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Eating Out Cheap

Updated on October 11, 2012
A popular diner on Main Street in Buffalo, NY
A popular diner on Main Street in Buffalo, NY | Source

Eating out is fun, but it can also be pricey.

According to the Wise Geek, the average American spends about $6,000 a year eating out. That accounts for up to one out of every four meals or snacks outside of the house. In fact, “more than 75% of Americans eat out at least once a week, and a full fourth eat out every two to three days”.

Luckily, it doesn’t always have to be that expensive. There are plenty of ways to reduce the cost without reducing the enjoyment.

Social Media and Restaurants

Social media is your friend when it comes to eating out. Go on Facebook and Twitter and find the restaurants you like to eat at. Most of them will have email mailing lists, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts, and they will offer coupons. Sometimes it’s as easy as just showing a Tweet you’ve gotten on your phone; sometimes you’ll actually have to print out a coupon. Either way, though, it only takes a few seconds of your time to find and favorite a restaurant and reap the benefits of belonging. In some cases, restaurants will even offer apps for smart phones that allow you to get discounts and deals straight to the app. Pinkberry, a yogurt shop, offered a bonus with their iPhone app that gave you a free small yogurt just for downloading it and signing in!

Restaurant Gift Certificates

Most restaurants, especially ones that are owned by a corporation or are part of a restaurant group, sell gift certificates. And even small mom and pop places are willing to make up a gift certificate if asked. So go ahead - ask for gift certificates as presents - or buy and sell your own. Multiple websites (like Plastic Jungle)will let you buy, sell, or trade your gift certificates. If you get a gift card for a shop you don’t use, why not trade it in for something that lets you eat out? The savings aren’t huge on the swapping, but it can make the difference between that shirt at the mall and a steak at the steakhouse.

Mr. Bean: The Restaurant

Work for It, Sort of: Restaurant Vouchers

It isn’t a whole lot of work, but it does take some effort. Lots of survey websites, like E-Rewards let you answer surveys and gain points. Those points can be “cashed in” for prizes, some of which can be gift certificates or vouchers for restaurants.

If you like Coke products, start keeping your caps! Mycokerewards lets you earn points for each cap (or code from a 12-pack). Once those points add up, you can get gift certificates and vouchers.

One common voucher is from If you choose to get a voucher from them, be sure to read it carefully. In many cases, they have limited restaurants signed up with them, and they do generally require a minimum purchase above their amount, such as a $50 purchase with a $30 card.

OpenTable is an option for those with a more pricey taste. If you go through their website (or smart phone app) and make your reservations, you accrue "points" each time you show up for the reservation you’ve made. After you get enough points, you can trade them in for dining certificates, good at any of the restaurants on the OpenTable system.

A new McDonald's in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
A new McDonald's in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. | Source

Really Work for It: Be a Secret Shopper

I already wrote a Hub about finding a legitimate secret shopper gig, and this is one of the reasons to become a secret shopper. You can often get paid to eat. Sure, most of the time it’s fast food, but sometimes they will have fast casual restaurants on their list, depending on where you live. Make sure you read the details of the shop. In a lot of the cases, fast casual shops won’t pay a shopping fee, but they will pay a certain amount of the bill. One that I love (without naming names of the restaurant) allows you up to $25 for you and whoever you choose to bring with you. It’s an excellent way to have most of your meal paid for; you just need to make sure you do the paperwork and eat when your time is. It’s a bit of work, yes, but it pays in food!

Rewards Programs at Restaurants

Just like grocery stores, a lot of restaurants, especially ones that belong to a large conglomerate, offer rewards programs. Unlike grocery stores, you often have to buy in to belong. Figure out if it’s worth it for you. One local chain in my area has a card that costs $25 a year, but you get a free $25 gift certificate for your birthday, and you get $25 off for each $250 you spend. If you like to eat out, you can easily earn that $25 back plus a lot more.

Of course, other restaurants may have punch cards of other rewards programs that are free. TGI Friday’s has a free “stripes” program that allows you to earn discounts and free food if you sign up, and many smaller restaurants that rely on repeat customers often have punch cards. Ask your waiter/waitress or at the cashier stand if the restaurant has any reward program that you can join. Sometimes it’s just knowing to ask!

How to Get Coupons

It might seem counter-intuitive to buy coupons, but it’s a great way to get them. Check out your local bookstore or schools/fundraisers. They often sell the Entertainment Book. Depending on where you buy it, you’ll probably spend about $25, but the coupons in it are worth far more than that!

Also, don’t just throw out the flyers that show up in your mail. In my area, there are two publications that come in the mail that are chock full of coupons. They’re basically bound ad circulars, but they include tons of coupons for local restaurants, among other good discounts. You can also check in the local paper, especially on Sundays.

Logan's Roadhouse in Goodlettsville, Tennessee,
Logan's Roadhouse in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, | Source

Discount Deals and Group Deals

If you have a favorite restaurant, keep an eye on it! One of my local steakhouses has a deal on Monday and Tuesday where they have a meal for two for $15.00; it includes two small steaks with sides. Considering each meal is normally $10, it’s not a bad deal, assuming you don’t mind eating out on a Monday or Tuesday. But when you’re looking to save a few dollars, it’s a great way to get a good steak at a reasonable price.

Of course, you can also keep an eye out on the group discounts that come up. A lot of people know about Living Social and Groupon, and Yelp!, but what about Amazon Local? Join their mailing lists, and you’d be surprised at all the meal deals that pop up. Do be careful with them, though, and read their listings carefully. Sometimes the deals are only for specific locations (if the restaurants have more than one local location), and they generally have an expiration date. It’s not a deal if you can’t use it.

Sharing and Cheap Eats

It may not look great on a date, but when you’re out with friends or a steady partner, why not split it? Many restaurants have huge entrées. One entrée can easily feed two people, especially if paired with an appetizer. The total cost of the meal will be less, and if you tell your waiter what you’re doing, they can often split the meal and bring it out on two plates. One local restaurant that I love makes a buffalo chicken wrap, but I think they may put a full chicken in there! If I eat it myself, I have lunch, leftovers for dinner, and lunch the next day. But if I’m with my husband, we can split it and have plenty to fill us both up, for a greatly reduced cost.

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Don’t Be Too Cheap

Do keep in mind that you want to tip your waiter or waitress appropriately – you may have saved money on the food, but they’ve had to do the same work or more if you’re asking them to split a meal, so don’t be cheap there! Waiters and waitresses work hard for their money; make sure they know you appreciate their help in saving money. Tips should be based on the pre-coupon price, not on what you actually paid. While it might seem like a good savings to skimp on the tip, remember that waiters and waitresses really do live on their tips a lot of the time. If they do a good job, make sure they know you noticed it by tipping correctly. A reasonable tip is 15%, but 20% is better for good service.


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