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Melissa blogs at Mom’s Plans where she writes about learning to live a fulfilling life on less.  She also documents her family’s dining out experiences at Dining Out Challenge.  She is a mom of three and loves blogging as her hobby.

When my husband and I were newly married (read completely broke!), some friends asked us to join them at a Mexican restaurant.  We went and tried to order conservatively because the menu did not have any prices.  (That is never a good sign.)  When the bill came for the two of us, I could have cried when I saw the total–$50!  And that didn’t even include tax or tip.  Worse yet, the food had not been that good, just mediocre.

That incident was 10 years ago, but it still pains me to think about it.  My husband and I still like to dine out, but nowadays we try to never pay full price.  We aim to go out once a week and spend $25 or less, including tax and tip.  Some weeks we do go over by a few dollars, but then to compensate, the next week we go to a cheaper restaurant.

Here are some of our eating out cheap strategies:

1.)     Buy certificates when they are 80% off or more. Then, we only pay $2 to $3 out of pocket for a certificate that will cover $25 of our food purchase.  Be careful with certificates though; many restaurants will automatically include an 18% tip.  That doesn’t usually bother me because it is what I typically tip because I was once a server and I know how hard the job is.  The automatic tip can get annoying though if the service was not good.  Happily, I haven’t had this problem.

2.)    Take advantage of deal sites. Our favorites are Groupon, Mamapedia, and Jasmere, though there are plenty of deal sites out there now.  We recently purchased a Groupon for $15 which gave us $30 worth of sushi, one of our favorite meals to dine out on that is often out of our price range without some kind of discount.  We were able to buy 3 of those Groupons, and we have already used them all!

3.)    Look for deals from local dining clubs. If you live around Chicago, for instance, you can take advantage of a local radio station’s dining guide, The Mix Dining Guide.    There you can buy vouchers; you pay $25 usually for $50 worth of food.  Likewise, my mom’s local newspaper had an advertisement on New Year’s Day for a dining card for over 20 restaurants.  She paid $20 for the card, and could use each restaurant’s designated coupon (usually a buy one get one free offer).

4.)    Look on the back of grocery receipts and in mailing packages sent to your house. My husband and I have a favorite Chinese restaurant that always advertises 20% off on the back of grocery store receipts.  We go grocery shopping every week, so we get a new coupon every week, and we didn’t have to spend any money to get it!  There are also often mailers sent to homes that contain coupons for local restaurants.  (Ours usually expires in a month or two from when they come to our house.)

5.)    Check if your credit card offers rewards. Our credit card offers a $50 Darden gift card (good at Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and a few other restaurants) when you cash in 5000 points.  We usually earn 10,000 to 15,000 points a year, so we cash in 5,000 once in awhile to enjoy a free Red Lobster meal (which is otherwise too pricy for us to enjoy).

Crystal has done a great job outlining fun things to do on Fridays.  Friday is our favorite night to go out; it is a great way to decompress after a busy week and to spend time with one another reconnecting.  By taking advantage of these strategies, we can visit restaurants usually out of our price range and more upscale than where we could dine without coupons.

Crystal’s Comments:  I remember so many times in college where I felt the same way Melissa did at that Mexican restaurant.  I was trying to live on no more than $3-$4 a day on food since I wanted to borrow as little as possible from my parents (debt free college), but I wanted a social life too.  There were many times that an $8 mediocre sandwich and my indulgent tipping practices caused me to eat Ramen and PB&J’s for a few days in a row.  Great tips Melissa!

Do you have any other ideas for us?