Updated on 10.04.07

How To Minimize The Cost (And Maximize The Benefit) Of Eating Out For Business

Trent Hamm

I’m a pretty avid follower of the “brown bag club” – I take my own lunch to work very regularly and have some soup at my desk for the days when leftovers aren’t present. However, there are simply some times where, for business or social reasons, I must eat out with others.

Here are seven techniques I use to minimize that cost to myself without disrupting the experience of the meal.

I drink a large amount of water just before leaving. This fills up my stomach quite nicely, and the signals from my stomach to my brain tell me I’m pretty full right about the time I’m ordering. This keeps me from ordering too much food.

I suggest carpooling. Even if I drive, I don’t mind it as much knowing that the cost for everyone goes down, and the driver usually rotates, which means I’m only paying for gas for a few of the meals I go to.

I order water as my drink (provided it’s free). Most restaurants provide free water, so I always utilize it as my beverage choice. This reduces the cost of the meal by quite a bit – basically, you pay literally dollars more for them to add sugar to your water.

If everyone else is drinking (which sometimes happens at evening dinners) I buy a single gin and tonic and sip it. No one notices that you’re not slamming them back, so just order one drink and go through it slowly. Not only is it far less expensive, it also has the advantage of keeping me sober and thus more able to participate intelligently in conversation. Aside from this, I just drink water with the meal.

I order something inexpensive but filling. Those are my two biggest criteria when dining out in such a situation. As I’ve mentioned before, I view eating out as a special experience, and a lunch with coworkers at Chili’s is not a special one. Thus, my focus is on minimizing my bill, and the best way to do that is to go for inexpensive and filling. The best place for that is usually the salad menu or the lunch special.

I participate strongly in the conversation. This distracts me from focusing too much on the food, which again keeps me from spending money on the meal. It’s also a way to challenge myself to work on my social skills, because by default I want to sit there and not say anything and stare at my plate. Even more important, it sometimes helps to build relations with others at the table.

I make sure I pass out my business card to anyone who doesn’t have it before I leave the table. This is true for almost any dinner I go to in a professional setting. I have an individual business card and I make sure that anyone I’m unfamiliar with – and especially anyone who hasn’t visited The Simple Dollar – gets one in their hand before they go. This increases the chance I have of them actually visiting the site later – and hopefully my writing will build on the foundation of a good impression.

In short, don’t look at business dinners as being more than a business proposition. Look to minimize your costs and maximize your potential profits so that you don’t end up with a big bill and nothing to show for it.

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  1. !wanda says:

    The title is either double-written or formatted incorrectly on my browser.

  2. Jasmine says:

    The suggestion to drink water during meals is a realllly important one to me. I do this and estimate it saves me 2-3 dollars (drink plus, tax and tip on the drink)EACH time I eat out. Doing that one thing helps keep the cost of eating out in moderation. Drinks are overpriced while eating out and I only order a speciality drink every now and then, that I cannot make at home. Coke, lemonade or Ice Tea, are all things I could buy or make easily while controlling my sugar intake.

  3. Kat says:

    Quick question. What do you do when everyone wants to evenly split the bill?
    This occured a few weeks ago and while, my dinner was only $5 and his was $8, we ended up paying $30 because everyone else had salads before the meal and drinks (wine and beer). I am not sure how to handle telling people we don’t want to pay for their drinks and extras.

  4. Hatim says:

    I think this is too frugal. If you have to go out to socialize or for business, then do it properly.

    No one likes a salad muncher at Chilli’s.

  5. Elaine says:

    When you order, ask for separate bills.

  6. msd says:

    I always order water no matter what (I only drink water anyways). I couldn’t care less about what the other people are drinking, so I don’t feel any social pressure to order some sort of drinks. Does that mean there is something wrong with me?

  7. Kat says:

    Sadly not a single place we dine at allows separate checks. Don’t know why.

  8. Mariette says:

    This is really good advice Trent.

    Kat, Most people suggested dividing up the bill evenly out of convenience and usually this works out fairly so they don’t realize when it doesn’t unless you point it out to them. In which case in my experience people say “of course” and suggest that you pay a lesser amount or agree to an amount that you propose based on what you ordered and then they all split the remainder. This happens to me a lot because I don’t drink and people have always been very fair about this even if it is a little bit of a hassle figuring out the bill. I’ve seen other people do this too, it is fairly common – and fair that someone doesn’t supplement someone else’s meal.

  9. FIRE Finance says:

    Is it a good practice to hand out individual business cards (with information about one’s side business) at a business meeting. Might not go well at all business meetings! What are your opinions? We are curious to know about this issue.

  10. !wanda says:

    @Hatim: Say you’re dieting. People accept that.

    Re: all the posts about eating out
    I feel so sorry that the default decent restaurant you have to go to for a business lunch or dinner is some place like Chili’s or Applebee’s. Here we have an array of mostly ethnic restaurants that are cheaper and tastier while still being nice enough for a long dinner with friends.

