34 tips to slash your eating out spending in half

Kris Ruby of New York City lost her credit card and had to borrow her dad’s while waiting for a new one.  When her dad looked at the bill, he found she had spent $225 in seven days on sushi and salads.  She calculates she spends $11,000 a year on takeout.

Jason Saltzman tallied up the costs of eating out three times a day, and found he was spending $1,800 a month.  That’s a mortgage payment for a house.

Those are some extreme examples, but the average American family spends $2,668 per year ($225 a month) eating away from home.

Wow!

That includes dinners ate out, Starbucks on your way to work, lunch away from the office, and afternoon snacks from the cafeteria or vending machine.

I love eating out, do you?

I love my java mocha chip frappuccinos from Starbucks, my Five Guys Burgers, my salad bowl from Chipotle, my Parmesan crusted sole from Macaroni Grill, my pad-kee-mow from Noodles Ave.  I can go on and on.   You and I like eating out. Eating out isn’t just something we do, it’s something we are.  It’s a great way to catch up with friends.  And we don’t have to buy groceries or wash any dishes.

I also love saving money, do you?

The money you spend on eating out is one of the simplest spending categories you can tweak to help you get out of debt, save money, and build wealth.  You’ll be surprised how much extra you can sock away into a Roth IRA or shiny new car fund.

It’s simple because I’m going to give you a ton of ideas here on how to keep more in your wallet.  Not a single thing I’m going to talk about has anything to do with buying more groceries or cooking at home. Every suggestion is based on one thing – continuing to eat out.

Sweet!

BUT – you will save more money when you do it.

Double sweet!

Are you ready to save?

Before you go out

1. Have a pre-party

Have you never heard of the pre-party? The party before the party?

It’s where everyone gathers at Seth and Shannon’s house for a drink and maybe some snacks before we go out to eat. Woohoo!

The before dinner gathering cuts down on your restaurant drink costs because you’ve already had one or maybe two drinks before you go out. That’s one or two you don’t have to buy at the bar or restaurant.

Of course, make sure you have your designated drivers established beforehand if you are consuming adult beverages.

Savings: $3-$14 per person

2. Kids eat free!

My wife and I were celebrating our anniversary one year and went to one of the best steakhouses in Dallas – Nick & Sams. I got this Tomahawk chop grilled to perfection and melted in your mouth. It was delicious.

While we were dressed nicely to celebrate, an adjacent table was a family with four kids, ranging in age from 5 to 10.

We asked our waiter ‘how do you feel asking a five-year-old if he wanted fresh ground pepper on his salad?’

He replied ‘Its just part of the job.’

I can’t imagine what a kids meal costs in a restaurant where just the steaks are $40 to $100.

I’m committed to waiting until my kids turn 18 before they have a fine dining experience.  Then I’ll buy them a nice steak dinner before I kick them out of the house.

Until then the best they can hope for is Denny’s.

You can save money if you have tiny ones. Check out the website Kids Eat Free to search for restaurants near you where kids eat for free.

Savings: $5 per child

3. Get social

Use your smartphone to check Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for any discounts the restaurant is offering. Sometimes you can get a discount or a free appetizer for checking yourself in with Facebook.

At my local cable park, I get a $5 discount for 2 hours of wakeboarding when I check in on Facebook. (Yes, that’s not dining, but it’s a perfect example of saving money from someplace I’m already going).

Savings: $5-$10 per person

4. Snack attack

If the last time you ate before going to dinner is lunch, you’re probably going to be super hungry and order too much food for dinner. I do this all the time; it’s no different than going to the grocery store when you are hungry – you buy more groceries than you would otherwise. Especially cookies. And chips.

Grab some nuts, fruit, a Clif Bar, or a little something around 4 p.m. to hold you over until dinner time. Then when dinner time rolls around you won’t be tempted to order an appetizer, soup, salad, entree, dessert, and another dessert.

Savings: $5-$20 per person

5. Just a quick bite

If the dinner is one or two hours away, I’ll eat a small something – a banana, a protein shake, a spoonful of peanut butter – just to keep from being hangry (hungry-angry). Plus it helps me to not over-order.

