Restaurants aren’t exactly frugal. The food is overpriced, you’re paying for the experience, and the booze is marked up like crazy.
Confession: I’m aware of all of this, yet I still love the experience of dining out. It’s an indulgence, but I budget for it and make my savings goals, so I’m fine with it.
At the same time, if I can find ways to save money on my habit, I’m all about that. A fellow restaurant-loving reader emailed me asking how I save money on food, specifically restaurants. I thought I’d share my favorite tips.
The High-Low Method
This is a new rule I’ve implemented recently. It’s less about saving money and more about getting the most bang for your buck. I wrote about it over at Lifehacker and talk about it in the above video, but here’s the gist: cut out all mid-range restaurants. These are usually chain eateries that aren’t particularly expensive, but the food isn’t particularly great, either.
Instead, you mostly eat at cheap, hole-in-the-wall joints and save your money for a fancypants dining splurge. Check out the video and the post for more detail.
Find the Best Happy Hour Deals
Happy hour is a great way to dine out without spending a hell of a lot of money. I’ve recommended this a dozen times, so here’s a follow-up: find the best deals with an app or online tool. Many of them map your location, then list happy hour specials of nearby eateries.
Some establishments even offer free snacks at happy hour. I’ve never written anything more worthy of bold type. If you can’t find any on the app, simply Google “free food happy hour + [your city].”
Beware the Sneaky Restaurant Tricks
It pays to know how restaurants get you to spend more. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t order the daily special, but you want to make sure your spending is mindful. Here are a few sneaky restaurant menu tricks:
• Fancy fonts
• Not mentioning money
• Elaborate item descriptions
For more detail on each one, check out my full post.
Use Your AAA Discount
I was surprised at how many restaurants offer discounts for AAA members. Of course, these are mostly chains, but in my area, there are a number of independent establishments listed, too. While restaurants vary by location, there are plenty to choose from. Check the AAA website for your area, then navigate to Discounts>Dining.
Buy Gift Cards
Some restaurants occasionally offer gift card specials. For example, one of my parents’ favorite spots once offered a free $10 gift card when you bought a $50 one. My parents bought two, then got $20 free. If you frequent the restaurant, it’s an easy way to save money on food.
These deals abound around the holidays, so it might pay to look out for them around that time, then stock up.
Use a Rewards Program
Some restaurants actually have rewards programs for frequent diners. These are usually chain restaurants, but if you’re a fan of the chain, it’s worth checking out. The Counter, BJ’s, and Chili’s are just a few eateries that offer rewards. Similarly, sites like iDine let you earn rewards at different restaurants, as long as they’re partnered with the site.