Whether it’s for convenience or just the thrill of eating food outside of the dining room, Americans spend a sizable portion of their food budget on dining out. For every dollar spent on food, they shell out 33 cents on average at food service establishments, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service data. If you’re having a hard time staying within your budget this month, those dining out expenses could be eating up your wallet.
Fortunately, there are some ways to trim the fat from that restaurant bill — and without compromising on a tasty and satisfying meal at your favorite establishments. See how the money-saving pros spend less when eating out.
1. Gift Yourself First
“Give before you get” are words to live by — except, perhaps, when it comes to saving money at your favorite restaurant chain. Brent Shelton, online shopping expert and media relations specialist at FatWallet.com, recommended buying up restaurant gift cards at a discount so you can save money at some of your most-frequented food destinations.
He suggested buying gift cards on eBay for up to 20 percent off at restaurants like Applebee’s, Boston Market, TGI Fridays and Chili’s. That’s instant savings when you check out — or at least it covers the cost of a tip.
2. Double Up on Savings With Local Deal Sites
You can find discount gift cards and restaurant deals at sites like Restaurant.com, Groupon and LivingSocial, said Benjamin Glaser, editor with DealNews. These sites run deals and special offers for discounts on a complete meal or restaurant gift certificates at a deeply discounted price.
An easy way to double up on savings is to buy your discount — at a discount. Groupon, for example, runs its own markdown sales and special pricing offers every now and then, knocking an extra 20 percent off its prices. Groupon also runs special offers for Restaurant.com purchases.
3. Don’t Save It for the Weekend
If you really want to get the best deals in town, try enjoying a mid-week excursion to your favorite restaurant. It’s a good idea to find out when your favorite restaurants offer special promotions, said Stephanie Nelson of CouponMom.com. Those are more common on low-traffic days of the week, since restaurants want to fill their seats on slower nights.
“My favorite Mexican restaurant has half-price taco night on Tuesdays, which saves more than most coupons would, especially for an entire family,” said Nelson. “You avoid the weekend crowds as well.”
4. Don’t Be Coupon Shy
Scope out local magazines and newspapers for ads and clippable coupons. Many new restaurants in the area are busy advertising grand opening specials or two-for-one deals to generate quick business. And if you’re feeling self-conscious about pulling out a coupon you clipped from a magazine or newspaper, don’t be.
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“Most towns and cities have a magazine that features restaurant coupons,” said Kyle Taylor, founder of The Penny Hoarder. “Don’t be shy to use a coupon — the restaurants pay to advertise in these publications, and they want your business.”
5. Trade Rewards Points for Free Food
If you’re a regular at a chain restaurant, be sure to ask about the restaurant’s in-house loyalty club or rewards program so you can earn points during every visit.
“Joining restaurant rewards clubs in restaurants such as P.F. Chang’s and TGI Fridays will give you points towards free food and meals when you eat there,” said Jordon Cox, MoneySavingExpert.com‘s coupon kid.
Something else to keep in mind: Check your email inbox for newsletters and rewards club member savings to get discounts and free food on your birthday. Alternatively, sign up for a membership program like RewardsNetwork.com — it’s free — where you earn rewards at over 11,000 dining destinations so you can try new restaurants on the cheap.
6. Hydrate the Natural Way
Soft drinks and alcoholic beverages with your meal can add up to a meal’s worth, or more, of expenses to your bill. Ordering water and skipping the soft drinks is the way to go, which saved about $10 each visit for The Frugal Free Gal Brittany Clark’s family.
Clark also recommended taking advantage of free refills if you just can’t bring yourself to skip the soda and iced tea. Something else to keep in mind: Staying hydrated with plain old water can be better for your health, and help you feel fuller faster, reported The New York Times.