Do you get hangry? Nobody likes being around a hangry person. I’m usually that person.

Depending on where we go out to eat I may eat an entire meal first and then just have chips and salsa at the restaurant. Then I avoid buying dinner altogether. This works great for me if we’re eating a type of food I can’t have (cheese and pasta) or don’t like (sushi).

Savings: $5-$10 per person

6. Pad your stomach with H2O

Your stomach is only so big and can only hold so much. If you fill it up with water, you will feel fuller, causing you to order less and eat less when dining.

The downside is as soon as you arrive at the restaurant you’ll need to find the bathroom.

Savings: $5-$10 per person

7. Join the club sandwich

Check out if your favorite restaurants have an email club. If they do sign up and you can get notices about special events, dinner specials, or maybe a free or discounted meal on your birthday.

Savings: $5-$10 per person

8. Be as loyal as a dog

When I lived in Atlanta, we went to Moe’s Southwestern Grill about once a week. Excellent burritos, and unlike Chipotle they give you free chips (I love Chipotle too). After ten visits to Moe’s, you got a free burrito.

There’s no Moe’s near where I live now, but there is this cupcake place that gives me a free cupcake after I buy 20. I’d rather not say how many free cupcakes I’ve received.

Frequent places that have loyalty programs and you could get some free meals occasionally (or free cupcakes).

Savings: $5-$10 per person

9. Get a meal deal

With Restaurant.com, you can buy gift certificates online for restaurants in your area.

You can save up to 50% on your bill!

Savings: %10-%50 per bill

Be sure to check out the minimum purchase required for ordering.

10. Give yourself a gift (card)

I see these at Costco all the time. Buy a $100 gift card for California Pizza Kitchen for $79.99.

You just got $20 worth of free food!

What’s the catch?

A research study showed $750 million on gift cards went unredeemed in 2014. They are counting on you to not use your gift card. In this case, California Pizza Kitchen would make $79.99 free and clear. You can beat them simply by using it.

Savings: $10-$20 per bill

11. Clip a coupon

Every week I get that big thick packet of coupons in the mail for services I’ll never use, like window washing, buying new blinds, installing a pool in my backyard.

But they always have coupons for restaurants in the area. Especially pizza places.

Do you clip coupons? I hate coupons. I never feel like I can find one that’s relevant, whether it’s for groceries or restaurants. It’s an option though for some people.

Savings: $3-$10 per bill

12. Skip the plastic

You are more likely to spend more when paying with a credit card than paying with cash.

One of the most often cited studies is one conducted by Dun & Bradstreet, where the company found that people spend 12–18% more when using credit cards instead of cash. McDonald’s reports its average ticket is $7 when people use credit cards versus $4.50 for cash.

Pulling cash out of your wallet hurts more because you see it leaving, never to come back.

Pay with cold hard cash and you will spend less.

Savings: 12-18% per bill

What time are our reservations?

13. Let’s meet for lunch

Many places have special lunch menus with lower priced entrees. Now the entrees are typically smaller than the dinner sized portions, but I can’t recall any place where I’ve left hungry because of a tiny lunch.

This option also gives you a chance to try out a nicer restaurant that might otherwise be too expensive for dinner. We have this rotating restaurant above the city skyline here in Dallas that serves great sandwiches and burgers for lunch. I’d rather spin around the room eating a $10 burger for lunch than a $30 piece of chicken for dinner.

Savings: $10-$30 per bill

14. Eat with the gray hairs

Gray hairs – or old people as they are also known – have to be in bed each day by 7:30 p.m. to avoid turning into monsters or something.

Because of this they tend to go out in droves and eat dinner at 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Over time restaurant owners have capitalized on this by creating the ‘early bird special’ to attract the gray hairs to their restaurant.

For anyone under the age of 55, you could try eating with the gray hairs to get a deal. Then when it’s 6 p.m. and normal people are heading out to eat, you can go see a movie and enjoy an empty theater.

