Dining out is one of the great pleasures in life. Fine food, great drinks, a meal with friends and the next thing you know you’re loosening your belt. But with a troubled economy everyone is tightening their belts. You can still enjoy dining out, even on a budget. Do you know the best days and meals for making the most of your dollar? How to find a credit card that rewards you for restaurant dining? What site offers you rebate checks just for making reservations? Check out our smorgasbord of top tips for saving money when you do dine in restaurants.
1. Find discount deals. Sites like Restaurant.com offer gift certificates for less than face value. Just make sure you’re getting a discount somewhere you want to eat, otherwise it’s like those uncomfortable shoes you bought on sale and never wear. No bargain.
2. Use an online booking agent like OpenTable. You’ll get a rebate or thank you check for doing something you do anyway, making reservations. You’ll also find special promotions that will earn you rewards faster by dining at certain slower times.
3. Some credit cards give you a bonus or rebate on restaurant purchases, decide which ones make the most sense and then use them as much as you can. Mint.com can help you with unbiased recommendations based on your personal spending.
4. Go out for lunch. Sometimes the prices on the lunch menu are a fraction of what you’ll pay at dinner for almost the same thing.
5. Watch what you drink! Restaurants make a larger margin on beverages than they do on food. Do you really need that bottled water or cocktail?
6. Eat less. Smaller appetite? Try choosing a salad, side dish or appetizer. Let your waiter know you are looking for something on the light side, you just don’t want to end up with something so small that you end up ordering a huge dessert.
7. Share dessert. Speaking of huge desserts, you may have noticed that dessert prices and sizes have steadily grown larger. Find a partner and be sure to ask for two spoons.
8. Share a large entree or take half of it home for tomorrow’s lunch. The best way to do this is to visually divide your plate in portions before you start eating. If you plan on taking it home, order something that reheats well such as soup, stew or a braised dish and skip delicate foods like salad or seafood.
9. Have a snack! You know what happens if you go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. Likewise if you go out to dinner ravenous you’re likely to order too much. If you skip lunch, you’ll also be tempted to order too much.
10. Eat out on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, the slowest days of the week for restaurants. You’ll be much more likely to find special deals and offers, not to mention a quieter more relaxing dining experience.
11. Look for early bird or prix fixe specials. Now more than ever restaurants are looking for your business and offering special promotions. Often a three course meals is just a few dollars more than the cost of one expensive entree.
12. Use a coupon. Local coupon books like the Entertainment book offers hundreds of 2-for-1 and 50% off coupons for all kinds of restaurants. If you like fine dining, find a friend who likes fast food and share the cost of the book. The online version of this book may be a great deal if you are planning to travel. There is no long-term commitment, you can choose any location you wish, and the print the coupons you want for only $4.95 a month.
13. BYOB. If you have a nice bottle of wine at home, look for restaurants that offer reasonable corkage fees. Just be sure you are not bringing a bottle that is on the restaurant wine list. Some restaurants offer free corkage if you buy one bottle. With a group, this is a great way to save.
14. Cut a coupon. Don’t forget those coupons that come in the mail! Valpak offers coupons online as well. Be sure to do a quick search before heading off on vacation.
15. Eat at the bar. Dying to try that expensive new restaurant that just opened to rave reviews? See if they have a bar menu. You may be able to get a taste of what’s being served in the dining room for much less.