Save on Dining: Eat Out and Spend Less

Save Money When Dining Out

Do you spend too much money dining out?

The American middle class has apparently slammed the breaks on restaurant spending over the last few years.

On average they are spending about 10% less on dining out.

The simple answer is people are dining out less and cooking more of their meals at home.

Our dining out expenses are too high. This used to bother me. I often reflected on the one area of my financial life that I’d like to improve, and it was always dining out.

It’s the one category in our budget that we consistently had trouble controlling. If I could only review one category of my budget it would be this one. It was always embarrassingly high.

Mrs. PT and I spend on average $400 a month on dining out or take home meals. Plus, we spend another $300 on groceries for eating at home. I used to say this was ridiculous. And to some it probably is. But I’ve learned to accept the fact that this is how we like to spend our money.

We like food! We really enjoy the dining out experience and it’s worth it to us to keep this expense in our life. At the same time, we look for ways to save money when dining out.

Why do most people dine out too much? Well, for us back in the day, it was just the two of us (no kids), and we both worked full-time. It was easier, after a long day at work, to just pick something up on our way home or to meet somewhere for a nice meal versus cooking something and cleaning up.

After all, no one had been at home all day preparing something. We did this once or twice a week during the week and another two or three times on the weekend.

Another reason we dine out a lot is because of our friends. Having a meal together is probably the #1 way we socialize with the friends we have. Lastly, I’m lazy and don’t usually bag a lunch for every day of the week. While these lunches are usually around $7, it adds up to a considerable amount over a month.

Save on Dining Out

Here are some of the strategies we’ve used, and other’s have suggested, to help save money when dining out:

Budget and Withdraw Cash – In the past I used a modified budget system which actually targets this expense. I shared this new budget method a while back. To attempt to stay within our budget we would withdraw cash every two weeks and tell ourselves this is the only amount we can spend. See the other cash envelope tips from readers below.

Use Coupons – We use a heck of lot of coupons when dining out. We usually find these in the mail, online, or coupon books. This past weekend we had a free pizza from a local restaurant. It was a nice meal for the price of the tip, and I had enough left over for a lunch this week. Review every half-off and freebie coupon that comes in the mail and stash the good ones in a kitchen drawer or some place else close by. Every time you’re feeling up for a meal outside the house, check the deal drawer first. In the past I also used www.restaurant.com, although you usually have to spend a lot to make their deals worth it.

Mobile Deals – I’ve increasingly been taking advantage of the restaurant deals you can find using Foursquare and other local/mobile deal services. Every time I go to Chilis, I “check-in” and get free chips and salsa.

MoneyBeagle.com offers up some advice on using restaurant.com. Try looking at Restaurant.com, as you can buy a $25 gift certificate for $10 or a $10 gift certificate for $4 at participating restaurants. If you typically wait until the end of the month they usually have a promo code for 80% off which makes it dirt cheap. While this can often work out to a better deal than even the Entertainment book, just keep an eye on the small print as some of the restaurants will only accept them on certain nights of the week, there’s usually a minimum limit on your bill, and some restaurants will only let you pay cash. Still, it can work to be amazing deals especially if it’s a place you would go anyways.

Split Meals – With the exception of a few restaurants, when Mrs. PT and I are dining out we usually split a main course. This is becoming easier and easier as portion sizes get bigger at restaurants. Here in Texas we also eat a lot of Tex Mex so the free chips and salsa allow us to fill up quicker on one meal. Most places will even serve the split meal on two plates for you. Tacky? Maybe. But so is stuffing yourself with today’s huge portion sizes, and/or wasting a bunch of food.

Taking Half Home – If you don’t feel like splitting the meal, consider taking half of your meal home and have it for a lunch the next day.

Maximize the Free Lunch – No less than once a week at my old job, my boss liked to head out for a business lunch with our team. This meal was usually picked up by my boss, so I never missed one of these.

The Entertainment Book – You can actually buy a coupon book online: The Entertainment Coupon Book! This is a nice way to make dining out more affordable.

Kids Eat Free – If you have kids, do a search online for a list of the current places that kids eat free. Most are on slow nights or days of the week. But it may be worth it to you to get a free meal for your kids.

Copycat Recipes – Consider bringing the restaurant to you. There are many copycat recipe blogs where chefs have reverse engineered recipes from popular restaurants. You can also find cookbooks with copycat recipes. Christine from MoneyFunk.com says, “I love copycat recipes. I made the CC recipe for In & Outs secret sauce and my family totally dug it! The difference from regular thousand island…add vinegar, salt, and sugar.”

Dessert at Home – Ice cream would make a great dessert you can eat at home after your dinner out.

