You don’t have to sacrifice your whole budget every time you go out to eat, especially when you eat at chain restaurants. Though some foodies roll their eyes at the thought of enduring a chain restaurant, overall, Americans like the familiar sights and tastes of chain restaurants. Not only do they provide some familiarity and family-friendly eats, but they also provide lots of opportunities to save money when you eat out, especially if you frequent the same restaurants over and over again.
Here are some easy money-saving secrets your waiter doesn’t want you to know. Just make sure that when you use them, you tip your wait staff based on your pre-discounted amount. That way everyone walks away happy.
1. Sign up for their loyalty program
Pretty much every chain restaurant has some sort of loyalty program that rewards you just for eating there. It’s free to join, and you’ll get points for every dollar you spend. You can then redeem your points for free food. Because they want you to frequent their restaurant over their competitors, most restaurants will reward you relatively quickly. You might get a free burger after spending $50, for instance. It’s worth signing up for any loyalty program, even if you don’t think you’ll end up earning the rewards.
Next: You’ve got mail.
2. Sign up for their email list
You might think that opting into the loyalty program signs you up for all the rewards, but a lot of restaurants have separate perks for their email list subscribers. Make sure you’re signed up for their email list, too. Your best bet is to sign up a day or two before you plan on eating out because they’ll usually send you some sort of coupon like a free appetizer or $5 off your check. These offers might take a day or two to show up. This is an effort for the restaurant to get people to sign up for their email list while they’re in the restaurant, and then return for a later visit to use the coupon. Game the system by signing up before you get there.
Next: You get a free meal! You get a free meal! Everyone in the family gets a free meal!
3. Sign up for their birthday list
The birthday list is yet another program many restaurants offer that is different from their email list and loyalty program. The best part about signing up for the birthday list is you can do it for every member of your family. That means you get to go out to eat and enjoy anything from a free dessert to a free meal whenever someone in your family has a birthday. If you have family members who have a birthday in the same month, check with the restaurant to see if you can combine birthday rewards on one tab.
Next: Don’t waste two perfectly good coupons.
4. Split the check to use two coupons
If you’re at a restaurant that won’t let you combine coupons, the solution is simple. Split the check. Have your partner pay for half the bill with one credit card and one coupon while you pay for the other half of the bill with another credit card and another coupon. This trick can save you a lot of money every time you eat out. And with a lot of restaurants using on-table devices as point of payment these days, you don’t even have to worry about feeling embarrassed when your waitress rolls her eyes at you. (She’ll get over it).
Next: Eating at 4:00 isn’t just for seniors…
5. Time your meal for happy hour
Happy hour is about more than cheap drinks (though they do, indeed, make us happy). You can usually score half-price appetizers as well, including some that can be full meals. A family of four could happily split an order of nachos, some wings, and some dip and call it a meal. This tip is handy if you can be flexible and eat before the big dinner rush. Some happy hours end at 5:00, while others go all the way until 7:00. Figure out when happy hour is at your favorite chain restaurant for cheap eats that also earn you rewards points towards free food.
Next: Time to hit up your local liquor store …
6. BYOB (in some states)
Why pay $40 for a bottle of wine that costs $8.95 in the store? A lot of restaurants now have a BYOB policy, where you can bring a bottle of wine and pay a corking fee. The corking fee can range from nothing to $7, which is still reasonable when you’re talking about saving $30 or more on a bottle of wine. We’ll toast to that! Make sure to call ahead before walking in with your own wine, since not all restaurants do this and the laws can vary from region to region.
Next: Or, drink for free!
7. Ask for wine samples
A lot of chain restaurants will let you sample wines for free, even if they don’t advertise it on their menus. Olive Garden, for instance, will let you sample up to three wines for free on every visit. At three-ounce pours, that’s the same as getting over a glass of wine for free! Just make sure to drink slowly if you plan to have your free samples last you the duration of your meal.
Next: It’s like having your own personal chef.
8. You can order off the menu
Most chefs at most chain restaurants are happy to make a dish based on what they have on-hand, so you can usually make pretty much any substitution that you want to create your own dish. If you had a favorite dish that’s no longer on the menu, ask your waiter about it anyway. If the chef has all the ingredients in the kitchen, you can probably still get it. Just know that even if you can get your favorite dish one week, you might not be able to the next time you come in if they don’t happen to have all the ingredients on hand.
Next: Get two meals out of one.
9. Ask your waiter for a box with your meal
Get a box with your meal so you can immediately put half your meal away. This cuts down on how much you’ll eat in the restaurant. Considering most chain restaurants give you extremely generous portions that go above and beyond your dietary needs for the day, you’ll save on some calories without going hungry. But, best of all, now you have lunch for tomorrow! Don’t forget to pack up any breadsticks that you have leftover for a full dining experience during your normal lunch hour.
Next: Tis the season for great deals.
10. Stock up on gift cards during the holiday season
Most chain restaurants run some sort of deal on gift cards during the holiday season. Usually, it’s something along the lines of buying a $50 gift card and get $10 free. So stock up at your favorite restaurants so you can eat out for less! As an added bonus, you can still earn your loyalty rewards when you pay with a gift card.
Make sure to check restrictions. Sometimes the promotional amount expires within a certain timeframe. Also, several restaurants run this promotion at different times throughout the year, so be on the lookout in April or May (right about when school’s getting out) to get a second chance at bonus money.
Next: Save money and calories.
11. Drink water as your beverage
The cost of drinks adds up fast. Even if you skip the alcohol and just get a soda, you might spend around $3 per person. With a family of four, that’s an extra $12 for your dinner, not including tax and tip on top of that. That’s like getting a whole extra meal! Skip the soda and sip on (free) water instead. Ask for lemon if you want to feel extra fancy as you sip your cool and refreshing free drink.
Next: Now’s your time to shine, kids.
12. Eat during the “kids eat free” weekday special
Most families avoid eating out during the week. Between homework, sports practice, and that never-ending pile of laundry, going out to eat during the week can be more of a hassle than it’s worth, especially once you see the bill. But, if you can swing it, look out for the “kids eat free” weekday special at your favorite local chain restaurants. Restaurants use this tactic to lure families in during the week when it’s slow and it works! You get a cheaper night out and don’t have to worry about dishes. Win-win!
Next: Social stalking is OK in this scenario.
13. Follow your favorite restaurants online
Every chain restaurant has social media pages, and most have separate ones for each location or region. A lot of restaurants will post specials to their Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts that you’ll only see if you’re following them. This includes spontaneous specials that the manager creates to try to get more people into the restaurant on an especially slow day. Make sure you’re following your favorites online so you don’t miss out on exclusive offers.
Next: It’s the best of both worlds.
14. Order to-go instead of dining in
When you eat in a restaurant, you end up paying for more than just your meal. You’ll probably end up with a beverage of some sort, and you can more easily get talked into an appetizer or dessert. When the bill comes, you pay a tip for service, which can add up quickly, depending on how much food you ordered. When you order to-go, on the other hand, you only pay for the food you order, without the temptation of adding on once you’re sitting in the restaurant. You also can drink on the cheap and avoid a hefty tip. Plus, no dishes!
Next: Bring all your IDs with you next time you dine out.
15. You can get status discounts
Restaurants tend to offer discounts for all sorts of things, including military service, being a college student, being a teacher, or even just living in the neighborhood. But they don’t always advertise these discounts, which is why so many people don’t know about them. When you’re ordering, ask your waiter what status discounts they offer and what identification you’ll need to provide to qualify. You could save as much as 15 percent just by asking!