Every time we go out to eat at a restaurant or even grab take out, it seems that the prices for food only keep rising. As a result, I decided to start figuring out simple ways to stretch our dining dollars.
By making our money go father, we can still enjoy dining out without breaking the bank.
The good news is that I’ve figured out a handful of easy things that have worked. We are able to save money eating out and still stay within our budget.
In fact, by using the best tricks I’ve found, we usually are under budget come month end!
Do you want to learn how to stretch your dining dollars?
Here are the simple tricks you can start using to save money eating out at restaurants.
11 Simple Tips To Stretch Your Dining Dollars
#1. Order An Appetizer Not An Entree
Nowadays, the size of an appetizer is the size of what your meal should be! I’m not joking either. If you look at what an actual portion size should be, you would be amazed.
The next time you dine out, look at your plate and then think about these portion amounts:
- Half of your plate should be vegetables
- A quarter of your plate should be starches like potatoes, rice, or pasta
- A quarter of your plate should by protein/meat
Alternatively, you can use your hand as your guide. Look at your open hand. Your palm is equal to roughly 3 ounces of meat.
Now clench your hand into a fist and look and the front part where your fingers are. This area is equal to ½ cup, which is how much starch you should be eating.
Finally, if you rotate your fist so that you are looking at your palm and fingers, this is equal to 1 cup, which is how much vegetables you should be eating.
After keeping these measurements in mind, you will see that eating just an appetizer should be enough to make you full.
To stretch your dining dollars the furthest on appetizers, go out to eat during happy hour and get 1/2 price appetizers.
Even better, order a couple half price appetizers, eat only a small portion of each and take the rest home as leftovers.
You will satisfy your hunger and have food leftover for lunch the next day!
#2. Skip The Appetizers
Alternatively, you can completely skip the appetizers all together. With portion sizes being huge, you really don’t need to order dinner and an appetizer.
Add in that many appetizers now run close to $10 when you pay full price and you are going to blow through your dining out budget fast.
If you are really hungry, have a handful of nuts before you leave for dinner to hold you over until you get your food.
#3. Only Order Drinks With Free Refills
Many restaurants are now charging for refills of soda. And in some cities, there is an astronomical tax on sugary drinks. Just ordering a soda will run you close to $5!
So stick to drinks that offer you a free refill. Or better yet, drink water. It’ll save you the most money and you will be staying healthy in the process.
While this will save you money now, it will also save you money years later on healthcare when you are older too.
#4. Take Advantage Of Combo Deals
Many restaurants are now offering combo deals. You can get an appetizer, main course and a desert for less than most other menu options. Of course, you don’t need to eat all of this food at one sitting.
So to stretch your dining dollars, order the combo meal and only eat the appetizer or the main dish. Take the rest home to eat at another meal.
Another option is to split a meal with a friend. Just order one dish but ask for two plates.
However, before you do this, be sure to ask your server. Some restaurants don’t allow this or will charge you extra for doing so.
With that said, I’ve really only seen it at higher end restaurants or during special promotions or on holidays.
#5. Use Coupons When You Can
Many restaurants offer discounts and free items and it only takes a minute to enroll. The best time to score a free meal is on your birthday.
There are many places that will give you a free appetizer or special discount on your birthday.
Also pay attention to buy one, get one free deals and the fine print. For example when my wife and I were out, the restaurant we chose to eat at was offering this deal.
I ordered a chicken-fried steak dinner and my wife got her usual green chili fries, which were a whole lot cheaper.
We were thinking that the fries were an appetizer, and we’d get the dinner free but we were wrong. The fries were free and we paid for the entrée.
She could have had a full dinner, instead of skimping with the fries and it would have been the same price.
I did the same thing just a few weeks earlier, ordering a cheaper burger when I could have had the luxury one with all the trimmings.
The bottom line, when in doubt, ask your server so you can get the most for your money.
Finally, be sure to follow your favorite restaurants on Facebook for special coupons. And if you give the restaurant your email, they can send you deals as well.
Just be careful with this. You might end up eating out and spending more money as a result because of the emails.
#6. Third Party Discounts
In addition to using coupons, don’t overlook your credit card and apps on your phone. Some credit cards offer cash back when you eat out.
By paying with that credit card, you are going to save money dining out. Usually this amount will be anywhere from 1% to 5% of your bill.
A potentially better offer is using apps. There are some apps that allow you to link your credit and debit card.
