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Eating Out on a Budget

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 restaurant.com 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 restaurant.com 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?

22 thoughts on “Eating Out on a Budget”

  1. LifeAndMyFinances

    Every year, my wife and I buy a coupon book from the local school for $20 and it has some amazing restaurant coupons in it! Most of them are buy one get one free, and is really a great way to eat out for less.

    Also, sidenote, there was a coupon in there for a Free Oil Change with no strings attached. That was automatically worth the cost of the book! 🙂

  2. retirebyforty

    We used to buy the entertainment coupon books for $20, but those restaurants are never that great. We also tried restaurant.com and found the same applies. I suspect Groupon will be the same.
    We only eat out once a week and we don’t mind paying a bit more if the food is really good. For us being more selective is the better choice – quality over quantity!

  3. Money Beagle

    We still buy the Entertainment book though we don’t go out as much now that we have a kid (and another on the way!) though we still use it enough to get our money’s worth.

  4. Nicole

    Ditto to retirebyforty. Though despite the doughnuts Crystal keeps trying to sell us, Groupon is not available in our area. Oh, sorry, just scrolled up– they’re cupcakes today.

  5. I’m pretty sure there is always an active restaurant.com coupon for 80% off. They change every month, but retailmenot always has the code.

  6. Melissa

    Life and My Finances–Good point. My mom works at a university, and they give out restaurant coupon cards for free. You can carry the card in your back pocket or wallet; this would be a great place to look if you are a student.

    retireby40–We have had good luck with the restaurants on restaurant.com and Groupon. Maybe it depends on your location? We are right outside a major urban area, so there is plenty to choose from. Maybe in a smaller city there is less to choose from?

    Money Beagle–We bought the Entertainment book for the first time this year. I am waiting for it to be delivered any day now.

    Nicole–You are right, there can be some interesting offerings on Groupon!

    Jason–Thanks for mentioning retailmenot.com. Sometimes restaurant.com even has discount codes for 90% off (every few months)

  7. krantcents

    Timing is everything! I went out to dinner with my sister/brother in laws last night using a restaurant .com certificate. I have used them before infrequently, because there are very few restaurants (on their list) in our area that we like. I would add to your list frequent diner programs (free meal after 5 or 10 purchases).

  8. DoNotWait

    Those are good tips and we too enjoy to go out on a dinner some time. Fridays are often our favorite day to do so (I was thinking about it this morning and will propose it to the spouse today). But as much as I like to have the feeling we got a good deal, I also like to really spend too much on a dinner. What??? You may say… Well, we don’t have much activities other than dinners, movies and outside free walks… So maybe 2-3 times a year, we go out on a very expensive dinner. We dress up like if it were the first time we met each other, we pick up a nice restaurant, have a drink before, a bottle of wine after and order what we really feel like. We know we probably spent too much. But those nights are the most memorable we have. We talk and talk, we laugh and we remember our first dates or our wedding day. Those 2-3 times a year are priceless to me.

  9. Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog

    Some good tips. I think I’d be most bothered by the automatic tip. What I usually do to save money on eating out is to not eat out that often, and when I do, have a snack before I leave the house so I wont want to eat as much when Im out.

  10. SavingMentor

    Some nice tips you’ve got there! In my area of Canada we have a custom coupon book (not the Entertainment book) that comes out yearly and is filled with high value buy 1 get 1 free coupons. The book is rather expensive at around $40 … but the coupons have the least restrictions of any coupon book or deal for eating out that I’ve seen.

    There is always one coupon in there for a buy 1 get 1 free dinner theater that we usually use and that costs $35 per person. It pretty much pays for the book and everything else we use is savings.

    None of the daily deal sites have come to our area yet … hopefully soon!

  11. Jenna

    Lots of two for one deals on Facebook if you become a fan of the restaurant.

  12. First Gen American

    I live in an area where there aren’t that many restaurant chains and the ones that are here (old country buffet, applebees) are not ones I want to eat at. Getting deals eating out seems to be a lot easier in bigger cities.

    That being said, I like to support my mom and pop restaurants. I know some of the owners personally and I feel good about throwing business their way. They make my area a funner place to live, so I enjoy supporting them. Interestingly enough, I’ve hardly eaten out at all the last couple of months and I’m due for a nice meal that someone else will cook for me.

  13. 20 and Engaged

    It’s sad because Restaurants.com really doesn’t have as large of a variety in our area as we would’ve thought. We did, however, splurge (read spent $8) on two $50 certificates for the House of Blues. We’re looking forward to busting that out a few times without it hurting our pockets.

  14. Melissa

    krantcents–I love reward programs! Qdoba’s is my favorite.

    DoNotWait–Your date nights sound great!

    Jeff–Good idea. I read about a man who would eat a small meal at home before going out and then he would only order an appetizer at the restaurant to save money.

    SavingMentor–I wish we had that type of coupon booklet here.

    Jenna–I liked Famous Dave’s on Facebook to get a free meal. I haven’t done it with any other restaurants because I didn’t want to clog up my Facebook page. Has that been a problem for you?

    First Gen America–My husband and I like to take breaks from the chain restaurants too. Some of the best restaurants we have visited have been little local ones.

    20 and Engaged–That sounds like a great deal. Enjoy!

  15. Mandi

    I wish our selection on Restaurants.com was a bit better. We have SO many within just 5 miles of our home, but only 1 participates and it isn’t a place we enjoy. I’m trying to watch for more buy 1 get 1 deals, and just cutting back. Come spring and summer, packing a picnic and going to the park will be a much cheaper (and more fun!) way to enjoy our time.

  16. The Passive Income Earner

    I don’t really have a cheap way to eat out other than going when the kids are visiting friends for dinner 🙂 I also tend to be reluctant to try new places all too often unless it’s highly referred by friends. We just tried a new restaurant yesterday for lunch and it wasn’t enjoyable and relatively expensive. It’s too bad, there isn’t a money back guarantee sometimes…

  17. The Financialite

    Being in my twenties and not that fantastic of a cook, I tend to eat out a lot and it hurts my bank account! I’ve had numerous experiences just like yours at the Mexican Restaurant in which I hate myself after for not speaking up and picking a cheaper restaurant.

    I agree with the First Gen American though and prefer to frequent the mom and pop shops. They tend to have daily deals and I would rather support them than a chain restaurant! Besides, the mom and pops take the time to remember who you are and that makes me want to come back and spend my money there!

  18. Aloysa

    Some of the restaurant.com experiences and coupons saved us quite a bit. When we travel, it is the website where I go to check out deals. Helps a lot!

  19. financialfreedomadvantage

    These are some great ideas to save on eating out! Before I go out to eat, I often check out the restaurant’s website to see if there is a a menu posted online. Then I decide what I am going to have, keeping in mind the price. That way, I can make a good decision without being rushed at the restaurant.

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