One of the best ways for many people or families to cut expenses is to reduce the number of meals eaten at restaurants. Buying food at grocery stores and making your own meals will save you a ton of money. But even those of us who love to save money enjoy eating at restaurants every now and then.
Whether you eat at restaurants a lot or a little, there are plenty of ways to save money.
In this article we’ll look at 15 specific ways that you can save money at restaurants. These tips are easy and practical, and that’s why I love them. You don’t need to make major changes or sacrifices. Just a few small changes to your routine can result is significant savings that really add up.
Let’s get started.
→ Related reading: 101 Practical and Realistic Ways to Save Money
How to Save Money Eating at Restaurants
These are my favorite tips:
1. Check The Restaurant’s Website for Coupons and Offers
The first tip is very simple, but may not be something that you normally think about. Many restaurants have coupons or specials listed right on their website. Sometimes it will be a coupon that you can print at home, or a coupon you can show on your phone at the restaurant. Sometimes it will just be a special offer that doesn’t require you to use a coupon.
If you visit a restaurant’s website you may see a link in the navigation menu named something life “deals”, “specials”, “special offers”, “coupons”, or something similar. Always check for those pages before heading to a restaurant and you may be surprised how easy it is to save some money.
But if you sit down at a restaurant and realize you didn’t check their website, pull out your phone and there’s a chance the website will have a coupon you can use without printing it (just show it to the server).
→ Related reading: 50 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Get for Free
2. Join Their Email List
Many restaurants, local and national, have an email list that you can join. They probably use their email list to let subscribers know about special offers, new additions to the menu, and other things that may be of interest.
In some cases you can get a coupon or something for free as a gift for joining the email list. For example, if you join the email list you may get a coupon for a free appetizer. You can always unsubscribe later if you decide you don’t want to stay on the email list.
It may also help to plan ahead. Some restaurants don’t send out the coupon immediately. I signed up for The Olive Garden’s email list to get a free appetizer, but I waited until we were leaving the house to go to the restaurant. They don’t send the coupon for a few hours, probably to prevent people from signing up on their phone while they’re already in the restaurant. So it helps to do this ahead of time.
Likewise, you can also follow restaurants on social media. Some of them mention specials or distribute coupons through their social media profiles.
And some restaurants even have free apps that you can download to get access to more deals and savings.
3. Raise & Ebates
Probably my favorite way to save money at restaurants is to purchase gift cards below face value. Raise is a website where you can buy other people’s unwanted gift cards. The amount that you will save varies depending on the store or restaurant. Many restaurants have gift cards available on raise at a savings of 10% or more.
If you’re concerned about buying someone else’s gift card, like I was at first, you’ll be pleased to know that Raise offers a money-back guarantee for 1 year after you’ve purchased the card. I’ve been using the service a lot the past few months and I’ve had no problems.
If you’ve never used Raise before, go through this link and you can get $10 off your first purchase of $100 or more. Once you’ve made a purchase you’ll be on their email list, and they often have sales that will be promoted through their email list. With the sales you can sometimes save an extra 4-6% on any purchase.
The great thing about buying gift cards at Raise is you can do this for purchases that you would be making anyway. I don’t advocate spending additional money, simply shift your habits and buy a gift card before you go to a restaurant or store. Using this approach I’ve saved up to 30% at certain restaurants.
→ Related reading: How to Stack Rewards and Cash Back
4. Pay with a Cash Back Credit Card
Personally, I use a credit card for just about every purchase. I pay off the balance each month so I never pay interest, and I’m able to earn a significant amount of cash back each year just from every day purchases.
Most cash back credit cards give you 1% cash back, but some cards offer better benefits. My go-to credit card is the Citi Double Cash card, which pays 2% cash back on every purchase (1% at the time of the purchase and another 1% when you pay for it). The difference between 1% and 2% may not seem like much, but you’re doubling the amount of cash back that you earn!
Also, some credit cards offer higher rewards for purchases at restaurants. This year I signed up for the Discover It cash back card. This card pays 1% on all purchases, and 5% on purchases in specific categories that rotate each quarter. This quarter I’m getting 5% cash back on purchases at restaurants. And the best part is that if you sign up for the Discover It card, after you’ve had the card for a year Discover will match all of the cash back that you’ve earned in that first year. So the 5% cash back at restaurants really turns into 10% cash back after the match!
5. Order Takeout
Sometimes you may go to a restaurant for the atmosphere or ambiance. Other times you may just want a convenient meal that you don’t have to cook yourself. Or you may want a meal from your favorite restaurant. If eating at the restaurant isn’t important to you, you can almost always save money by ordering takeout instead.
