Going out to eat can be expensive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of dining out increased 8.2% from January 2022 to January 2023.
While eating out tends to be pricier than staying in, there are ways to cut down on costs when eating away from home. For many people, that means going out during happy hour, which usually occurs between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays.
If you enjoy dining out during happy hour but want to save more money, here are the best ways to reduce costs.
Know the Happy Hour Menu
Happy hour typically occurs after lunch when the main rush has slowed down but before the dinner crowd shows up. For example, it’s between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. at Buffalo Wild Wings. Meanwhile, Taco Bell’s Happy Hour is from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Many restaurants and bars use dedicated menus for their happy hour offerings. They usually include items at reduced prices — sometimes with smaller portion sizes. Some establishments will offer cheap cocktails – from $1 to $3 — while others will include simple appetizers or smaller entrees.
You can find the happy hour menu either by going to the establishment and asking for it or by going to the restaurant’s website. At Chili’s, for instance, simply go to their website, input your address, and find their happy hour deals at the location nearest you. Since these deals can vary across locations, it’s important to choose the one you plan on visiting.
Compare different establishments and their offerings before choosing one. For example, Buffalo Wild Wings has $3 to $6 drinks and food during happy hour. This includes items like strawberry margaritas, Miller Lite, chips with salsa, tater tots and mozzarella sticks.
“Ordering strictly from the happy hour menu can also save you a lot of money, especially on specialty drinks,” said Nina Engle, owner and founder at Ping Pong Thai.
Dine Out With Friends
“Invite some friends to split the bill,” Engle added.
Although many of the appetizers and entrees are smaller during happy hour, you still could share some with your friends. Not only can you save even more money this way but, depending on what you order and how hungry you are, you could still come away fully satiated.
“When eating out, the best way to save money is to order a dish and share,” said Blanca Garcia, registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition specialist at Health Canal. “A typical dish can cost $20; if shared with another person, that cost goes down to $10. You save on money but also on calorie intake.”
If you don’t want to share your meal, ask for a to-go box at the start of your meal. Once you receive your dish, put half of it away for later. Instead of one meal, you’re effectively getting two — while being mindful of what you eat.
Take Advantage of Special Offers and Discounts
Fast food restaurants and certain restaurant chains have promotional offers or other deals. When you combine one of these deals with a happy hour entree or drink, you could get more bang for your buck.
These deals are often available for a limited time or on certain days, so plan your outings around them. Others — such as Olive Garden’s unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks — are available at any time, if you dine in.
Check your favorite restaurants’ websites to see whether they have any deals happening. You also might receive coupons or special offers in the mail or online. Also, consider using a site such as Groupon to find more discounts on certain foods or drinks.
Join a Loyalty or Rewards Program
Many establishments have loyalty or rewards programs, which could save you even more money when you dine out. These programs are usually free to join and can reduce the cost of dining out when you take advantage of them.
Places such as Red Robin offer free birthday burgers. Some establishments also apply special rewards or automatic discounts for military personnel or teachers.
Some bars and other establishments also have punch or stamp cards that give you free items after a certain number of purchases — usually around 10. Even if you don’t combine this with happy hour, it still could mean a free meal or drink.
Make a Budget (and a Plan)
Going out to eat can be costly if you do it too often — even if you do only go out during happy hour. That’s why it’s essential to make and stick to a budget. You can even leave the credit or debit cards behind and bring cash to avoid spending more than you’re comfortable with.
Along with this, try to plan out what you’re going to get before you go. This can help keep you from being tempted to purchase things you don’t need or that cost the full price.
“A vegetarian dish can potentially cost less,” Garcia said. “Meat tends to be more expensive and increase the cost of the meal. Also, when purchasing alcohol, the best choice is typically a beer. The fancier the cocktail, the higher the cost.”
When planning where to dine out, try to stay local. The cost of gas can add up quickly if you’re driving around town to find a place to eat or if the restaurant or bar is far away.
“Dining local is a great way to save money,” Engle said. “There are a lot of great deals out there for smaller mom-and-pop restaurants that provide a really great value for the money. Dining at more family-style restaurants often times provides larger, shareable portions.”
Use Cash-Back Rewards
Cash back is essentially free money you get when you use a debit or credit card for everyday purchases. Many banks and credit card companies have specific rules about how much you can receive, or on what types of things. For example, you might get cash back only for using your card at a grocery store, for gas or at a restaurant.
If your card has cash-back rewards, consider using them to help pay for your dining experience. When you combine this method with happy hour purchases, you can save a lot more money.
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