Save Money Dining Out
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50 Ways to Spend Less When Eating Out

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Save Money Dining Out
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Eat Out for Less

Whether it's trying the new restaurant in town, enjoying drinks with friends, or sampling new kinds of food, dining out brings many pleasures. The final bill can add up, though, especially once gratuity and taxes are factored in; things are even more complicated now with staff and supply shortages resulting from the pandemic and restaurants’ need to make up for lost revenue and rising prices. These tips can help save money when eating out, even in this confusing time.


Related: 50 Restaurants Where You Can Grab a Meal for Under $10

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Take Advantage of Free Meals for Kids

Many restaurants, such as Applebee's, IHOP, and TGI Friday's, offer free meals for children on certain days or during specific times. Some may require the purchase of an adult meal.

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Choose Lunch Over Dinner

Dinner out is often more expensive than lunch, and many restaurants offer lunch specials to entice new customers and turn tables over quickly. Opt for a cheaper lunch date instead of dining during prime time in the evening.


Related: Where to Find a Good, Cheap Sandwich in Every State.

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Look for Lunch Specials

Restaurants have traditionally featured lunchtime deals to attract diners on tight budgets, including chains such as Applebee's, Olive Garden, and Outback. Some restaurants have ended lunch service temporarily to focus on more lucrative dinners — but those with both meals will likely have deals.


Related: The Best Value Meal Deals at 50 Chains Across the Country

Daily Specials
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Keep an Eye on Daily Specials

Restaurants frequently switch up happy hour specials. For example, Farmtable Kitchen + Spirits, for instance, has special from 3 to 6 p.m. daily and from 10 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays with food deals and buy-one, get-one cocktails, $4 glasses of wine and $3 domestic drafts.

Senior Discount
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Ask About Discounts

Restaurants don't always advertise discounts for seniors, students, veterans, or teachers, so it can't hurt to ask.

Order Online
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Order Online and Pick Up

Restaurants of all sizes accept orders online, allowing diners to order what they want and take advantage of online discounts available only through the websites — though you should be prepared to hunt for deals during the pandemic, when more restaurants are stuggling.

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Eat at the Office

If you're not working from home, order lunch for pickup and eat with co-workers at the office instead of eating out. The camaraderie will be the same, even if the ambiance is somewhat lacking.

Take Advantage of Happy Hour
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Eat at Happy Hour

Happy hour isn't only for drinks. Many bars and restaurant feature cheap eats to go along with discounted cocktails, wine, and beer. Search "happy hour" on Yelp to find nearby deals and look for ads on storefronts or in local publications.

You Can't Be Trusted at a Buffet
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Visit an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

There's no question buffets can be expensive — and fattening. These days, they're also more rare, either because of supply and staff shortages or health concerns. But you wouldn't want to go every day, anyway, even though they can be a less expensive option than true "destination" restaurants where you're charged for the presentation as well as the food. 


If you can find a buffet to go to, most stock a handful of pricey items such as lobster or crab legs that make for quick payback once you've had a couple of servings. (Seafood buffets in general are an affordable indulgence.)  The variety of a buffet on its own is a good argument for going too, since there's no way you could go to a traditional restaurant and get so many dishes on a plate for that price.


Related: The Most Indulgent Buffet in Every State

Birthday Deals
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Take Advantage of Birthday Deals

It may require signing up for mailing lists and rewards programs, or downloading an app or two, but there are still restaurants that will slip you free food to mark a birthday. (The servers might insist on singing, so brace yourself.) We found 75 places that'll be excited to see you walk through their doors on your birthday, but of course there's another way to get free food on a special day: Just spend it with friends and family who'll want to treat you.

Early Special
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The Early Bird Gets the Special

Some restaurants offer early bird specials (meals at reduced prices and sometimes reduced portions or fewer courses) to attract budget-minded diners during the hours when traffic is thin — typically 4 go 6 p.m. The trade-off is eating dinner, well, early.

