Eating Out on a Budget: 19 Tips

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Eating out on a budget

Whether you’re a dedicated foodie or just want to avoid having to cook every night, dining out is a beloved pastime. But you’ll pay for the convenience and the experience, which can quickly drain your monthly budget. Don’t let the costs discourage you from indulging in your favorite restaurants this summer. With some savvy strategies, you can still enjoy your culinary adventures while keeping your finances in check. 

According to the USDA, U.S. food-away-from-home spending was 16% higher in 2022 than in 2021. Just because most people you know are spending more doesn’t mean you have to! Read on for the best tips for eating out on a budget, and get ready to savor all your favorites without breaking the bank!


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How to save money eating out: 19 restaurant hacks

When the craving for a night out strikes, it’s easy to overspend on dining or delivery. However, with a few clever tips, you can indulge in your favorite cuisines without busting your budget. Find cheap ways to eat out this year. 

1. Look for restaurants with daily specials or deals

One way to save money at restaurants is to order the daily special. Many eateries offer discounted prices or special menus on certain days of the week. Watch for these deals to enjoy delicious meals at a fraction of the cost. 

2. Use a credit card that offers extra dining-out points

If you frequently dine out with a large group, consider putting the bill on your credit card and having everyone Venmo you their share. This way, you can maximize your dining out points and earn rewards for future meals. However, this strategy can lead to extra bookkeeping to ensure everyone has paid you back.  


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3. Search for coupons, discounts and restaurant promo codes

Before heading out, take a few minutes to search for coupons or promo codes that can be applied to your meal. Many restaurants offer discounts through third-party websites or their social media channels. Or, set up alerts for your favorite restaurants, so you have coupons on hand when a craving strikes. 

4. Set a dining-out budget and stick to it

Determine a reasonable monthly or weekly dining-out budget, and commit to staying within that limit. This will help you prioritize your spending and avoid overspending on meals. To help set a budget, track your current dining habits for a week, and then consider how much you can reasonably cut back or allow based on your lifestyle and total budget. 

5. Target lunch rather than dinner for lower prices

Many restaurants offer lunch menus with smaller portion sizes and lower prices. If you want to save, consider dining out for lunch instead of dinner. This can be good for your wallet and your waistline. As a bonus, you’ll often enjoy less crowded dining rooms or better seating. 

6. Check sites like Groupon and LivingSocial for discounted deals

These popular deal sites often feature discounted gift cards or special offers from local restaurants. Look for opportunities to save on your favorite eateries, and be sure to set alerts!

7. Meal prep the rest of the week

If you have plans to dine out on Friday or Saturday, commit to eating at home during the week. Meal prepping can save you money and help you balance your dining-out expenses. Consider mixing low-cost staples like beans and whole grains with flavorful additions like olives, feta cheese, nuts, and dressings to create healthy meals at home that can rival any stir-fry, salad or burger take-out. 

8. Order tap water to save money

Skip the pricey sodas or cocktails and opt for free tap water instead. This simple swap can significantly reduce the cost of your meal, allowing you to enjoy more meals out for less. 

9. Split entrees and order family-style

When dining with others, consider sharing entrees or ordering family-style. This way, you can sample multiple dishes while keeping your portion sizes and costs in check. For example, if the restaurant has big portions, you could order two entrees for three adults or get a few sides plus one main course. 

10. Go for appetizers as your main meal

Many restaurants offer large portions for appetizers, which can be a more cost-effective option than full entrees. Mix and match a few appetizers for a satisfying meal. Or, consider ordering a soup and salad for a lighter (and low-cost) option. 

11. Order beer instead of pricier cocktails

While alcoholic beverages can quickly inflate your bill, opting for a beer instead of a cocktail can save you a few dollars per drink. Or consider reserving alcohol for special occasions and sticking with water. 

12. Forgo extras like dessert or sides to keep costs down

As tempting as the dessert menu might be, skipping extras like desserts or side dishes can help you save money on your dining experience. If you want to try a dessert, consider splitting one for the table and savoring a few bites.

13. Use portion control or take leftovers home

When you find yourself with a large portion, practice portion control or ask for a to-go box. This way you can enjoy the meal again later and avoid wasting food and money. It can also make your work lunch or dinner the next night feel like a mini-treat. 

14. Join restaurant loyalty/reward programs

Many chains and local eateries offer loyalty programs that reward frequent diners with discounts, free items, or special offers. For example, some will give you one free after buying 10 of one item, or after spending a certain dollar amount. While this won’t make dining out free, it can help reduce costs. Sign up to start earning rewards for your patronage.

15. Follow restaurants on social media for exclusive deals

Restaurants often share exclusive deals and promotions on their social media channels. Follow your favorite spots to stay in the loop and take advantage of these offers.

16. Seek out kids-eat-free nights if dining with children

Many family-friendly restaurants offer discounted or free meals for children on certain nights of the week. Likewise, many buffets have a discounted rate for kids. Check with your local eateries to plan your dining around these promotions. 

17. Go during happy hour for discounted appetizer prices

Happy hours are not just for drinks! Many restaurants offer discounted appetizer prices during these times, making it an excellent opportunity to sample their offerings at a lower cost. This can be a great way to put together a fun dinner with friends while saving more. 

18. Pack snacks to avoid binge ordering when very hungry

Arriving at a restaurant famished can lead to overspending on excessive menu items. Pack a small snack to curb your hunger, and avoid ordering more than you need. Better yet, keep healthy, non-perishable snacks in your car like nuts, energy bars, dried fruit, crackers, or even water. That way, you’ll have something healthy on hand and enjoy a smaller portion at the restaurant rather than overeating out of hunger.

19. Don’t forget to tip!

While saving money is important, remember to tip your server appropriately for their excellent service. A standard tip ranges from 15-20% of the total bill, with some restaurants expecting even higher. Come prepared, or check restaurant prices beforehand and calculate the total to get an idea of how much you’ll need to spend with tips and tax. 

Cheap ways to eat out as a family 

Whether you’re single or have a van full of kids, eating out on a budget is doable with some planning and creativity. By implementing the cost-saving strategies here, you can enjoy dining out without sacrificing your financial goals. Restaurant hacks can be as simple as ordering one dish or reducing the frequency of eating out by one meal a week. Start small and build up. 

Remember, moderation and smart planning are key to balancing your love for food with your budget. It’s not about giving up eating out; instead, it’s about savoring the experience and planning for it with some research. You can embrace these tips and savor all your favorites while building financial freedom. 

Need more savings ideas for eating out, activities, or long-term goals? Learn how to start a rainy day fund, get ideas for savings, and find the best high-yield savings accounts to save more this year!

FAQ 

What’s the cheapest way to eat out?

Some of the cheapest ways to eat out include deals, discounts, and specials. You could also use credit card points. Or, look for restaurants offering daily specials, coupon codes, or happy hour discounts. Finally, consider sharing entrees or ordering appetizers as your main meal to save more at any restaurant. 

What is a realistic eating-out budget?

A realistic eating-out budget varies based on income, lifestyle, and overall financial goals. Generally, experts recommend allocating no more than 5-10% of your monthly income for dining out expenses, but what makes sense for you could be much less than that. 

How can I navigate restaurants on a budget?

To navigate restaurants on a budget, plan by researching deals and specials and setting a spending limit. Consider splitting meals or ordering appetizers, and avoid extras like desserts or alcoholic beverages. You can also use loyalty programs and credit card rewards to maximize your savings.

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