50 Ways to Spend Less When Eating 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. Here are 50 tips that can help save money when eating out.

Related: 51 Restaurants Where You Can Grab a Meal for Under $10

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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.

Outback Steakhouse Restaurant
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LOOK FOR LUNCH SPECIALS

Many restaurants feature lunchtime deals to attract diners on tight budgets, including chains such as Applebee's, Olive Garden, and Outback, to name just a few.

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EAT AT THE OFFICE

Order lunch for pickup and eat with co-workers at the office instead of eating out. The camaraderie will be just the same even if the ambiance is somewhat lacking.

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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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KEEP AN EYE ON DAILY SPECIALS

Restaurants frequently switch up happy hour specials. For example, 1849 Bar in New York City offers $7 pitchers on Wednesdays and half-price drinks for ladies on Thursdays, in addition to daily happy hour offerings.

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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.

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ORDER ONLINE AND PICK UP

Restaurants of all sizes increasingly are accepting orders online, allowing diners to order exactly what they want and to take advantage of online discounts available only through the eatery's website.

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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. Zomato goes a step further, providing the average cost of a meal for two people.

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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.

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CHECK FOR MINIMUMS

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

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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 4-6 p.m. The trade-off is eating dinner, well, early.

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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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CHECK IN FOR A DISCOUNT

Some restaurants and bars offer special deals on the Yelp and Foursquare/Swarm mobile apps. For example, Ugly Kitchen, a New York City eatery, has offered free orders of wings to patrons who check in on Yelp.

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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 $5.19 to $6.39 per meal. The service (formerly known as MealPass) is available Chicago, Miami, Boston, Washington, New York, and San Francisco, cities where buying lunch can easily cost more like $10. Consumers must supply an email and may have to wait for an invitation before joining.

Related: 12 Cheap and Easy Brown-Bag Lunches

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BREAK OUT THE AFFINITY CARD

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

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BUY A COUPON BOOK OR APP

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

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CHECK YOUR MAILBOX

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

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BROWSE DINING DEALS ON RESTAURANT.COM

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

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STOP BY A WAREHOUSE CLUB

Restaurant gift cards can be purchased at a discount from warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam's Club. For example, Costco sells four $25 Baja Fresh gift cards for $80 ($100 value).

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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.

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SCAN DAILY DEAL SITES

The big deal sites, such as Groupon and LivingSocial, offer discounts for area restaurants and bars, in addition to attractions, products, and more.

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ASK THE MOB

Scoutmob scours deals and lets users in New York City; Atlanta; Nashville, Tennessee; and Washington search for deals on dining, as well as clothing and events.

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CHECK WITH RESTAURANTS FOR DEALS

Some establishments offer deals directly, so subscribe to their newsletters and look for specials offered through restaurants' mobile apps.

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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 percent cash back, but several offer more for dining purchases. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 2 percent cash back for 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.

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JOIN A RESTAURANT LOYALTY PROGRAM

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

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GET PART OF THE MEAL REIMBURSED

Users of the Servy mobile app can get part of their meal costs reimbursed by submitting private feedback. Reviewers can earn $1 to $10 for each evaluation.

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JOIN A REWARDS PROGRAM

More than 10,000 restaurants and bars participate in the iDine rewards program. By using a linked credit card at a participating restaurant, users can earn 5 to 15 percent back on each meal.

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EARN MILES WHEN DINING OUT

Link a credit card with a frequent flyer program and pay with that credit card at participating restaurants to earn miles or points for each dollar spent.

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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, and even cheaper drinks add up, especially if everyone opts in for a second or third round. Focus on food instead.

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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.

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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, as corkage fees can be quite steep at some eateries.

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BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE

Search for bars that offer BOGO drinks. For example, Key Bar in New York City provides a ticket for a free second drink with every drink purchase.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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SKIP THE APPETIZERS

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

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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 American 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.

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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 -- and service may be quicker to boot.

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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. However, some restaurants automatically add 15 to 20 percent gratuity to the bill, especially for large parties, and also leave the tip field blank. Check the bill first to avoid double-tipping.

little girl eats with a spoon while sitting at table
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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.

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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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SERVE YOURSELF

Consider a casual eatery where meals are ordered at a counter or from different stations but enjoyed in a sit-down restaurant setting.

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ORDER TAKEOUT INSTEAD

Getting a meal to go, rather than dining in, can cut 15 to 20 percent from the restaurant bill. Use a nice tablecloth, a few candles, and some background music to create your own bistro.

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GO FOR A DESSERT STROLL

Instead of ordering dessert at a restaurant, where it could easily cost $6 to $10 before tip and tax, go for a stroll and get it elsewhere. A scoop of ice cream or slice of cake costs a few dollars at a bakery.

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