Check for Minimums
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Check for Minimums

Some restaurants require diners to spend a minimum dollar amount or buy at least one entree each. Call ahead to avoid this requirement, especially if you plan to share an entree.

Filter By Price
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Filter Restaurants by Price

To get a sense of how much the total bill may be before going out, check prices on MenuPages or search for restaurants in the "$ (inexpensive)" or "$$ (moderate)" price groups on Yelp.

Follow Restaurants on Social Media
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Follow Restaurants on Social Media

Many social-media-savvy restaurants offer discounts to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram followers, which may even include free food.

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Use an App

Some eateries, especially those on the faster-food side of things, offer deals just for downloading apps. You don't need to look very hard to find offers, starting with lists on sites such as LushDollar or Wallet Hacks.

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MealPal

Try MealPal

MealPal subscribers can place orders with select restaurants the night before, skip the line, and pick up lunch for monthly flat rates that amount to as little as $7.50 a meal. The service is available in cities such as Chicago, Miami, Boston, Washington, New York, and San Francisco, where buying lunch can easily cost $10 and more.



Related: 12 Cheap and Easy Brown-Bag Lunches

AARP. Really?
AARP. Really? by bisongirl (CC BY-NC-ND)

Break Out the Affinity Card

AAA and AARP members can get discounts at many restaurants just by showing a membership card.

Buy a Coupon Book or App
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Buy a Coupon Book or App

Another way to save is by buying an Entertainment membership for coupons on food, drinks, and more (available as a hard-bound book or an app).

Check Your Mail
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Check Your Mailbox

Many local restaurants (and some chains) advertise in coupon books sent by mail. Or check online at Money Mailer or ValPak.

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Restaurant.com

Browse Dining Deals on Restaurant.com

Save a percentage off the retail value of certificates for select restaurants (for example, a $25 certificate for $10). Note the fine print, as some places require a minimum purchase and include a default tip.

Don't Buy: Gift Cards
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Stop by a Warehouse Club

Restaurant gift cards can be bought at a discount from warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam's Club. 

Gift Card Granny
Gift Card Granny

Check Out Gift Card Marketplaces

Many fast food and restaurant gift cards are available at discounted prices on Gift Card Granny, which aggregates cards available from sellers such as Raise, Gift Card Spread, and Cardpool.

Groupon
Groupon

Scan Daily Deal Sites

Deal sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial may yet have discounts for area restaurants and bars, in addition to attractions, products, and more.

McDonald's
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Reserve on OpenTable

OpenTable users earn points for making (and honoring) reservations through the site and are eligible for dining rewards after accumulating sufficient points.

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Get Cash Back

Many credit cards offer 1% cash back, but several offer more for dining purchases. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 2 points for every dollar spent on travel and dining.

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Pay the Bill to Earn Points

When dining with a group, charge the entire bill to your credit card and earn rewards. Friends can give you cash or, with a few taps on a smartphone, easily send payment for their portion through a service such as Venmo, PayPal, or Chase Quick Pay.

TGI Friday's
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Join a Restaurant Loyalty Program

Restaurants including California Pizza Kitchen and TGI Fridays offer loyalty programs for frequent diners. Points and complimentary items such as dessert can be earned by using the restaurant's rewards card.

iDine
iDine

Join a Rewards Program

Rewards programs such as Neighborhood Nosh — which had more than 10,000 restaurants and bars participating when it was known as iDine, but now is cagey about numbers — gives either 5% or 10% back for every dollar spent dining when paid for with a linked debit or credit card. The percentage depends on how much you spend annually.

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Alcohol Adds Up

Pass on drinks if you're on a budget. Specialty cocktails can cost more than $10 in major cities — sometimes much more — and even cheaper drinks add up, especially if everyone opts in for a second or third round. Focus on food instead.

Request a Garnish
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Request a Garnish

A lime wedge, a cucumber slice, or a few mint leaves can liven up a plain glass of water and hopefully hold off the urge to order a cocktail.

