While my husband and I enjoy going out to eat, the costs can add up pretty quickly. This is why we’ve figured out ways we can eat out without breaking the bank. If you’re looking to cut costs but don’t want to give up eating out, I have a few tips that will save you money.
Having a restaurant meal can set you back $20 – $30 per person, including the cost of drinks and a tip. Planning a date night of a dinner and a movie could easily cost $100 for the two of us — and this is before factoring in the cost of babysitting.
Even if it’s not a special night out, sometimes we just want a quick bite but even fast food can get expensive.
Since we enjoy eating out and find it convenient, we didn’t want to cut it out of our budget completely. However, we wanted to find some ways to save money so we could make it more affordable. There is stiff competition among restaurants and we knew there were deals to be had out there. After some research, we figured out some of the best ways to eat out for not much money.
But first, let’s address this common question:
Is it Cheaper to Eat Out or Eat at Home?
If you’re wondering if it’s cheaper to eat in the comfort of your own home or enjoy a night out, there are a few factors to consider. The price difference between a meal out or in can depend on a number of factors.
If you’re going to a sit-down restaurant, you need to include the cost of tax and tip into your calculation. Also, are you drinking alcohol with your meal? This will drive up the price even further.
According to research done by wellio, the average cost to order delivery from a restaurant is nearly five times as expensive as cooking at home. Their research broke down millions of recipes into single ingredients and matched those to grocery items from local stores.
Wondering how meal kit services fared? While a bit more affordable, using them is still almost three times as expensive as cooking from scratch.
Another factor to consider is drinking alcohol. While a bottle of red wine may cost $10 at the grocery store, the same exact bottle will set you back $30-$40 in a restaurant. Wine by the glass is even more expensive. Having dinner at home lets you enjoy a nice meal and a glass of wine at a fraction of the cost of eating out.
Best Places to Eat Our for Cheap
Even though eating out can be expensive, we definitely enjoy a nice meal in a restaurant where someone else does the cooking and the dishes. This is why I wanted to share some of my favorite restaurants for getting more bang for your buck.
This list includes both fast food and sit-down options. Next time you’re in the mood for a meal out, check out one of these places where you can eat out for cheap and still leave satisfied.
While McDonald’s is not fine dining by any means, it’s a great option if you need to grab something quick to eat on the go. There are many healthy options as well, once you look past the Big Macs and supersized fries.
The McDonald’s dollar menu has some good options that will fill your belly for a fraction of the price of other fast food establishments. To save even more, download the McDonald’s app, which offers a rotating array of deals on popular favorites. There’s always at least one sandwich for $1, which can be a lifesaver if you’re traveling and need a quick and cheap option.
One of my favorite fast food restaurants is Chick-Fil-A. While I love their food, I also appreciate that they are very transparent with the calorie counts for everything on their menu. This allows me to build a meal that satisfies my hunger and doesn’t break the calorie budget.
Download the Chick-Fil-A One app to save money and get freebies. When you first register for an account, you should get a freebie as a thank you (I did!). Make sure to join their reward program so every meal earns you points. The points can be redeemed for free food.
Additionally, local Chick-Fil-A franchise owners like to reward their loyal customers. Every one to two months, I get a notice for a free treat from my local Chick-Fil-A location. This can range from free fries to a free sandwich or chicken nuggets. You’ll also get a free treat during your birthday month so make sure to enter your birthday info during the registration process for their loyalty program.
While Chipotle is not the cheapest restaurant out there, there are some tricks that can help you get more food without paying a higher price tag. Using these tricks, I can easily get two full meals out of each Chipotle visit, cutting my cost in half.
First, I order a burrito bowl, usually with barbacoa but you can choose a different protein. Make sure to order a tortilla on the side, which should be free. When going through the line, ask for extra rice and beans (free). Also, I always ask for fajita veggies, which don’t cost anything extra and add flavor.
Load up your burrito bowl with extra lettuce, pico de gallo, different salsas, cheese and sour cream. Your bowl is going be to so full that the cashier may have a difficult time getting the top on it.
I always order my meal to go. When I get home, I separate the contents into two separate meals. Half of it gets rolled up in a burrito and the other half I eat as a burrito bowl. Voila — two delicious meals for the price of one burrito bowl.
You could also do this in the restaurant. Just eat half of what you’ve got in front of you and take the other half home.
The secret to being able to eat out for less at Chuy’s is their happy hour special, which runs Monday through Friday. The hours may vary by location but the one by our house is 4-7 p.m., making this a perfect stop after work on a Friday afternoon.
In addition to some sweet drink specials, Chuy’s has a solid nacho car where you can build your own nachos. This includes chips, meat, cheese sauce and more. You can dine on the free nacho car or combine it with something from the appetizer menu for a very filling dinner out at a fraction of the price of a full meal.
5. Olive Garden
If you love Italian food, Olive Garden is a great place to load up on carby goodness for less. One of the things that makes Olive Garden stand out is the all-you-can-eat salad and breadsticks that come with each meal. If you want a lighter yet filling option, order the endless salad and soup combo. You can even try different soups for each refill.
Another great option is the buy-one-take-one special that the Olive Garden runs on a regular basis. With this deal, you order one pasta dish from a special menu and you get to select one dish from another menu to take home.
The dishes are so large that both my husband and I can share one and still be satisfied. Don’t forget the salad and breadsticks, which fill out the meal nicely.
Tips to Help You Eat Out for Cheap
Now that you know a few of our favorite dining out spots, I want to share some of the tricks we use to save at restaurants. Being on a budget means making the most out of every meal. Using some of the tips below, we are able to fit in a few meals out each month.
