8 Tips For Stretching Your Dining-Out Dollars

By Tara Struyk | September 09, 2009 AAA

On any given day, one-third of Americans will visit a restaurant, according to the National Restaurant Association. In 2009 alone, U.S. restaurants will serve up more than 70 billion meals and snacks. That's a lot of food! Unfortunately for restaurant patrons, it also adds up to a lot of money. In most cases, a restaurant meal will cost significantly more than cooking at home will. But what if you're just not willing to sacrifice the convenience and luxury of dining out? The good news is, you can still cut your expenses significantly. We provide eight ways to slash your restaurant expenses. (For more tips on cutting your food costs, see 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)

  1. Do Lunch
    Because restaurants experience much lower volume at lunch, lunch offerings are much cheaper than the dinner menu. And this doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be stuck with sandwiches and burgers – many restaurants offer an abbreviated version of dinner menus for lunch, allowing you to enjoy your favorite dishes for as much as half the dinner price. Also, if the restaurant is less busy, you are also likely to get better and faster service.

  2. Skip the Extras
    Think about why you go out to eat – it's not so you can have a watered down iced tea or a $12 glass of wine, so if you can go without these items, skip them. Drinks, appetizers and desserts tend to have a much higher markup than entrée offerings, and can easily double the price of your dinner. Plus, do you really need all that food?

  3. Get It To Go
    If drinking water and skipping dessert isn't an option for you, consider taking your meal home, so that you can treat yourself to these items from your own pantry. This way, you can have a great bottle of wine, an ice-cold soda or even a tall glass of milk for half the price. Taking your order to go will also help you reduce the overall cost of your meal beyond those extras, because it's generally acceptable to pay a smaller percentage to tip the staff, as you are receiving considerably less service. (For more money-saving saving tips that don't feel like a sacrifice, see Budget Without Blowing Off Your Friends.)

  4. Scrutinize "Specials"
    Daily specials can be a way for a chef to showcase a fresh local or seasonal item, or to test a possible new addition to the menu. These specials are sometimes invented at the last minute and presented verbally to diners – often without any mention of the dish's price. If you are considering a special item, make sure you understand what you are getting and how much it costs. If the price is in line with other menu items, it's a great opportunity to try a fresh new dish. At larger chain restaurants, "specials" may also be discounts of regular menu items used for promotional purposes. If you come across one of these, view it as a sale and order away!

  5. Kids Eat for Free
    If you have children, chances are you'll have to feed them - often. Fortunately, many chain restaurants offer free kids' meals with the purchase of adult entrées. This can save a bundle for those with children under 12 years old. If the restaurant you choose doesn't offer such a promotion, try to steer younger children to the kids' menu or ask the server if you can order (and pay for) a half portion for your child. Small children have smaller appetites, so this strategy can help reduce food waste as well. You can search for Kids Eat Free specials in your area at www.mykidseatfree.com. (Your kids might learn from your budgeting habits. Read 5 Money Skills To Teach Your Kids for tips on how to make a good impression.)

  6. Eat Ethnic
    Small, authentic ethnic restaurants tend to have lower prices than major chains and high-end eateries. They also often offer interesting new food choices and great ambiance. Rather than heading to P.F. Chang's, why not check out a local Chinatown for authentic Asian food? Authentic Mexican restaurants also offer great deals and huge portions, not to mention a free bowl of chips and salsa!

  7. Look Local
    In many cases, local ingredients on a menu are likely to be less expensive and of higher quality than those that have been shipped across the country (or even farther). So, if you live in Maine, ordering lobster may be a good bet – it's likely to be fresh and competitively priced. This is less likely to be the case if you live in the Midwest. This isn't to say that you shouldn't order food that comes from outside your region, but if you're looking to keep the price of your meal to a minimum – and to get your money's worth – it's something to consider.

  8. Learn to Share
    Many restaurants serve up gargantuan portions that'll stretch your budget as much as they will your stomach. Next time, try splitting an entrée with a friend. If you need a little more sustenance, you could always split an appetizer or dessert as well. Your wallet will thank you for it!

Americans love dining out, but for many people this everyday luxury has become difficult to afford, as budgets tighten in response to the recession. Yes, cooking your own food is still less expensive than having someone else do it for you, but if you can't stand the thought of slaving over a hot stove seven days a week, you can still significantly reduce your food expenditures by making a few painless adjustments.

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