5 Ways to Save Money Eating Out at Restaurants

Group of friends eating out at a restaurant
Eating out at a restaurant | Thinkstock

Eating food is practically the national pastime in America, where more than a third of citizens are classified as obese. We don’t just love food, we love to eat food that isn’t prepared by us. The average American household spends about $6,600 on food each year. Of that total, more than $2,600 is spent on food away from home. While food costs are the most common area where Americans break the budget, there are some simple ways to save money when eating out at restaurants.
According to a recent survey from the Principal Financial Group, 24% of respondents say they went over budget on dining-out expenses in the fourth quarter of 2015, up from 22% in the prior two years. Yet the nation clearly has a need to reduce food expenditures. The same survey form the previous year reveals that 17% of respondents believe “not saving enough” was their top financial blunder of the year. “Accumulating credit card debt” and “spending outside my means” followed at 9% each.
Aside from preparing more of your own meals at home, let’s take a look at five ways you can save money out at restaurants.

1. Use credit cards

Source: Thinkstock
Stack of credit cards | Thinkstock

When used properly, credit cards can help you save money on purchases. Several companies now offer cash back when you use their cards at restaurants. For example, the Discover IT and Chase Freedom cards both have deals in the second quarter where customers receive 5% cash back on restaurant spending. Meanwhile, the Citi ThankYou Preferred card earns double points at restaurants all year long. All three cards have no annual fee.
Potentially leading to even greater savings, some cards allow you to redeem cash back rewards for discounted restaurant gift cards. Discover currently offers $50 gift cards for places like Applebee’s, Panera Bread, Boston Market, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chipotle, Outback Steakhouse, and more for $45 in cash back rewards. Just remember to pay off your credit card each month, as the interest charges would negate any savings. And of course, don’t eat out just because you’ll earn 5% cash back.

2. Check company websites

Checking phone for deals | Thinkstock

Popular websites like Groupon, Living Social, and Restaurants.com help people find deals every day, but joining a restaurant’s email list or rewards club may also save you money. In fact, many restaurants will routinely send out coupons or birthday freebies via email if you take the time to sign up. For example, Starbucks offers a free drink or treat on your birthday, while Black Angus Steakhouse offers a free steak dinner with the purchase of a second adult entree. If you mind the extra email, you could create a separate account to organize deals and to keep your regular email from becoming overloaded with spam.

3. Utilize weekly specials

Source: Thinkstock
Restaurant deals vary by day | Thinkstock

Saturday is the most popular day in America to dine out, followed by Friday and Sunday. This is understandable given we like to enjoy ourselves on the weekend after a long week’s worth of work. However, if you can mix it up once and a while and dine out in the middle of the week, you could save money since restaurants often run promotions during the week.
You may also be able to save by dining out for lunch instead of dinner. Saving just $10 a week by taking advantage of weekday or lunch specials results in $5,200 over 10 years. Not exactly chump change given America’s low savings rate. Check out dealnews.com to find apps that locate the best deals in your city.

4. Modify your order

Expensive soda
Soda is terrible for you and your wallet | Thinkstock

In case you didn’t notice, not every item on the menu is treated equally. Some options provide decent value, while others are grossly overpriced. When visiting restaurants, try skipping the appetizers and keep in mind that a glass of water is usually free while other beverage drinks have the biggest markups you can find in the industry.
Fountain soda consists of soda water and syrup, and at restaurants, this soda syrup comes in a large box that yields around 3,800 or so ounces of soda, or at least 200 sodas for a 5-gallon box, considering ice is added. The cost of each box of soda syrup of course varies depending on each establishment, but say it costs $50. This means that each fountain soda costs an establishment around $0.25 for ingredients. However, the menu price is often closer to $2.
The same idea applies with coffee and tea, where the cost of ingredients is often no more than 10% or 15% of the menu price. Interestingly, the Principal Financial Group finds that coffee purchases were the ninth most commonly cited reason for blown budgets.

5. Research ahead of time

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A little research goes a long way | Thinkstock

You may not always have a chance to research a restaurant ahead of time, but if you do, checking reviews on sites such as Yelp.com can help you get the most bang for your buck. There will most likely be some amount of negative reviews on a restaurant you are considering, but it’s usually a good indication if the majority of the reviews are positive. The site offers more than 71 million reviews from around the world. In the most recent quarter, Yelp received approximately 135 million visitors each month. Other sites such as OpenTable and Google also provide restaurant reviews.

Follow Eric on Twitter @Mr_Eric_WSCS