15 Strategies for Saving Money at a Restaurant

I am a huge advocate for preparing and eating meals at home. It’s almost always drastically cheaper than eating out. You have fine control over the quality and quantity of the ingredients. You can make whatever you want and you’re not restricted by a menu. You don’t have to wait to get seated. Eating at home just has a ton of benefits.

Still, there are times when eating out at a restaurant just makes more sense. For example, if we choose to spend a day in the Des Moines area, we often wind up more than an hour from home in the evening and, with hungry children, it just makes more sense to eat out. We also usually plan a meal at a restaurant roughly once a month in addition to those relatively unexpected events.

Of course, with our family, that usually means that we’re feeding five people at a restaurant which can add up really quickly if you do it very often. Because of that, we have adopted a whole suite of simple strategies to save money on eating out. Here are 15 things we do to reduce the impact of restaurant dining on our monthly budget.

1. Buy gift cards at retailers that discount them.

A gift card to a restaurant rarely has to be purchased at the face value of the card. If you shop around, you can save 20%, 30%, or even 50% or more on gift cards for a restaurant.

For example, there’s a local pizza restaurant that makes gift cards available online, selling $50 in certificates for $40. When we go to that restaurant, our family usually eats for $30 or $35. So, if we buy two of those bundles, we’ve spent $80 in total and can use those cards to buy $100 worth of food at that restaurant – three visits, in other words. We reduce the cost of an average visit by 20%, saving us about $7 per visit.

Where can you get such gift cards? Restaurant.com is a great place to start. I’ve also had great experiences with Cardpool.com. Another great strategy is to visit a warehouse club – like Sam’s Club or Costco – as they often sell gift card bundles at a nice discount, as much as 25% off the face value.

We just keep these gift cards in our wallet or purse until an opportunity presents itself to eat there.

2. Choose a restaurant with free appetizers, then order a smaller entree.

Many restaurants offer free appetizers as an enticement to get people in the door of their establishments. It’s a good business strategy, mostly because customers often fail to take full advantage of it.

For example, at many Mexican restaurants, they serve a large batch of salsa and chips as a free appetizer before the meal. At Red Lobster, they give you an endless basket of cheddar bay biscuits before the meal. I will often eat those free appetizers and slowly drink a couple of large glasses of water and by the time my main meal arrives, I’m pretty full.

This does require you to be aware that you’ll be a lot less hungry when your meal arrives at the table compared to when you order. Restaurants often know this and that’s why they don’t bring out these appetizers until after you order. That way, you’re sitting there hungry and will often order more than you might want, then after the free appetizers, you aren’t nearly as hungry and could have enjoyed a much smaller meal.

In other words, when you’re ordering your meal at a restaurant with free appetizers, keep those appetizers in mind. You might be really hungry when you order, but after eating a bunch of those appetizers over the next twenty minutes, you likely won’t be as hungry. So, don’t order the giant platter of food — instead stick with a smaller meal that focuses in on just one or two things you really like.

3. Drink water as your beverage.

Restaurants charge a shockingly high price for beverages. A glass of soda will cost you $3 or more. Order a beer or a glass of wine or a mixed drink and you’ll be paying a lot more.

The solution here is to simply request a glass of water as your beverage and skip the other drinks. If you want an after-dinner drink, go to another establishment with more reasonable prices – such as your own home. I’ll often go home and have a bottle of homebrewed beer after a restaurant meal.

Yes, sometimes a meal is made better by accompanying it with a particular beverage. Many dishes pair incredibly well with a glass of wine, for instance. That’s fine, but limit your beverage purchases to what pairs well with the dish and stick to water when the meal isn’t around.

Water also has the feature of keeping the palate clear so that you can actually enjoy all of the flavors of your meal instead of having your taste buds clouded with the sweet aftertastes of soda or the flavors of other beverages brought to your table. I actually prefer that as it makes the food taste better.

4. Check the coupon flyers and other sections in the Sunday newspaper.

Many restaurants – especially chain restaurants – offer coupons for discounts in the Sunday paper, particularly in the coupon flyer section found in the middle of the paper.

Darden Restaurants – owners of Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, and several other restaurants (and until very recently owners of Red Lobster) – frequently use the coupon flyers to distribute coupons for their restaurants, often offering a discount for a pair of entrees. Other chains use the flyers infrequently.

Sometimes, you’ll also find coupons in other sections for more local restaurants. For instance, my wife and I recently found a coupon in a Sunday newspaper for a nearby restaurant that we were completely unaware of before seeing the coupon.

