Saving money isn’t usually on the menu when you’re dining out. The average American spent over $3,000 on food outside the home in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 But with a little planning, you can have your favorite bites without taking a big chomp out of your budget. Here are 10 tips to save money at restaurants.
1. Hit up happy hour
Saving money might make you happy. Enter: happy hour. That’s when restaurants might mark down select food and/or drinks right before or after standard dinnertime on certain weekdays. Even though happy hours might not be the most convenient times to eat, you could fill up on your favorites for less. Before you go, check the restaurant’s happy-hour times because they sometimes tweak the schedule from month to month.
2. Share your plate
We’ve all been there—the entrée comes out, and it’s the size of your head. Then you promise yourself you’ll eat those leftovers, only to forget the doggy bag or have it grow mold in the fridge. So pick a restaurant that offers big portions for a reasonable price and has options your dining companion would be excited to split with you. If the restaurant charges a plate-sharing fee, make sure splitting is still worth it.
If dinner also involves drinks, see if there are any local restaurants that allow you to bring your own bottle. BYOB can help you avoid hefty restaurant markups, giving you that drinks-out experience without the financial hangover. Not every area permits BYOB, though. And keep in mind that those restaurants that do might charge a "corking fee” to open a bottle.
4. Be careful on self-service tablets and apps
Self-ordering kiosks and apps might encourage you to order more. One chain restaurant found people spent 20% more when diners ordered on their app.2 Be cautious of any pop-ups or prompts that could entice you to buy extras and stick with your plan to order only what you care to eat.
5. Don’t pay too much just to go out
Yes, these tips are about saving on dining out, but your costs go beyond the restaurant bill. If you need child care, could a grandparent, other relative, or friend offer free babysitting? Or could you offer to swap date-night babysitting with a friend, whose kids you’ll watch another time? Think about getting there and back too. If you’re meeting friends, see if you can carpool. Or look for restaurants within walking or biking distance.
6. Always check your bill for errors
Mistakes happen, but it’s a bigger mistake to overpay. So verify your restaurant check to make sure you weren’t accidentally charged for something you didn’t order or overcharged for something you did.
If you’re paying with a card, consider taking a picture of your receipt with the tip applied. Then, once the charge posts to your credit card statement, check that it matches the photo. You could even work the math of your tips so all your restaurant bills end in a certain amount of cents, say, $.97, for easier error spotting.
When you’re checking your bill, also look for any kitchen fees or precharged tips. Although there’s no “right answer” for how to account for those when leaving an additional tip, they’re good to know about so you don’t tip more than you intend. And if you see a fee or charge you don’t understand, ask your server for more info.
7. Eat at restaurants-in-training
Fine dining usually comes with a fine price tag. But there are ways to get that white-tablecloth experience on a budget if you plan ahead. New restaurants will often stage a “soft opening” before they officially open to help train their staff and try out the menu. Although these occasions can sometimes be full price, many restaurants discount their dishes for this trial period or even give out free meals. To get on the list, call the restaurant a couple months before they open and ask to be included. Or go up to the restaurant space during construction, and ask if you can have a table at any opening events.
Don’t count out culinary schools, either. Every famous chef has to start somewhere, and for many that’s in restaurants associated with culinary schools. These can provide a unique experience with great food. Look at local culinary schools’ websites to see if they have a restaurant.
8. Join restaurant loyalty programs
More than half of US restaurants have loyalty programs that give you rewards, such as free food or drinks, for being a regular customer.3 If you frequent a certain spot, ask if you could be earning freebies. Loyalty programs vary. You might use an old-school punch card in some restaurants, and in others, there might be an app that allows you to redeem points for free drinks, entrées, merch, and more.
9. Check out kids-eat-free days
Feeding a family can mean a big bill, even if kids order off their own menu with smaller portions and lower prices. A budget-friendlier move? Timing your restaurant meals to when your favorite place comps kids. Some national chains and local eateries have standing days of the week when children’s meals are 100% free. Be prepared for crowds with the same idea.
10. Skip holiday dining
Limited prix-fixe menus might help restaurants make money without making lots of different dishes, but they don’t help you save money. That’s because restaurants may increase prices on special days when dine-out demand is high. Think: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving. So celebrate the day before or after the rush to get the regular menu with regular prices.