Between grabbing lunch on the go, dinner dates, and Sunday brunch with the crew, dining out can eat a sizable hole in your budget and make a big dent in your bank account. The typical adult eats out 2.4 times a week, spending $2,443 a year on meals away from home.
Just think: That $200 a month you spend on dining out can be used in many other ways. For example, you could stash it into a savings account to grow your emergency fund. Or, you could save for retirement or pay down your debt, both of which can help you become more financially healthy.
So, does that mean you have to go cold turkey on dining out or the occasional fast food indulgence? Not necessarily. Putting these money-saving strategies to work can help you balance your budgeting goals with your foodie cravings. Read on to learn more.
Check online for coupons and discounts
By far, this may be the easiest way to save money on dining out. Sites like Groupon and LivingSocial are a simple way to browse promotions and deals at local restaurants. You can also check out your favorite restaurant’s website or social media pages for coupons and daily or weekly specials.
“Don’t be afraid to use these deals to save,” says Beverly Friedmann, content manager at MyFoodSubscriptions.
“They exist to attract your business and you can really cut down on your total bill,” she says.
Just be sure to read the fine print on a coupon or promotion so you understand how it works. For instance, you might be required to spend $75 to get $15 off your total bill. If you were only planning to spend $35 on dinner to begin with, you wouldn’t come out ahead by taking advantage of the deal.
Another way to save: watch for gift card promotions. Around major holidays, restaurants may offer a $10 gift card when you buy $50 in gift cards or a similar deal. That’s an easy way to pick up some savings.
Skip the add-ons
If you’ve never been a server in a restaurant, you may not be familiar with the concept of upselling.
This is when a server offers you something extra, like a side of shrimp to go with your steak dinner or a special dessert. But if you’re trying to dine out on a budget, think twice before upgrading your meal, says Patricia Russell, certified financial planner and founder of Finance Marvel.
Instead, “fill up on freebies or low-cost options to help stretch your meal,” says Russell.
For example, partake in complimentary bread, crackers or chips and salsa. If you do decide to add something on, stick with a low-cost option such as a side salad. And if you end up with more food than you need, make sure you take it to go to have as a second meal later.
Try mystery shopping
Mystery shopping is essentially a way to get paid to shop or dine out.
“Mystery shopping companies hire shoppers to go to a restaurant, have a meal, write a short report and get paid – plus the cost of the meal is reimbursed,” says Jennifer Hayes, a mystery shopping and money-saving expert at Smarty Pants Finance.
Hayes routinely dines out several times a month as a mystery shopper, at the cost of $0. She says there’s no better way to dine out on a budget.
Check the restaurant’s BYOB policy
“Bring your own beverage” isn’t just for backyard barbecues.
“Most people don’t realize this but many restaurants have corkage policies that allow you to bring your own bottle of wine,” says Scott Washburn, chief growth officer at Winestyr.
But there’s a catch: You may pay a fee for that convenience.
“The fee will generally be $15 to $30 per bottle, but you’ll end up spending significantly less money than if you were to purchase a bottle of wine from the restaurant,” he says.
Washburn’s best tip for going the BYOB route? Check the restaurant’s wine list before you go.
“You’ll want to do some research ahead of time and bring a wine that isn’t on the list, as this (bringing a wine on the menu) is considered to be a bit of a faux pas,” he says.
Stick with water and appetizers in lieu of a meal
Drinking water in place of alcohol or soda is another cost-saving measure Friedmann recommends.
“Even a single soda will usually run you more than three dollars, and if you opt for wine or alcohol, prices are considerably higher than what you’d pay by drinking at home,” she says.
Friedmann says you can save even more by ordering an appetizer in place of an entree. And if you’re dining out with friends, you can each order an appetizer to share.
Just make sure you check the costs and consider portion sizes to make sure it’s enough food. If you order something else after eating the appetizer because you’re still hungry, you may not be saving yourself anything. And if you’re splitting the check with friends, pick a set dollar amount you can all agree on to spend beforehand.
Bonus tip: Plan your dinner out around your favorite restaurant’s happy hour, when you may be able to score appetizers and drinks for half price.
Have a plan for the money you’re saving on dining out
It’s great to save money on dining out every month, but you also need to know what you’re going to do with that savings. Otherwise, those extra dollars you’re saving could leak out somewhere else.
If you’re looking for ideas, some of the best ways to put your savings to work include:
- Opening a savings account for a specific goal, like planning a summer getaway with friends
- Starting that side hustle you’ve been thinking about as a way to boost your income
- Bumping up your monthly student loan payments
- Opening an individual retirement account to get your nest egg started
The secret sauce to reaching any of these financial goals is consistency. So if you’re saving money on meals out, consider linking up your checking account to your savings account and automate monthly deposits. Or, schedule automatic payments to pay off a debt and watch your balance shrink.
What’s your best tip for saving on dining out?
Hopefully, you have a few tricks up your own sleeve for how to save money on dining out. But if you don’t, these tips can help you cut down on what you spend without totally sacrificing your love of pub food or gourmet desserts. After all, keeping an eye on the bottom line is just as important as keeping an eye on your waistline when dining out.