Look for Coupons and Discounts
Competition in the restaurant industry is pretty steep. Many restaurants regularly offer coupons and discounts, hoping to reel in potential customers. Check out local mailers and magazines for discount offers to neighborhood restaurants. Some restaurants also mail coupons to residents in surrounding neighborhoods.
Keep an eye out for coupons and soon you’ll notice them everywhere. Instead of automatically throwing out deal magazines and coupon packs you get in the mail, look through them for restaurants that look interesting. We’ve been able to find some cool new restaurants for cheap eats and have added them to our regular list.
Go for Happy Hour Specials
Happy hour is a a great way to eat out for cheap. Many restaurants offer happy hour specials, which can make dining out much more affordable. Check the website of your favorite dining spot to see if it offers a special happy hour menu. You can also do a quick online search to find out the hours and specials.
One of our favorite restaurants offers double happy hour, which we’ve enjoyed a couple of times. They offer a happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. and from 9 to 11 p.m. We’ve been able to take advantage of the late night happy hour by going out for a movie and then hitting the restaurant for post-movie drinks and snacks at a fraction of the price of the regular menu.
Join the Loyalty Program
Loyal customers get rewarded with extra perks and discounts. Follow your favorite restaurants on social media and join their email lists. You’ll be the first to know when the restaurant is running special discounts or updating their menu. Some restaurants also reward frequent diners with free food and other perks such as birthday discounts.
Drink (Free) Water
The average soda drink will cost you $2 to $3 while drinking tap water is free. And if you compare the cost of an alcoholic beverage to drinking water, the savings are even bigger.
Consider cutting on how many sodas or alcoholic drinks you consume with your meal. Or just skip them altogether, order water and enjoy the added savings.
If you decide you do want to order an alcoholic beverage, stick to one drink and try to hit up happy hour specials. While we enjoy drinks out, we try to order things we can’t (or don’t want to) make easily at home. One of my favorite drinks to order out is a margarita. While I know I can make one at home, it requires several ingredients that I don’t want to keep around just to have them for occasional margaritas.
Order Only Appetizers
Another trick that can help you save money on eating out is to order only appetizers. Many times, appetizers are the perfect size to fill you up without leaving you overstuffed. Another option is to order a soup and salad combo.
Both of these options are generally cheaper than ordering a full meal. Many times you can find a couple of appetizer options that are a lighter version of a full meal. For example, you can order sliders (an appetizer) versus a full burger and fries combo. Or go for the quesadillas appetizer rather than the more expensive taco platter.
Split an Entree
According to a study published in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, evidence suggests that portions have increased considerably over the last 30 years. And the problem is not unique to the U.S. A multi-country study by Tufts University found that larger restaurant portion sizes are going global.
With this in mind, my husband and I often split an entree instead of ordering two separate dishes. This is a great way to save money, and it helps lower the calorie count of restaurant meals, too. Dishes are so large that when we split an entree we’ve always had plenty to eat and never left hungry. When we go out to eat with our kids, we often share some of our meal with them in lieu of ordering a kid’s meal.
You could also just order an entree each and plan to take home half. But we find that more often than not, the leftovers get forgotten and thrown out. We’d rather just split a meal and finish it at the restaurant. If you eat out at a restaurant that offers free bread or chips, chances are you’re already pretty full by the time the food arrives anyway. Splitting a dish saves you money and calories.
Eat Lunch Instead of Dinner
Another dining out trick that will save you money is going out for lunch instead of dinner. Lunch prices are often cheaper and you can still find many of your menu favorites. In addition, you can often find lunch specials that make eating out during lunch an even better deal.
Whenever we can, we try to plan a lunch date and take advantage of the savings. When we go on vacation, we plan to eat at some of the restaurants on our wish list for lunch instead of dinner. This also saves us money because we’re less likely to order fancy cocktails at lunch.
Try Deal Sites
One of my favorite ways to find dining out deals is by browsing deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial. You get to eat out for cheap and try out a new restaurant at the same time, which is always a win-win.
However, keep in mind that not all deals are created equal. Make sure you read the fine print so you know what minimums you must meet to redeem the coupon. Don’t buy a deal if you’re not sure you can meet all the requirements before it expires. If you don’t end up using it, it’ll cost you instead of saving you money.
Look for Kids Deals
If you’re going out to eat with your kids, either share part of your meal with them or look for a restaurant that offers a kids-eat-free deal. Select restaurants offer a free children’s meal with every adult meal purchase. This can be a significant money saver depending on how many kids you have.
If you’re eating out at a quick food restaurant, consider ordering from the children’s menu for yourself. You can often find cheaper deals on smaller portions that will save you money and calories. I’ve found that ordering a children’s version at some of my favorite fast food joints gives me the perfect amount of food without leaving me too stuffed.
Get Cash Back
Did you know you can actually get money back when dining out? Some sites like Groupon now allow you to link a credit card to your account and get cash back at select restaurants. You’ll get the money as a credit back on your statement when you use the registered card to pay for your meal.
Additionally, select credit cards will give you cash back on restaurant purchases. With some cards, I’ve gotten money back for eating at restaurants that have an agreement with the card issuers.
Other credit cards reward you with extra points for restaurant dining. Points can be used for travel rewards or to get gift cards to major retailers. It’s a great way to eat out for cheap without worrying about coupons.
The Bottom Line
There are many different tips and tricks that can help you trim your restaurant budget. Try one or two of them next time you’re dining out and watch the savings roll in.
With a little planning and research, you don’t have to give up eating out entirely. Just use the ideas above to get more bang for your buck every time you go out.
What are some ways that you save money when eating out? What are some of your favorite restaurants? Share your tips and tricks for how you eat out for cheap on our Facebook account.