Savings: Beats me, I’ve never eaten dinner at 4 p.m.

15. Happy, happy, happy hour

One time a group of friends and I went to celebrity chef Stephan Pyles restaurant before a charity ball. We got there during happy hour where they had $4 wine from the bar. That was they key though – we had to order the drinks from the bar. The same glass if we sat down at our table was $9. So we all went to the bar and ordered two drinks each before sitting down for dinner.

Eating during happy hours – 4–7 p.m. depending on the location – can give you savings on drinks and appetizers.

Savings: $5-$20 per bill

16. Eat all you can

Buffets are a sweet deal to cut your dining costs. The food is usually terrible, but hey – it’s cheaper!

All-you-can-eat salad bars can be a good option too. Yes carnivores, I know you think you won’t find anything to eat and it’s going to suck, but I’ve been to some really good salad bars that have pizza, pasta, bread, brownies, cookies, soups, stews, and more. I’ve never left a salad bar hungry. I really like Sweet Tomatoes but they are only located in the South East and South West. Make a note if you ever travel to those areas.

Savings: $10-$20 compared to a full-service restaurant

What can I get you to drink?

17. BYOB

If you live in a big city or the suburbs you are more likely to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a liquor license and will allow you to bring your own beer and wine.

If there is an eating establishment near you that doesn’t serve alcohol, call them up and ask if you can bring your own – they might say yes. Heck, maybe you can convince them to advertise themselves as BYOB to increase their sales. Win-win.

Savings: $20 per bill

18. Skip the bottle

If you go to a place with a separate wine list:

A. It’s probably an expensive restaurant
B. There probably isn’t going to be a bottle of wine less than $60
C. The next cheapest bottle is probably $80

They probably have a few selections of ‘wines-by-the-glass’ in the $10-$14 range.

That’s still a lot of money for a glass of wine. Why, that’s two Starbucks!

But compared to a bottle, you might be better off.

Savings: $5-$20 per bill

19. Corkscrew this

We have a few Brazilian steak houses nearby. I highly suggest you try one if you have never been – all you can eat meat!

Texas de Brasil has a ‘corking fee’ of $20. I can bring any bottle of wine I want to the restaurant and they will charge me $20 to open it.

You may think that’s absurd, but I assure you it’s a deal. The markup on alcohol and wine at a restaurant is 100–300%. For a bottle of wine I’ve found it’s usually 2.5 times more expensive than what I can buy it for at a grocery store.

Here’s an example.

La Crema is a really good wine which I saw at Walmart the other day for $14 a bottle. In the restaurant, I’ve seen it go for $50 a bottle, or $36 more than at Walmart.

I can buy my own bottle, pay a $20 corking fee at Texas de Brasil and I’ve spent $34, or $16 less than what the restaurant would charge me for the same bottle.

Keep in mind that example uses a relatively inexpensive and good bottle of wine. A typical bottle at a fine dining establishment may sell for $80 to $120. Ouch!

Call the restaurant ahead of time and ask if they have a corking fee. It’s that simple.

Savings: $15 to $500 if your’e a high roller 

20. Stay thirsty, my friends

Fountain drinks are $2.50 – $3.50 per person at even a modest chain restaurant like Chili’s or Macaroni Grill. If you dine out just once per week as a couple, that’s $20-$28 a month ($240-$336 per year!) on Coke, Pepsi, and iced tea.

How much are you spending each year on fountain drinks? Grab some tap water once in a while.

Savings: $2-$4 per person

21. Clean refreshing faucet water

I like dining at nice restaurants occasionally. In these fine establishments, you always are presented with a choice of being served fancy water from a bottle that has been run through some type of reverse osmosis filter to remove impurities. Or maybe it was bottled from an Alaskan glacier and has been frozen for 400 years. Sometimes even an upscale pizza place will ask you if you want fancy water.

The crafty – er, well-trained servers – may not even give you the option to drink tap water. Apparently some restaurants are not connected to the public water supply and don’t have any faucets in the building. Who knew?