Restaurant coupons are very easy to use. You just include them with your ticket when you send your payment back with the server. They basically function as cash when used at a restaurant – except they’re not really cash out of your pocket.

5. Utilize ‘kids eat free’ nights if you have a family.

Many restaurants that cater to families offer at least one “kids eat free” night during the week. On that night, the restaurant usually offers one children’s meal for free with the purchase of one adult meal. Some places simply don’t charge for any children’s meals on those days, though that’s fairly rare.

For us, if we go out as a family, that means that two children’s meals are free. That can save us $10 or $15 on our ticket at the end of the evening. If you plan most (if not all) of your restaurant meals around this phenomenon, you can end up saving a ton of money.

There’s another big advantage to this for families. With three young children, we are sometimes careful about what restaurants to take our family to because, no matter how perfectly behaved children are, there are times when they’re not so perfectly behaved. Children can have poor emotional control and that can result in tears and outbursts and disruptions of the meals of others. I don’t like that when I go to a non-family restaurant, but when I go to a family restaurant, especially on a “children eat free” night, I assume it will happen a time or two.

Thus, when I’m on the “parent” side of that equation, I don’t feel nearly as apprehensive about going out to eat with my children. (Thankfully, my children are now old enough that this is no longer a significant issue; they’re almost always well-behaved in restaurants now.)

6. Budget for your restaurant dining.

One of the best ways to curb spending on splurges is to simply budget for it. Have a certain amount in your family budget that you set aside for the pleasure of dining out each month. You might set aside enough for two or three meals out at a nice restaurant, which might equate to several meals at a lower-end restaurant.

For us, this directly saves money by putting a cap on our monthly restaurant spending. It also encourages us to sometimes choose less expensive restaurants that we enjoy, such as some of the family-owned Mexican restaurants in the northern part of Des Moines (there are several good ones in the northern suburbs).

Of course, having a family means that we can’t really go to the high-end adult-focused restaurants all that often. The children wouldn’t enjoy or appreciate the experience, so we generally save the nicer restaurants for the occasional date night that Sarah and I share.

We can still splurge on an expensive restaurant, but that means that we’ll probably be missing out on other opportunities to eat out during that month. Budgeting like this gives us the freedom to choose.

7. Pay attention to time-sensitive special deals.

Many restaurants offer specials that are triggered by the specific day of the week and, even more often, the specific time of the day.

Some restaurants offer early bird specials for diners who come in before 5 PM. Other restaurants offer discounted appetizers or drinks at certain times or will offer a “final call” discount on buffet food during the last fifteen minutes of a buffet lunch.

Be aware of these discounts in advance. If you go to a restaurant that you like, take a look at their daily or weekly specials and note the ones that are of particular interest to you, then make sure to go to those restaurants when you’ll get those discounts.

I find it useful to actually note these discounts on my phone. Then, I can look at that calendar when we’re planning on eating out and use it as a helpful guide for picking a restaurant that will be selling us discounted food that night. (I do this for “children eat free” nights, too.)

8. Eat an appetizer as your main dish.

Many restaurants offer absurdly large appetizers at a pretty good price. For instance, one restaurant near us has a bruschetta tray for $6.99 that overloads the pieces of bread with all kinds of toppings, leaving you with more toppings than bread. They’re delicious and plentiful, enough that you could easily fill up on them.

So, why not fill up on them? Order an appetizer as your main course. Usually, you’ll have a fairly small portion for a very good price if you do this and, if you include appetizers in the meals you’re considering, it usually expands your total options.

I find that ordering an appetizer is a great way to enforce portion control and convince myself to eat slower, too. There’s usually more than enough food in an appetizer to fill me up.

Appetizers are often split into smaller portions as well, so if several people choose the “order an appetizer” strategy for their meal, it’s easy to swap part of your appetizer meal for part of theirs, giving you both more variety on your plate.

9. Buy (or split) a local coupon book or discount card.

Many local groups sell discount cards and coupon books that offer a discount at a number of local businesses. Those businesses are usually offering the discount as a way to support a local charity or cause.

If you eat locally and the restaurants you prefer support such a program, these cards and/or coupon books can provide tremendous savings over the course of a year. Our local high school sold discount cards that offered percentage discounts at several different nearby restaurants that, once you used it more than two or three times, saved you money just from the restaurant discounts alone.

If you can’t afford the price – and sometimes the bigger coupon books can be expensive – split the cost with a friend and take turns selecting coupons from the book. For instance, if you buy a book with 100 coupons for $50 and split the cost with a friend, you can each spend $25 and then take turns picking coupons out of the book so that you each get half of the coupons.

