Americans spend more at eating and drinking establishments than at grocery stores, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Clearly, many of us would rather let someone else cook.
But when you eat out, you pay a premium for food and beverages. Most food establishments markup food items by 300%, Fox Business reports. And restaurant buyers told SFGate they charge about four times as much for a glass of beer, and four to five times as much for a glass of wine, than they actually pay.
Still, going out to eat is convenient, especially after a busy day at work. Here are 8 money-saving tips for enjoying a meal out.
1. Set a weekly budget
As part of an overall budget, set a limit for restaurant spending every week. (A monthly dining budget is harder to track.) If you need help getting started, see our earlier blog post, “8 ways to build a personal budget you can stick with.”
Keep a record as you go of what you spend. If you don’t use apps like Mint or Quicken to track your money, just jot down your restaurant expenses in a smartphone note, like the iPhone’s Notes app or Google Keep for iPhones and Androids.
Here’s another trick, from our post “How to stick to a personal budget.” At the start of each week, withdraw your budgeted amount for eating out in cash from an ATM. Pay all coffee shop, fast food, and restaurant bills using the cash. When the money’s gone, no more eating out for the week.
2. Nibble and sip before you go
The hungrier you are, the more you’re likely to spend when eating out. So before you go, have a snack to curb your appetite. Extra points if you eat something healthful, like an apple.
3. Read the menu online in advance
Before going to the restaurant, check its website. Look at the menu items and prices. You can make an informed choice before you go, rather than making a spontaneous—and perhaps costlier—decision later. Also, pay close attention to the appetizers. You might make a satisfying meal, and save money, by ordering two appetizers instead of an entrée.
4. Ask for separate checks up front
It can get awkward, and confusing, to split a bill among multiple people at the end of a meal. So, it might seem easier to divide it evenly among everyone at the table. But what if your friends had alcohol or appetizers and you didn’t? You might feel embarrassed pointing that out. Instead, ask the server before placing orders if he or she will provide separate checks. Some restaurants don’t like splitting up checks, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
5. Drink at home
Beer, wine and mixed drinks quickly drive up your restaurant tab. You’ll be better off having a drink when you get home. But if you want to drink during your restaurant meal, look for ways to cut the costs. For example, some restaurants will sell you a half glass of wine, even though it’s not mentioned on the menu.
6. Eat out at lunch or during happy hour
Restaurant prices are usually lower at lunch, and at happy hour, than during dinner. Happy hour menus may emphasize appetizers rather than entrées, so keep a nutrition bar in your pocket if you get hungry later.
7. Look for coupons, promo codes and gift cards
Restaurant chains often offer promo codes, coupons, and other money-saving incentives. To find them, do a Google search on the restaurant’s name and add promo code, coupon, or gift cards to your search. For example, if you’re a Chipotle fan, Google the phrases Chipotle promo code, Chipotle coupons, or Chipotle gift cards.
With some restaurant chains, you can get extra value when you buy a gift card. Gift Card Granny has a list of such offers, such as $20 Benihana gift card that costs $13.34. You can find similar deals for local restaurants at Restaurant.com.