Don’t fall prey to embarrassment and pressure to pay for expensive fancy water – ask for tap water. In fact those are my exact words when I’m asked this question by my server – ‘tap water is fine, thanks.’

Fancy water and tap water – they taste the same but only one is free.

Savings: $10 per bill

Soups, Salads, & More!

22. Skip the crab cakes and nachos

The appetizers coming out of restaurants these days are as big as your head. Crab cakes, nachos, chips and salsa, cheese plates – these are entire meals in themselves. An easy way to trim your dining budget is to skip the appetizers.

Savings: $6-$16 per bill

23. Skip the French onion soup too

Soup at a restaurant to me is a waste of money. $3 – $5 for a cup? I can get a can of Cambell’s soup at Wal-Mart for $0.99.

Savings: $3-$5 per person

24. Mmmmmm, carbs

I love Outback Steakhouse.

I love everything there except the steak.

I love their warm brown loaves of bread (which are free!) and the honey butter smothered all over it. I eat about two of those loaves by myself when I dine there. Don’t judge!

And do you know what? After eating two loaves of bread, a bloomin’ onion, and a caesar salad I’m not really in the mood for a steak. That’s why I don’t like them – because I’m already stuffed by the time the entree rolls around.

Load up on bread and you’ll be so full you won’t want an entree. Another great place I love to do this at is Macaroni Grill.

Carbs!

Savings: $5-$10 per person

25. This is a salad?

Yes we all need our greens, but for an extra $3? Some restaurants include an add-on salad with your main dish. But it’s also an add-on to your bill. Chain restaurants typically have this combo.

And what’s in that salad anyways?

Is it a delicious baby green salad with apple slices, toasted glazed pecans, goat cheese, red onion, with a balsamic vinaigrette?

Or is it a house salad with iceberg lettuce, 1/4 of a slice of tomato, 2 slices of cucumber, shaved carrots and thousand island or french dressing?

You know exactly what I’m talking about.

House salads make me sad.

Savings: $2-$4 per person

Can I take your order?

26. Splitsville

Couples have the advantage of ordering one entree and splitting it between them. Boom! You just saved at least $15 by not ordering a second entree.

Savings: $15-35 per bill

27. I changed my mind on the crab cakes

Huh? Didn’t you just say in a previous tip to skip the appetizers and get an entree instead?

Yes, I sure did.

Check out the menu and decide what looks more appealing to you and consider how hungry you are.

I eat at Red Lobster once every 2 years, and the only reason I go there is for the fried clams. It’s only available as an appetizer so I place an order for 2 of them. That’s the meal! Fried clams and cheese biscuits. Love it!

Savings: $10-$20 per person

28. Sharing is caring

Side items are typically hefty in size. If you are out with other people share them.

I have to tell you about Five Guys Burgers though. I always order their large fries, which I think is the equivalent of 2 or 3 big potatoes. Depending on the location the person taking the order might say ‘a large fry is enough to feed 3 or 4 people’.

I think they tell me that because I’m ordering by myself. I look at them square in the eye and reply -‘No, no it isn’t’ while shaking my head.

I do not share my Five Guys fries. That it feeds 3 or 4 are only lies.

Savings: $5-$10 per bill

29. Lunch for a week

If you’ve ever gone to the Cheesecake Factory you’ve probably seen the menu the size of an encyclopedia. The meal portions are just as large – enough to feed a small family of five for 3 days, with enough leftover to freeze for a later date.

Once your meal hits the table, divide it in half and immediately place half of it in a take home box. You now have lunch for the next 5 days.

While this doesn’t save you money on eating out, it does reduce your grocery budget because you have a lunch. If you typically eat out for lunch at work, it will save you money because you’ll be sitting at your desk or in the break room eating your yummy leftovers. It beats a tuna sandwich.

Savings: $5-$10 per person

30. Chicken is boring (and cheap)

In the world of restaurants, the entrees with the highest profit margin are pastas and chicken, and they are also the cheapest menu items.