10. Split an entree with another person in your party.

Many restaurants serve huge meals with enormous sides – far more than a single person could or should eat. One of our favorite local restaurants serves such a ludicrous amount of sides that I have never been able to finish a full meal there.

One great strategy at a “big portion” restaurant is to simply split an entree with a friend or loved one. Simply order a meal you both like, request an extra plate, then divide up the meal among the two of you when it arrives.

This allows you to eat a more reasonably-sized meal while cutting the cost of the meal in half. I’ve split meals with my wife many times.

Another strategy is to order a single entree and a cheaper appetizer, splitting the appetizer then splitting the entree. The cost reduction isn’t quite as much, but it can still save you $10 or so.

11. Skip dessert and satisfy your sweet tooth at home.

Restaurants love to serve you an overpriced dessert at the end of the meal and for people with a sweet tooth it can be really tempting. It’s a good strategy to skip that dessert, however, and pick it up elsewhere.

If you’re eating a dessert at home, it’s going to be far cheaper because you purchased the ingredients yourself at a grocery store. Rather than eating a bowl of ice cream at a restaurant, our family will often go home and make anyone who wants dessert a small bowl out of the ice cream container we already bought at the store, which drives the cost per bowl well below $1 and usually far, far cheaper than what the restaurant charges.

You also have much more control over what you have for dessert because, again, you’ll get to select what you have from the wide array of items on sale at your local grocer that you already purchased and have at home.

If you really want to eat a dessert at a restaurant, simply choose to stop at a restaurant that focuses on dessert offerings. You’ll usually not pay much more and the dessert quality and variety is much higher.

12. Follow your favorite restaurants on Facebook and Twitter.

Many restaurants utilize social media to talk directly to their biggest fans and customers. Restaurants will often pass along special discounts in order to encourage even more repeat business.

Thanks to social media, I’ve been able to enjoy several “buy one, get one free” options on entrees at various restaurants in the area – some of them chains and some of them strictly local. I’ve enjoyed free appetizers and even free meals a couple of times.

All you have to do is have an account at the most popular social sites – Facebook and Twitter – and then look up the names of restaurants you enjoy and either “follow” or “like” them. When you’re thinking of eating out, check out what those restaurants have posted recently. You might just have a great bargain sitting there waiting for you.

Similarly, you can sign up for mailing lists at restaurants. Often, they’ll have a drawing for free meals from their mailing list and they’ll usually use it to send out coupons and discounts. I recommend having a separate email address for emails from these lists. That way, you can just check that email account before you dine and search your email backlog for discounts.

13. Don’t assume the ‘special’ is a discounted meal.

Many restaurants offer daily “specials” that they write on a chalkboard or some other form of posting near the front of the restaurant. These are often experimental meals that they’re trying out or else meals designed to use some sort of food excess in the kitchen.

In either case, people often believe that these “specials” are available at a discounted price, but that’s often not true at all. They’re often priced on par with other items or sometimes even a bit higher.

If you’re considering ordering the posted special, ask for the price of the special first and take that into account while ordering. Compare that price quickly to other items on the menu and see how the special really stacks up. Often, you’re better off ordering something else from the menu.

14. Exercise portion control at the table.

When you’re served a big plate of food, you’ll almost always find yourself starting to feel full, but you also have this big half-finished plate still in front of you. It’s very tempting to keep nibbling away at it, but this is the key time to establish some portion control.

Stop eating. Put a napkin over your plate to block the temptation. As soon as you see your server, request a container to take your leftovers home in and load them up.

This saves money by ensuring more leftovers for you, making it possible to eat a full meal or maybe even two from your leftovers when you might have otherwise been lucky to eat just one. It also helps with your health, because jamming more calories into your system is never a good option when you’re already full.

15. Make eating out ‘special’ and eat ‘ordinary’ the rest of the time.

For us, eating out is a treat. It’s something to enjoy that’s usually much more enjoyable than the “normal” meals that we eat at home. It becomes an experience, not an ordinary routine.

That’s not to say we don’t cook good meals at home – we do. However, they’re often simple fare – a simple pasta with sauce, homemade tacos, chili, and the like. We stick with simple, easy to prepare meals that we know our family will like. Those meals are really inexpensive.

This keeps our food budget nice and low so that when we do go out, it’s both a special treat and not a budget killer.

Here’s the truth: a few smart steps while eating at a restaurant can drastically reduce the expense. Not all of the tactics in this article will work for your situation, but some of them will, and if you can stack them together, you can drastically reduce the cost of dining out.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.