10 Ways to Save Money Eating Out

Welcome to Food Finances Friday! There are a number of reasons to eat at home, including reduced cost, healthier meals, and less package waste. But I love eating out, and I guess you do too! Here are my top tips to save money eating out.

Looking back on where my money goes each month, I quickly learned that how much I spend eating out is inversely correlated with how much money I have left (and positively correlated with how much weight I gained)!

Here are some of the things I do to save money eating out.

1. Reserve eating out for social/special occasions

I’ve made it a personal rule not to eat out alone (including not grabbing anything from the cafeteria at work or from a convenience store). Eating out is a social occasion. It’s reserved for special times, such as birthdays or accomplishments.

2. Consider appetizers or a la cart

For years I have looked at the Appetizers menu first, as there is usually something delicious (and indulgent) for less money. But recently I began looking at the a la cart menu. “Meals” often cost more for sides I’m not that excited about (like rice and beans – I eat that stuff 3x a week at home!).

When we eat at our favorite Mexican restaurant, both my husband and my oldest child order cheese enchiladas off the a la cart menu. We always come prepared with our $5 off $25 coupon, but since we started ordering a la cart, our bill has not been high enough to qualify for the coupon.

3. Lunch vs. Dinner

Lunch is the largest meal of the day in many countries. But in the USA, restaurants serve larger portions (and charge more) for supper than for lunch.

This practice is perplexing to me. I prefer to eat more during the day and less at night, so it’s a win-win for me to enjoy lunch out and order off the lower-cost menu. There is usually food leftover, which I will take home and have for supper.

4. Drink water

Beverage prices are often not on the menu. This is not surprising, since drink prices are increased so frequently.

I was once charged over $5 for a lemonade for my son! (Only soda and milk were included with the kid’s meal, but the server did not offer that information.)

Another time my husband was charged $6 for an iced tea. And it’s common for  restaurants to charge $3.50 or more for a soda.

Not only are you paying a ridiculous price for the beverage, but you’re paying add tax and tip on top of that.

Now, I just stick to water.

5. Pass on dessert

My love of ice cream is no secret. But even I won’t buy ice cream from a restaurant or even an ice cream stand. One day my husband and I went to a fancy pants creamery. We looked at the menu, looked at each other, then walked out the door and across the street to the grocery store.

We purchased enough ice cream to last for days for less than half the price of a single serving at the ice cream shop! If you can stock up on ice cream during BOGO sales, that’s an even better deal! My local grocer also has the tastiest cakes and mouth-watering Key lime pie.

Eat dinner out, then go home for dessert.

6. go during off times

There have been multiple occasions when I have received free food because there was a mistake with an order and we were the only ones in the restaurant.

On two separate occasions, we were sitting inside a restaurant and the wrong ice cream was made for a customer in the drive-thru. Instead of throwing it away, it was given to us.

Another restaurant accidentally made an additional platter of chicken tenders for a catering order. We were eating inside eating when they approached us offered us the platter of 50 tenders for free. That was $60 worth of food! We were planning on going grocery shopping after that and ended up cutting 3 days worth of dinners off our list.

There have been multiple examples like this. I never expect free food, but when you’re one of only a few people in the restaurant, it’s amazing how often it’s offered to you.

As a bonus, going during off hours also allows for quicker service and a quieter environment to spend time with your friends/family (and without being rushed out the door).

7. Check local publications for coupons

We have a limit of $25 for eating out for the 5 of us (unless it’s a birthday or other major event). So we usually choose places that are running a special or for which we have a coupon.

Many restaurants (especially locally owned places) will have coupons in local publications. This can be a wonderful way to save money while also supporting local business.

8. Bring your own coffee cup

As a rule, I don’t buy coffee at a restaurant. The markup is ridiculous, cups are not recyclable (coffee cps are lined with plastic), and quite frankly I prefer the brand I buy.

But if you are one of the many people love going to coffee shops, keep in mind that many places offer a discount for bringing your own reusable cup. Some places often sell their own cups and offer a deep discount for using it. If it’s a place you visit frequently, it might be worth it to get their cup. Save money and save the earth!

9. find recipes to cook your favorite restaurant foods at home

A great way to save on eating out is to recreate your favorite recipes. We’ve looked up online how to recreate Panera’s broccoli cheddar soup, Chick-fil-A’s chicken nuggets, and Chili’s salsa. We also learned how to make pulled pork with Carolina-style BBQ sauce, Philly cheese steak, and roasted portabella parmesan sandwiches better than any I’ve eaten at any restaurant.

10. If considering eating at a sit-down restaurant, ask yourself: will I be able to pay 20% more to have my food carried to me?

You need to tip! Servers are on their feet all day, acquiescing to the whims of others. Remember that in the USA, if servers don’t get tipped, they aren’t getting paid. Most servers have to pool their tips and split them with the other staff. Some days, they may not even make enough to cover their gas/childcare to get to work. 

If you can’t afford to tip the standard 20%, then you can’t afford to eat there. Choose fast casual restaurants instead.

Bonus Tip:

11. avoid deliveries

I mentioned before that I don’t pay for someone to deliver me food. Food delivery services are becoming more popular, but the price mark-up is ridiculous! And again, the amount of waste for the extra packaging is becoming an increasing problem.

Sure it’s a nice luxury if you’re financially independent. But I’ve known so many people who are struggling with debt, yet pay a delivery fee plus tip for already over-priced food.

If you really want the food, then save money by picking it up yourself. If time is the issue, then learn more about the quick and easy things you can make at home.


What tips do you have for saving money while eating out?


Check out our other Food Finances Friday Features

Grocery Haul: $60.34 for a Family of 5!

How to Spend $100 per Person per Month on Food

How to Save Time in the Kitchen

The Secret Ingredient for Low Cost Meals

They Put What in Cheese?!

Don’t Throw That Out, I’ll Eat It!

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