BYOB
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Bring Your Own Beverages

Seek out restaurants with a BYOB policy. New restaurants are a great place to start, as they sometimes open before they've received a license to serve alcohol.

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Watch Out for Corkage Fees

Some restaurants charge a flat fee for opening a bottle of wine that diners bring in, known as a corkage fee. It can be cheaper than ordering individual drinks, but be sure to inquire before dining; corkage fees can be quite steep at some eateries.

BOGO
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Buy One, Get One Free

Search for bars that offer BOGO drinks. For example, before the Rooftop93 bar in New York's Chinatown announced a temporary closing to ride out the latest wave of the pandemic, its $12 specialty cocktails were buy-one, get-one from 5 to 8 p.m. daily.

Have Pre-Dinner Drinks at Home
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Have Pre-Dinner Drinks at Home

Enjoy a glass of wine or cocktail at home before heading out to dinner. It may curb the desire to order drinks later at the restaurant.

Don't Eat Downtown
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Don't Eat Downtown

Eateries in neighborhoods away from city centers and suburban commercial districts typically pay lower rent, which allows them to charge lower prices for similar food.

Drinking Too Much Water
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Curb Your Appetite

Before heading out to eat, drink a glass of water or have some fruit to alleviate hunger and avoid ordering more food than necessary at the restaurant.

Skip Appetizers
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Skip the Appetizers

Although they might seem inexpensive compared with the entrees, an appetizer or two can pad a restaurant bill quickly. Ask the server how many guests each dish serves before ordering, or consider skipping appetizers altogether.

Share
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Let Everyone Share

Order one fewer main course than the number of people and share all the dishes. Everyone gets a taste without paying for an entire item. Sharing can also help with portion control, by removing the pressure to finish an entire entree yourself. Look out for restaurants that tack on a surcharge for splitting dishes, though.

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Eat Mindfully

Many U.S. restaurants serve portions that are much larger than the recommended serving size. Consider the practice of mindful eating: Focus on the texture and flavor of each bite, while filtering out external distractions. Those who eat mindfully report feeling fuller faster and more satisfied, which can help curb the desire to order more and leave enough food left over to take home for another meal.

Save Some Food for the Next Day
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Save Some Food for the Next Day

When the meal arrives, ask for a box and save half for the next day. The practice can reduce overeating, and results in two meals for the price of one.

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Eat at the Bar

Some restaurants offer deals and happy hour prices for patrons who sit at the bar — where service may be quicker to boot.

Signing Receipts
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Ask for Separate Checks

Unless the meal is family style, ask for separate checks when ordering to prevent confusion and awkwardness later. Splitting the bill evenly can cost you when others order more expensive dishes or drinks.

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Check for Included Gratuity

It's easy to quickly hand the check back with a credit card enclosed. But some restaurants add 15% to 20% gratuity to the bill automatically, especially for large parties, and also leave the tip field blank. You can check the bill first to avoid double-tipping, though the extra money is considered almost vital during the strains of the pandemic.

Bring Food for Kid
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Bring Food for Toddlers

When dining with a picky toddler, skip the restaurant kids' menu and instead pack food that kids will eat. Parents can save money and the headache of choosing from a limited menu for a child's small appetite.

Dinner for Dad
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Split an Adult Portion for Kids

Consider the cost of the kids' meals before ordering. It may be smarter to order an adult entree and split it up for the kids, instead of ordering multiple dishes off the kids' menu.

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Order Takeout Instead
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Order Takeout Instead

Getting a meal to go, rather than dining in, can cut 15% to 20% from the restaurant bill. Use a nice tablecloth, a few candles, and some background music to create your own bistro. (But keep in mind that especially during the pandemic, it's nice to leave a tip even for takeaway food.)


Related: 21 Takeout Meals Made Cheaper at Home

Go for a Dessert Stroll
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