Despite the best of intentions (and well thought out meal planning), there are nights when you probably feel too tired, swamped with work, or short on time to cook. I’m just as guilty — and we’re not alone. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American family spent $2625 on meals away from home in 2013.
Eating out can be a huge money suck — particularly if you’ve already spent on groceries that go unused. If you’re looking to really trim your budget, It may seem as though the only way is by cutting out restaurant food — but we disagree. You can still eat out and save money — all it takes is some smart planning. Here are our 8 best tips.
1. Be Smart When You Order
Restaurant-sized portions can be huge. It’s not good for the wallet — or the waistline. Think about splitting an entree or appetizer with a friend, or nibble at home so you’re not ravenous when you get there. Alternately, split your portion and save half for tomorrow’s lunch. Have trouble limiting yourself? Ask for a take-out container before you start eating, and divvy things up in advance.
2. Double-Dip on Points
Rebecca Jackson, GoGirl’s COO, registers her credit cards with United’s MileagePlus dining scheme. “This means that I get miles for eating at participating restaurants,” she says. “If I’ve then paid with a card that has its own rewards too (for example, my Starwood American Express) I’m also collecting points towards that simultaneously. Essentially, I’m collecting United MileagePlus points as well as Starwood points.”
3. Look for Deals
Now’s a great time to start using Groupon and Living Social. You can sometimes find really great deals where you can effectively cut the cost of eating out by 50%. Just be cautious — it’s easy to over-purchase on these sites. Make sure you’ll actually use whatever coupons you buy, and double check the fine print for any restrictions. If you’re not sure about a restaurant, look for reviews on Yelp or Tripadvisor.
4. Book Online
Opentable is a real-time restaurant reservation service with great perks. You get 100 points for every reservation (that you actually attend!) and some days they offer 1,000-point promotions (generally for making reservations to eat at less popular times). For every 2,000 points you earn, you get a $20 dining check to use at a participating restaurant. Think about saving up to reach 10,000 points — you’ll get a $100 check that will cover an entire meal.
5. Dine at Off Times
Why not consider the early bird special? Many restaurants offer late lunch or early dinner specials at a significantly discounted price. You’ll beat the crowds — and save some cash.
6. Watch the Alcohol (or BYOB)
Restaurants are notorious for marking-up alcohol. Consider limiting the number of drinks you order with dinner, or have a cocktail at home before heading out. Even better — check to see if your destination allows patrons to bring their own beer or wine. You may need to pay a small corkage fee, but it will still be less than the cost of a bottle at any establishment.
7. Take Advantage of Restaurant Week
Check to see if your city offers a Restaurant Week — a week during which participating establishments offer prix fixe lunch and dinner specials. You’ll be able to eat at some of the finest restaurants for a fraction of the price.
8. Make a Budget
It may seem obvious, but making a good budget is the best way to keep on track with dining out. Remember, a budget isn’t necessarily about restrictions — it’s about trade-offs. If you know eating out is something you enjoy doing, see if there are other areas you can trim spending to balance things out (like entertainment or clothing).
With a few minor tweaks, it’s easy to save money while eating out. You can have your (metaphorical!) cake and eat it too — just be smart about it.