When you do this and eat at a restaurant that partners with the app, you earn cash back. Typically these are reserved for fast food restaurants, but I’ve seen some nicer restaurants included too.
My favorite app to use is Swagbucks. Just link up your card and start earning points you can redeem for cash.
New users get $5 just for signing up! Click here to get started.
#7. Use Gift Cards
Yet another option you could use is gift cards. If you have a restaurant that you regularly eat at, see if there are any gift cards for sale online.
You can usually buy unwanted gift cards for 10-20% less than face value. On a $100 gift card, this comes out to saving over $10!
And you can use the other tips in this post to keep your bill lower so you can stretch your dining dollars even farther.
You can also take this one step farther too. If you start using Swagbucks, you can watch videos, play games, surf the internet and more and earn points.
You can then turn those points into free gift cards. I’ve been using the app for a few months and already have earned close $500 in free gift cards doing simple things like I mentioned.
As I mentioned, when you sign up you get $5 free! Click here to get started!
Sadly this tip won’t work for local diners or other small restaurants, only larger chain restaurants.
If you think this is an option for you, make sure you only buy the unwanted gifts cards from a reputable source like GiftCardGranny.com.
They make sure the card is valid whereas if you buy one from eBay or Craigslist, you could easily get scammed.
#8. Don’t Waste A Scrap
Bread can be sliced thin and used for toast, or crumbed for topping casseroles. Or give it to your grateful dog. Even green garnishes make a nice addition to soups, chopped fine and simmered briefly.
Leftover steak, chicken or pasta dishes makes a tasty addition to stir-fries, or used as a filling in breakfast omelets.
At the end of the day, anything that is left on your plate can be used for another meal. It might not make another full meal, but it can be used for part of a meal, saving you money.
#9. Use The Kid’s Menu
Another way to save money dining out is to take advantage of the kid’s menu. Not only are the portions smaller, but the prices are lower too.
The only downside to this menu is you aren’t going to find something super healthy for you to eat.
You are looking at chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But you could luck out and find one that comes with a piece of fruit.
If you do decide to go this route, be sure to ask first. Some restaurants have policies that you need to be under a certain age to order off this menu.
#10. Opt For Buffets
Looking for the most food at the lowest price? Usually going to an all-you-can-eat buffet is your best option here.
For one low price, you can keep eating and eating as long as you want. But there are some tricks to use to stretch your dining dollars even farther.
- Go to lunch, not dinner. The food served will be the same, but lunch is typically cheaper. I’ve seen many buffets charge $4.95 for lunch and $11.95 for dinner.
- Eat expensive foods first. If you want to get the most out of a buffet, stick with expensive foods first. This means eating seafood and meat first, then filling up with starches and vegetables.
- Stick to water. While the food at a buffet is one low price, typically your drinks are not included in this price. So stick with water to keep your bill low.
But there are also tricks the restaurant uses to make the most money on you when it comes to all you can eat buffets. Understand these and you’ll get the most food for your money.
In the end, you can get a lot of food for a low price by going to a buffet.
#11. Dining Out Is A Treat
Make dining out a treat, not the rule. Going out less will make those occasions more memorable and save you money in the long run.
And when you do eat out less often, you can afford to splurge a little more without it having a negative impact on your monthly budget.
This means you could go to a fancier restaurant once in a while, or even shift your budget around so you can put more money towards other things, like paying down debt or saving for a large purchase.
Adding Up Your Savings
Just how much can you stretch your dining dollars by using the tips above? I recently went to dinner and the total came to $28.56.
I paid for this using my credit card that earns me 2% cash back. I also have this credit card linked to Swagbucks. That app gives me 5 points per dollar spent at this restaurant.
In all I earned $0.57 cash back and 140 points that I can turn into cash. I even was able to take some food home so I had lunch covered for the next day.
In another example, I bought a $50 gift card online for $45, saving me 10%. I then only went during lunch and ordered lunch specials which cost me $7 each time.
Will using these tips to save money eating out at restaurants allow you to retire early? If you only do this, the answer is no.
But any money you can save is good and as long as you put your savings to good use, in time your savings will add up.
In all, you can save a lot of money when dining out if you are smart and think ahead. One of the biggest downfalls for most of us is that we wait until we are starving to go out to dinner.
This causes us to order more than we need and eat it all too.
Learn to control your cravings and you will easily stretch your dining dollars farther than you thought possible.