With takeout you’ll spend less on tips, and other things like drinks and desserts. Drinks at restaurants are seriously marked up. If you get takeout you can have your own drinks at home and easily save money. You can also get appetizers, sides, or desserts at the grocery store (or eat what you already have at home) and you’ll save a lot compared to the restaurant prices.
6. Buy Lunch Instead of Dinner
Dinner is the most expensive meal at restaurants. Most restaurants offer a lunch menu with significantly lower prices, and the portions are usually almost the same. If you have some flexibility, eating lunch at restaurants instead of going out for dinner will easily save you a noticeable amount of money.
7. Drink Water
As I mentioned in point #5, drinks at restaurants are really marked up. If you’re eating at the restaurant you can save a lot of money by opting for a free glass of water instead of a $3 soft drink. If you eat at restaurants a lot, this really adds up.
8. Skip the Alcohol
Just like soda, iced tea, and other drinks, alcohol is very overpriced at restaurants too. There may be special occasions when you want to order a drink with your meal, but in general you can save a lot by waiting until you get home to have that drink, or just skip the alcohol all together.
9. Know the Specials at Your Favorite Restaurants
Most restaurants have recurring specials. It could be an early bird special for cheaper dinner, happy hour specials, or specials for each day of the week. Many restaurants have one day of the week where kids eat free.
Pay attention to the specials of the restaurants that you visit the most and plan your meals accordingly. If your family really likes a certain restaurant, plan to go on the night when kids eat free. Get to know the specials and you can save a lot of money.
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10. Order from the Specials Menu
Some restaurants have special offers on their menu. One example is restaurants that offer 2 for $20 deals where you get 2 entrees and a shared appetizer or dessert for $20. Other restaurants have different specials, and they can vary from time-to-time. Taking advantage of the specials is another great way to save.
11. Birthday Freebies
Many restaurants offer something for free on your birthday. In many cases it will be a dessert, but it could be something else. Your birthday only comes around once a year, so take advantage of it! Check out this list of restaurants that offer birthday freebies.
12. Avoid Touristy Areas
Restaurants in locations that are popular with tourists will usually have significantly higher prices. Sometimes you can’t really avoid it, but other times you may be able to go just a small distance to save a lot of money. If you’re in a city you may be able to go just a few blocks to find much better prices.
→ Related reading: 15 Frugal Living Tips
At Restaurant.com you can buy gift cards or vouchers for certain restaurants. The details vary, but most of the time you might pay $10 for a $25 voucher. Typically it is only locally-owned restaurants rather than chains, and the availability will vary.
I’ve used Restaurant.com many times over the years to save money and find new restaurants to try. They also offer sales at times. I’ve paid as little as $2 for a $25 voucher or $4 for a $50 voucher.
If you’re making a purchase at Restaurant.com be sure that you read the terms of the offer before purchasing. Most of them will have a minimum that you must spend and there may be some exclusions (like weekends excluded or alcohol purchases excluded).
iDine offers 5% or 10% cash back for eating at certain restaurants. You can create an account for free, link it to your credit card, and then review your experience to earn the cash back. You’ll only earn cash back on restaurants that participate in their program, which tend to be independently owned instead of chains. I live in a small town and there are several restaurants in my local area that participate in the program.
15. Groupon and Living Social
Deals sites like Groupon and Living Social are great for saving on a lot of things, including restaurants. The deals at these sites will usually run for a limited time, but at any time you should be able to find some restaurant deals. Like Restaurant.com, be sure to read the terms of any offer before purchasing.
Bonus Tip: How to Stack the Rewards for Awesome Savings
I mentioned that one of my favorite ways to save at restaurants is to purchase gift cards at Raise. Here is a quick explanation (read this article for a more in-depth explanation) of how you can stack multiple rewards for the biggest savings:
- Sign up for a free Ebates account so you can earn cash back on your online purchases, including 1% cash back at Raise. (sign up here to get a $10 bonus from Ebates).
- Sign up for Raise and purchase restaurant gift cards below face value (sign up here to get $10 off your first $100 purchase). Many restaurant gift cards will have a savings of 10% or more.
- Purchase gift cards from Raise using your Citi Double Cash (2% cash back) or other cash back credit card.
- When you visit the restaurant, purchase from the specials menu to save even more.
What are Your Favorite Ways to Save Money at Restaurants?
Feel free to share your own tips in the comments.