  11. William says:

    I have noted that sometimes it leaves a sour note on others when the person always brings up the point of his meal being cheaper and therefore should not pay the same amount.

    My friend use to date this girl who always want to split the bill by individual orders, to the point that Tax and tips were also based on amount of food you order. This got so ridicules that we stopped asking them to go out to eat.

    There are times when you should be frugal and there are time you shouldn’t. A dollar or two extra surely adds up, but in return you’re getting companionship and the gathering of the minds, where as you could be sitting all alone in your cube munching on a $1 hamburger everyday.

    I guess everyone have to balance out what they want, You can either be a rich guy with all the cool gadgets with no one to share it with, or you can be a poor guy with nothing but a lot of friends. (extreme cases)

  12. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I don’t mix my businesses, except for a little bit of bleed-over between my computer consulting and The Simple Dollar. Neither one ever touches my “real” job.

  13. Jake says:

    Great tips on saving money at business dinners. Business cards as you finish can mean a lot of work down the road.

  14. s says:

    1. (@Trent) I don’t think it’s in any way necessary to order an alcoholic drink, just because everyone else is. Not sure whether that is just an excuse or what, but I generally avoid people that judge me based on whether you choose to drink or not.

    2. (@Wanda & Hatim) Ditto on the sadness of Chili’s being the lunch place of choice. But regardless.. what’s wrong with ordering a salad? It may be a little odd if you order a $2 side salad or something, but salads are legitimate meals. Especially if you don’t eat meat.

    3 (@William) My group of friends will generally split the bill based on what each person ordered (tax and tip too if they apply). It has never been an issue. Everyone adds up what they ordered, adds on 15% (or 25% or whatever is necessary) and puts in their money. I don’t think I’d want to hang out around people that consistently forced me to pay more than my share, and I’d feel awkward letting someone else pay more because of me. I guess every group is different.

  15. Beth says:

    I just read a great way to handle the imbalanced check business: make sure you get the check first, figure out your share, and say: Here’s $x which will cover my meal and water, tax and x% tip.

    It can be a little awkward, but if it happens a lot, the result will be you’ll avoid going out with these people altogether, which is also too bad!

  16. Johanna says:

    William, if you really think it’s reasonable to require your dinner companions to subsidize your meal because what they ordered was less expensive, then they’re not the ones being ridiculous – you are.

  17. Jasmine says:

    I occasionally encouter the situation where a group wants to split the bill evenly among the group. I also feel uncomfortable voicing my discontent with this method (sad, but true). And have learned to order around the same price range and food amount as other people. This way, if I’m going to be paying for it anyways, I make sure I’m getting my money’s worth. Yes, this causes me to spend more than I would anyways, but somehow reduces my negative feelings about it. I’ve been in too many situations where my 8 dollar meal has turned into 20!

  18. Lisa says:

    Many times I ask for a slice of lemon for my water. It stops the desire for alot of food and I make better choices.

  19. Kat says:

    @William – I don’t calculate out the tip and tax per what everyone ordered, but I do think asking someone who spent $15 total for the meal to pay $30 is a bit much.
    As I am shy and was dining with people I had never met before, I find it difficult to speak up for fear that people like you would judge me.

  20. Mrs. Micah says:

    If you’re really involved and engaged, people won’t likely think you’re just a cheap salad-eater. (my two cents)

  21. !wanda says:

    @William, Kat, and Johanna: Splitting the bill equally works if you assume that a group of people repeatedly goes out to eat and they have roughly the same habits. So, with my friends, if I go under this week, it’s OK for me to spend a little more than I deserve, since it’s just as likely that I’ll go over and underpay next week. It all averages out in the end, and I don’t sweat it.

    If you’re persistently under- or over-paying, that’s a problem, and you should find some way to address it.

  22. Rob in Madrid says:

    I treat myself to lunch once a month when I get paid and I usually end up getting a drink, best when I don’t because it becomes a cheap meal, but it’s hard to resist having an over priced coke or beer with my meal, it just doesn’t feel complete without it. (excellent upsales job on the part of the company)

    A tip I picked up from a family member is to share a meal with your spouse, often portion sizes (particularly in America and Canada) are way over sized. Not only do you save money but calories as well. My wife as she has a daily food allowance splits here meals between eating at the canteen
    and taking something.

    I’m personally split on whether to go cheap at a restaurant as it has become an very occasional treat for us and I like a starter drink and occasionally (depending on the scale) dessert.

    Where I have saved a lot of money and calories is in brown bagging lunch and skipping Starbucks. Took a bit to get used to having cheap or free coffee where I teach but now I couldn’t image buying a daily Starbucks, when I do, and it’s not very often its a real treat.