Steak and seafood are more expensive and have lower profit margins.

Instead of the filet or lobster tail try the grilled chicken occasionally.

Savings: $5-$10 per person

Any dessert or coffee?

31. I want a cupcake

If you’re in an area with a lot of dining options it’s nice to get out of the restaurant after the meal and go to an ice cream or cupcake shop nearby. It will definitely be cheaper.

I like this option because if we are out with friends we have probably already been sitting down chatting for two hours when its time to order dessert.

Two hours is my physical limit for sitting in an uncomfortable chair. Going somewhere else give me a chance to walk for a bit, and as a bonus saving some money on dessert.

Savings: $3-$5 per person

32. Actually I want Ben & Jerry’s

Recently I’ve developed a lot of food allergies and can’t eat the goodies I used to anymore without feeling poorly later on. I haven’t had a piece of chocolate cake in over six months! Cry me a river, right?

I can however eat ice cream, and I love Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food.

For Valentine’s Day I purchased two containers of Ben & Jerry’s during the afternoon for Katie and I to eat after we got back from dinner.

$3.98 each for my favorite ice cream at home vs. $9.00 each for dessert at the restaurant. Boom – savings.

Savings: $3-$5 per person

33. Not for us gluttons

First off, sharing desserts is definitely not for me. I love desserts and I do not share them. My friends and family know this. If we are out at dinner with a group of 6 people, let the other 5 people share a dessert if everyone is full. I will get my own and find room for it somewhere in my stomach. In fact, I have a secret chamber reserved just for these occasions.

But if you must, get one dessert for the table and let everyone have a few bites.

I have to show you this picture of one of the best desserts I’ve ever had at a restaurant called Gibson’s in Chicago. I was there for a business conference and I went out for dinner one night with five of my business associates. The server said this piece of cake would serve 6 people. Six people! All of us? No way! It was the truth. Even I, with my no sharing sugar loving ways, had a piece big enough to satisfy my gluttonous desires, as did everyone else at the table.

Chocolate cake
A slice of heavenly chocolate cake that fed six adults.

In the picture, you can see the slice of cake which cost $17.00. That’s a pricey dessert, but it comes out to only $2.83 per person. You can’t even get a dessert at Applebees for that much. And at Applebee’s it most definitely wasn’t made fresh by a pastry chef.

Savings: None for me – I don’t share

Check please

I saved the biggest money saver for last because it’s the most important to you having financial freedom in your life. I’ve shared a lot of tips that will save you some serious coin.  But, I tell you, this next one is the Warren Buffett of the lot.

34. Eat out with a clear conscience

Eating out is way more fun if you’re not going into debt to do it.

I decide each month in advance how much money I’m going to spend on entertainment and eating out. I take that cash out of the bank on the 1st of every month and stick it in an envelope. That’s it for the month – no more, no less. When I go out, I take as much cash as I think I’ll need or want to spend.

If it gets to be the end of the month and the envelope is empty, I go eat a big steak and charge it to a credit card.

No, that’s how you get into debt. If you don’t borrow money you can’t be in debt.

You don’t want to be paying interest on a lasagna dinner you bought eight months ago, do you?

Does that make sense?

If I run out of entertainment money because on the 2nd day of the month I blew it all at a fancy restaurant, well, that’s it. I wear big boy pants so I have to act like a big boy in life and with money. I don’t whine and cry like a 5-year-old at the toy store because I ran out of cash and can’t eat out for the rest of the month.

Savings: $50-$250 per month

Simple savings

Hopefully you’re not in the category of spending $11,000 a year on sushi and salads like Kris.

$2,668 a year for the average American family is still a lot of eating out.

The next time you’re thinking of going out to eat – which is probably within the next 48–72 hours – consider a couple simple ways to trim your restaurant bill and keep more of your income in your wallet.

By following one or two of these tips each time you eat out, you will save hundreds to thousands of dollars each year.  Try them, and see what happens.

Do you have any tips on saving money when eating out? How much money have you saved by using any of these tips? Please leave a comment below.