” and my Wife just rolls her eyes.

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