Working as a waitress on and off since high school has taught me a few things about saving money at restaurants. It’s easy to rack up an expensive tab without even realizing you’re doing so. But there are some simple ways to avoid a pricey bill without depriving yourself.
Before you dine
Doing some research on local restaurants can lead to big savings. Pay attention to the specials each night, various discounts available (such as military, AAA, or student discounts) and kids-eat-free nights.
Have an idea of how much you want to spend before heading out. It’s easy to add on a few small items here and there that can be a shocker when the bill comes (more on that later). Keeping a budget in mind will make you more conscious of your choices.
Consider what time you want to dine as well. Restaurants often have specials during off-hours in the afternoon or early evening. If your schedule allows, opt to eat during those times.
The newspaper isn’t the only place to find restaurant coupons. Even though they’re not always advertised, individual restaurant websites and Facebook pages often have printable coupons. I’ve recently posted coupons on the Shoptimist blog for Carrabba’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, Quiznos and MaggieMoo’s — all of which I found on the individual company websites.
Daily deals and Restaurant.com gift certificates are two other options.
Daily deal vouchers will usually save you at least 50 percent. Additionally, Restaurant.com often runs promotions where you can pick up a gift certificate for as low as $2. Currently, there are 15 restaurants in the Roanoke and New River valleys that are featured on Restaurant.com.
When using daily deals and gift certificates, the most important thing to do is pay attention to the fine print. It also never hurts to call the participating restaurant before you buy and confirm the details.
Once you arrive
As tempting as it is to get a cold soda or adult beverage with dinner, opting for water can save a bundle. Restaurants generally charge $1.50 and up for various drinks. Don’t assume a drink comes with your child’s meal; you could be paying the same amount for a child who will only drink half.
Appetizers vary in price but can add up quickly. If you need something to take the edge off, opt for a side salad, which is often cheaper.
When it comes time to order your entrée, be aware of add-ons. Asking for extra sauces, cheeses, meat or vegetables will often cost you each time. Look for these prices on the menu or consult your server before loading up on the extras.
If you’re not extremely hungry, check the menu for half-plates or ask your server if the restaurant charges extra to split plates. This is especially convenient if what you’re eating isn’t the best re-heated.
Remember to have fun
Saving money doesn’t have to suck the fun out of a night out. My family often opts to enjoy appetizers and happy hour before going out to dinner. This gives everyone an excuse to relax together, which has its own value.
There are also times when it’s fun to splurge and order exactly what you want, no matter the cost. When you try to save a few bucks on weekly dinners, you can feel better about these splurges.
How do you save money when dining out?