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How to Dine Out on a Budget

Posted By Jim On 04/18/2011 @ 7:07 am In Frugal Living | 10 Comments

We all enjoy a night out with a fancy, or not, meal in a restaurant. There’s something fun about going out, being served food you didn’t have to cook yourself on plates you won’t have to clean up later. That said, the economy has been rough and everyone is looking for ways to save a little money here or there, perhaps to bolster up their emergency fund, while still enjoying some of the finer things in life.

We tend to go out once or twice a week to some local restaurants we love and it’s a treat for us. A few years ago we would go far more often and it became less of a treat and more of a regular occurrence, which takes a bit of the fun out of it (and gets expensive). So now, we limit it to a few times a week and cook more at home. We’ve discovered that cooking at home can be a lot of fun, offers a bit of variety and adventure, and the dishes aren’t that much of a pain to clean.

For those who do go out more often and are looking to trim the restaurant bill, here are a few ideas:

Consider Takeout

This tip won’t work for high end restaurants, where it’s as much about the ambiance and service as it is about the meal, but for not as fancy-schmancy places, consider ordering the food to go. The tip here is that when you eat at home, you’re probably not going to eat as much. This means you’ll have more leftovers for future meals, which effectively cuts down the price as it’s spread across several meals. Another side benefit of eating less is that you’ll consume fewer calories, which your waist line will appreciate.

Look for Specials

Very few restaurants are busy every single night, there will always be slow nights and savvy restaurants will usually offer some kind of special that night to drum up business. Take advantage of them. Many restaurants are also using email lists to help them communicate with their customers, this includes sending out special promotions and other good deals available that night. It’s not uncommon to find Monday Burger Nights or Tuesday Wing Nights, so visit during those times and not only will you get a better deal, you’ll probably get speedier service too.

Skip Alcohol

Who can’t appreciate a glass of wine or a good beer with dinner? They are, however, one of the higher margin items on the menu and one that you can skip if you’re looking to save a few bucks. There are two reasons why they’re such high margin items. First, people expect it. Think about how much it costs you to buy a case of beer at the store and compare that to the price of a beer in a restaurant. We’re not fools, we know that it’s much more expensive in the restaurant but we’re OK with it because that’s convention. Second, there’s an economic reasons. When you order wine or beer, you’ll probably stay at the restaurant longer than someone who doesn’t. Since you’re staying longer, your table isn’t turning over as frequently and they need to capture that value somehow. Since appetizers, desserts, and alcohol are indicators of a longer stay, they are higher margin items.

Credit Card Roulette

Credit card roulette [3], a game we discussed last week, isn’t really a way to save on dining out… unless you’re lucky. It’s also not a game you should try to play if you’re out on a date! That said, if you are out with a few of your friends and you are feeling a little lucky, why not give this game a try and see if you can get one of your unluckier friends to pay for your meal.

Lastly, if you’re looking to trim anywhere, please don’t be stingy on the tip unless it’s warranted. Regardless of how you feel about the wait staff pay structure, it is what it is and it’s your responsibility, since you chose to dine in a restaurant, to respect their work.

What are your favorite times for trimming down the dinner bill?


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