Eating out at restaurants is something most people enjoy for both the food and entertainment aspects. It’s fun, it’s often social, and it’s a great treat to have high quality food you didn’t prepare.
However, it also wrecks most of our budgets!
Restaurant food can be incredibly expensive and it can also add up and destroy your budget if you are not careful. Today we will look at some of the ways to save money on eating out at restaurants and how you can still indulge without breaking the banks.
How To Save Money Eating Out
In this video I share all about how we save money on eating restaurant food. We love to eat at restaurants for both food and entertainment and it’s always part of our budget… but it’s nice to save money and make it a smaller portion of our budget.
These tips are all the ways that I’ve found to save money on restaurant food but still enjoy my favorite restaurants.
Mystery shop for free food.
Mystery shopping is a great way to get free food while also getting paid. This double win means you’re earning money as a side hustle and getting a free meal at a restaurant.
Generally for these opportunities you will get paid and a free meal in exchange for observing things at the restaurant and filing a report when you return. Some will also require photos of the location or other additional resources.
There are many different mystery shopping services that will send you potential jobs so sign up for multiple. Then you can bounce back and forth between the different restaurant secret shopping opportunities.
Use credit card points for gift cards.
Credit cards can be a magical thing for anyone wanting to get free money or save money. This might sound backwards because they are for spending but they actually offer great cashback rewards that you can use to get restaurant gift cards for free.
You can use credit cards for all of your purchases and then use the points you receive for that spending to purchase gift cards to your favorite restaurants. This is a strategy we use to eat out often without feeling guilty about it.
Important! If you have trouble controlling or tracking spending then this strategy might not be right for you. If you are going to overspend by using a credit card then don’t try this. You could instead just use the card for bills that you would pay anyway or skip this entirely.
Use Fetch Rewards points for gift cards.
Fetch Rewards is one of my favorite apps to earn points to get gift cards to restaurants. With this app you take a picture of your receipts and upload them in exchange for point that you can redeem for gift cards and more.
We use Fetch Rewards for every receipt that we get both in person and digitally. Thanks to this we usually have enough points to get a $25 or $50 to a restaurant for a date night every month or two.
Drink water instead.
Drinking water instead of soft drinks or alcoholic beverages will lower your restaurant bill. This is one of the easiest ways to save money when you are eating out.
Water at most restaurants is free and you’ll save $2-$20 depending on the drinks you were considering. Even if you only do this every other time you go out the savings will definitely add up!
Go for lunch instead of dinner.
Changing the time you are eating out will help save you money. If you go to a restaurant for lunch or brunch instead of dinner you will end up spending less money. Many places have a much cheaper lunch menu than dinner menu.
When you decide to go eat at a restaurant for lunch instead of dinner you will save a lot of money especially if you combine this hack with others on this list.
Eat at happy hour times to save on food and drinks.
Similar to eating at lunch instead of dinner, you can go to happy hours and eat for much less than if you are there for dinner time. You can get discounts on meals, appetizers, and especially drinks.
This is the number one way I went out to eat and kept it affordable when I was single and making less money. It was much cheaper to make sure I ordered food and drinks from the happy hour menu than the dinner menu. The price savings allowed me to frequent my favorite locations more often during the week.
Split a large dish between people.
Most restaurant portions are huge in the United States. On one hand this means you are “getting more for your money” but it also opens you up to others savings habits like splitting a large dish between people.
You can easily split most meal options at restaurants with 1-2 other people. This can work for your main meal and for appetizers as well. Splitting the cost between people will reduce your share of the cost.
Order apps instead of main dishes.
Ordering appetizers instead of main entrees is a great way to save money at many restaurants. This won’t work everywhere but many restaurants have such good appetizers that it can be even better than a regular entree.
This can save you a ton of money since many appetizers are much cheaper than main dishes. At one of my favorite chain restaurants I save $5 every time I order my favorite appetizer rather than an entree.
Use loyalty programs or discounts.
Many restaurants will offer discounts for certain segments of the population. These are things like discounts for seniors or teachers or police officers. If you fit any of those groups then you should definitely utilize the discounts available to you when eating out at restaurants.
Restaurants also offer loyalty programs so you can get discounts for returning to the same restaurant over and over. Most places have a loyalty program from large worldwide chains like Starbucks to small local restaurants. If you plan to go back to a place make sure you use the loyalty program if they have one!
Eat when kids are free.
When you have kids you will notice that your expenses for eating out will go up dramatically. Having kids adds a lot to your bill overall which means you should definitely take advantage of restaurants that have “kids eat free days”.
Many places will have one day a week where they either let kids eat free or at an extreme discount. When you work your schedule around these specific days to eat out at restaurants you will be able to save a lot of money.
Watch for or ask for specials at a discount.
When you visit a restaurant keep an eye out of specials but also make sure to ask about the price and if it’s discounted. Some restaurants use specials as just a way to try out new dishes and they can be more expensive than normal.
Others will use specials as a way to draw people in so they are at a discounted rate. Find out what option the restaurant you are visiting does and if it’s cheaper try to order from the specials menu!
Look at menu prices and evaluate price between items.
Being cost conscious while you are ordering at a restaurant will help save you money.
It might not seem fun to base your order on what is cheaper at a restaurant but this is something that can allow you to save money. You can use this method to save money on multiple trips to a restaurant so then you’ll be able to splurge later.
Eat on your birthday for birthday specials.
Birthdays are a great time to save money on eating out because many places will give you free food to celebrate!
Many restaurants will give you a free appetizer or dessert and some even give you a whole meal for free. It’s definitely worth looking into free food you can score on your birthday so you can take advantage of that special day every year.
Those are just the main ways we’ve found to save money when we still want to eat out and enjoy food from restaurants.
There are a ton more and you should definitely keep looking for ways to save when you eat out at restaurants!
Instead of forever giving up your favorite restaurants to stay on budget you can instead find ways to work on the price and fit it into your spending plan. Life is too short to stay out of restaurants forever!
Mary is the founder of Pennies Not Perfection where she shares her journey to build wealth through online income. She quit her day job in 2021 after she paid off her debt and doubled her 9-5 salary.
Mary's favorite free financial tool is Personal Capital. She uses their free tools to track net worth and work toward to financial freedom.