  23. plonkee says:

    I like to drink wine with meals (rather than spirits), and always order a jugs of tap water as well to go with it. I make sure to ask everyone else if they would like some water. This seems to cut down on everyones drinnking and we don’t get through so much wine.

    Generally, most of the places that we eat at with work are buffet style as that is the most popular. Otherwise, its quite common for some people to have extra drinks and so on, so it would be ok for me to spend less and just say that I’m putting in what I owe (being very careful to err on the side of rounding up).

  24. Gayle says:

    One particularly embarrassing experience for us was way back in the days prior to atms and debit cards. Conceivably it could still happen in some place that doesn’t accept cards. My husband and I accepted an invitation to celebrate a friend’s engagement rather spontaneously one Saturday night. We went to a fairly expensive restaurant. We knew how much cash we had in hand and ordered accordingly. Much to our dismay, when the check came it was suddenly decided that we would split the bill evenly. Everybody else had ordered lobster and several drinks. We didn’t have enough money with us to pay for our “share”.

  25. Robert says:

    Some folks aren’t getting that there is a difference between splitting the bill where you may be up or down a few bucks as opposed to having to subsidize others people’s meals that might be twice your cost or more.

    Most reasonable people wouldn’t have an issue in either case — a few bucks here and there probably all comes out in the wash, but anyone who expects you to pay more for them when you only consumed a minimal amount is just being greedy. It should bother you that those people exist but it shouldn’t bother you to stand up for yourself over it.

  26. Michelle says:

    We have friends we go out with that consistently drink way more than we do. We just take turns reviewing the bill and throw in what we owe. Its not a big deal, its very casual. The only time it would be a problem is if the total amount came up short, which doesn’t happen often because everyone slightly overestimates.

  27. John NYC says:

    Haha! I would never do business with any of you! You honestly want to split the bill because you paid $2 less for your meal. Are you kidding? Even the waiter at Chilli’s is making fun of you. Its one thing to be frugal, its another to be down right CHEAP!

  28. Common Sense says:

    Oh jeez. If you’re worrying about how much your “business” meal costs, maybe you should get into a business that pays you more.
    Money is for spending, so earn enough to make life enjoyable.
    We all have talents that with a little research will fit exactly a certain job, and most probably one that you will actually want to do.
    Instead of posting tightwad suggestions here, spend your time figuring out how to get that ideal job!
    Once you stop worrying about little things like $5 on a meal that could net you $1,000 in returns you will have one less thing to make your life miserable.

  29. Carlos Rey says:

    Good God!


    All of you.


  30. Monica says:

    Why do people bother posting on this website when they aren’t frugal minded? Constantly claiming that we need to live it up? SHUT UP ALREADY! We aren’t talking about a couple dollars difference.

    Does anyone remember the Friends episode where they go out to eat to celebrate Monica’s promotion? Joey, Rachel and Phoebe all order soup or salad whereas Ross, Chandler and Monica live it up…they even got in an argument about splitting the bill. I personally wouldn’t want to pay for someone else’s exorbitant meal. When I go out to eat, it’s not for the food but it’s for the company. I can cook better than most places for much cheaper, healthier and tastier meals. Splitting meals with my dear husband would never work either. He’s steak and potatoes when we go out…I’m salad and carbs!

  31. Sandy says:

    My husband and I recently had an interesting experience as far as eating out for business. My husband, who is generally frugal by nature, has a really well paying job, and after being extremely frugal in grad school, he felt as if he had paid his dues as far as packing lunch and not having a nice lunch in the restaurant or even cafeteria daily. When we did our annual budget, I noticed that he had his lunch expenses down in his “work related expenses” column. I asked him why he didn’t move that into our food budget (the girls’ lunch money goes in there, and eating out for entertainment, and when I eat out occasionally with friends…all in the “FOOD” budget). Well, his average daily expense for lunches out came to about $40-$50 per week…and when he put it under “FOOD” in the budget, he immediately got religion over the fact that he was really blowing a lot of money every month. He has packed his lunch nearly every day since then, taking leftovers to reheat at work, and a variety of sanwiches, salads, etc…I think he said that in the month of January so far (outside of a business trip where costs are expensed) he’s only spent about $10…and just by putting work lunches in a different column in the budget!

  32. Lenore says:

    The only way I would agree to split the bill on a business meal is if my company paid me a per diem. If it’s MY money, I reserve the right to order what I want and pay only for MY choices. I wouldn’t haggle about my share of the tip or tax if forced to split a bill because that would be inconvenient to others and unappreciative of the full table’s service. I like the idea about being first to pick up the bill, and I often ask for separate checks at the outset. If anyone grouses, you can claim it simplifies things or say you need a separate receipt for tax purposes or to give to your spouse who keeps track of your credit card statements. Professionals who order expensive meals and expect others to contribute toward them are nothing but glorified moochers.

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