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.

Related Articles
  1. Retirement

    This Is How You Could Live in Colombia on $1,000 a Month

    Learn about the kind of life you can lead in Colombia with a budget of $1,000 per month, and decide whether this South American destination is for you.
  2. Options & Futures

    How To Sell Put Options To Benefit In Any Market

    Selling a put option is a prudent way to generate additional portfolio income and gain exposure to desired stocks while limiting your capital investment.
  3. Options & Futures

    How To Buy Oil Options

    Crude oil options are the most widely traded energy derivative in the New York Mercantile Exchange.
  4. Retirement

    Roth IRAs Tutorial

    This comprehensive guide goes through what a Roth IRA is and how to set one up, contribute to it and withdraw from it.
  5. Options & Futures

    What Does Quadruple Witching Mean?

    In a financial context, quadruple witching refers to the day on which contracts for stock index futures, index options, and single stock futures expire.
  6. Options & Futures

    4 Equity Derivatives And How They Work

    Equity derivatives offer retail investors opportunities to benefit from an underlying security without owning the security itself.
  7. Investing

    7 Creative Ways to Save for an Early Retirement

    Take note of these out of the box steps you can take towards securing yourself an earlier, more comfortable retirement.
  8. Options & Futures

    Five Advantages of Futures Over Options

    Futures have a number of advantages over options such as fixed upfront trading costs, lack of time decay and liquidity.
  9. Retirement

    Birch Box Review: Is It Worth It?

    Learn more about the convenience of the subscription beauty box industry, and discover why the Birchbox company in particular has become so popular.
  10. Term

    What is Pegging?

    Pegging refers to the practice of fixing one country's currency to that of another country. It also describes a practice in which investors avoid purchasing security shares underlying a put option.
  1. What is a derivative?

    A derivative is a contract between two or more parties whose value is based on an agreed-upon underlying financial asset, ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. What is after-hours trading? Am I able to trade at this time?

    After-hours trading (AHT) refers to the buying and selling of securities on major exchanges outside of specified regular ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How do hedge funds use equity options?

    With the growth in the size and number of hedge funds over the past decade, the interest in how these funds go about generating ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Can mutual funds invest in options and futures? (RYMBX, GATEX)

    Mutual funds invest in not only stocks and fixed-income securities but also options and futures. There exists a separate ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. How does a forward contract differ from a call option? (AAPL)

    Forward contracts and call options are different financial instruments that allow two parties to purchase or sell assets ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. How does a bank determine what my discretionary income is when making a loan decision?

    Discretionary income is the money left over from your gross income each month after taking out taxes and paying for necessities. ... Read Full Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Short Selling

    Short selling is the sale of a security that is not owned by the seller, or that the seller has borrowed. Short selling is ...
  2. Harry Potter Stock Index

    A collection of stocks from companies related to the "Harry Potter" series franchise. Created by StockPickr, this index seeks ...
  3. Liquidation Margin

    Liquidation margin refers to the value of all of the equity positions in a margin account. If an investor or trader holds ...
  4. Black Swan

    An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult ...
  5. Inverted Yield Curve

    An interest rate environment in which long-term debt instruments have a lower yield than short-term debt instruments of the ...
  6. Socially Responsible Investment - SRI

    An investment that is considered socially responsible because of the nature of the business the company conducts. Common ...
Trading Center