Skipping the Soda – The cost of a coke, soda, or pop (whatever you call it) at a restaurant is kind of ridiculous. The markup on drink prices is huge. If you can, try and go for water instead. This is a tough one for me, so usually fail. But I do ask for a to-go cup, which stretches the money I am spending on soda.

Make the Most of Your Experience – Remember back when you were young how special it felt to “go out” to eat? As a kid, our family dined out maybe once every two weeks. It was a big deal. Now-a-days it seems (in most urban dwellings here in the States) we’re dining out at least three or four nights a week. The whole thing is a big boring and routine. My point here is, bring back the special feeling to your dining out experience by simply going less. And when you do go, choose quality, so that you’re left with a satisfied feeling.

Tips from Readers

We decided a few months ago to cut our food spending in general. It is the one category that we use cash in envelopes for. We use $20 per day (grocery and eating out) as our rule($140 per week when we take it out). When it is gone, we eat at home. Their are exceptions for birthdays and the like, but usually if we plan something, we’ll cut elsewhere in the week. We have cut food expense from $1000 to $600 a month; that’s 40%. We could do more, but for two adults and two kids under 3 it works. We even convinced our most common dining friends to do this as well. – Mike

We put our budgeted “eating out” cash into our “eating out” envelope every month. This allows us to enjoy the times we do eat out, knowing it is in our budget, but also puts a halt to eating out too much once the envelope is empty. We have used the envelope budget system for years and love it. – Joe Plemon

If you’ve got a tip for spending less on dining out I’d love to hear it. Let us know the comments.

Image by moriza

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Last Edited: June 13, 2013 @ 12:26 pm
About Philip Taylor

Philip Taylor, aka "PT", is a husband and father of two. He created PT Money back in 2007 to share his thoughts on money and to meet others passionate about managing their finances. All the content on this blog is original, and created or edited by PT. Read more about Philip Taylor, and be sure to connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or view the Philip Taylor+ Google profile.

Comments

  1. Get a slow-cooker and start reading recipes. I work full-time outside the home. I am the main dinner-cooker in our house, and I absolutely would not survive without my beloved crock pot. I love that I can dump stuff in before I leave (even some things that are still frozen) and walk in the house at the end of the day to a meal that is 90% finished. I’m not joking when I say that I use it 3-4 nights a week!

    Best of all, the cuts of meat that do best in the slow-cooker are the cheap ones! It’s difficult to cook in small portions, but most leftovers freeze well. I freeze them into individual portions and take them for lunch.

  2. Damsel – That’s a great idea. We have a crockpot but don’t use it for anything but queso.

    I’ve heard a lot about this “all day” method. We need to try it. Thanks for the tip.

  3. 1) One thing I do it to make a double sized recipe or two over the weekend and then put the extra in the fridge. You can even put it in individual lunch-sized containers.

    Then when I’m leaving in the morning, I just grab my canvas lunch bag and put in the container, a heel of bread or two, a piece of fruit, and maybe a mason jar of milk (if I’m out of milk at my company’s fridge–I use the milk for tea I make during the day. Which is economic defense strategy #1 for me: “always have a snack and a drink available for breaks at work so you don’t end up at the local coffee cafe”)

    2) I keep 2 tins of sardines (in hot sauce or mustard sauce) in my lunch bag and one in by backpack at all times. If things get really desperate, I can always go in the back room and wolf one of those down and follow it with a glass of filtered water.

    (As you may be beginning to surmise, I am gonzo about avoiding spending money out of the house for food)

    3) Over time, I have redefined my needs for lunch at work, and am willing to just eat a little (small bowl of soup and some bread) or go without and just have an extra cup of tea or cocoa (made from that mason jar of milk I keep at work) for the “break factor” and am willing to go a little “empty” in my stomach during the day. I realized it wasn’t a disaster if I felt a sensation of hunger, and I can wait until I get home to eat. Mind you, this is a recent development, just since this summer.

    Since learning to reframe the sensation of mild hunger and realizing that it wasn’t an immediate threat to my survival (actual starvation takes between 10 and 14 days, as a matter of fact–a fact that helped me in reframing this) and defer eating when appropriate or convenient, I have also lost an entire waist size and can now fit in the clothes I wore when I was 25 (I am 40).

    This has been a gradual evolution for me, but grocery costs that used to be around $220 per month are now slightly below $100 a month just for me. I have largely eliminated eating out, and it’s down to less than once a month now. There are people who spend even less, between 50 and 75 dollars, which I would regard as a bottom limit for what you can spend on food.(If you’re interested in how, check out Early Retirement Extreme).

    ciao

  4. As an addendum to my above comment:

    I have carefully cultivated an attitude that is best summarized by the sentence, “Eating is what I do at *home*.”

    Repeating that to myself like a mantrum helped me switch my habits around a lot, and helped me resist going out to buy lunch at work on days when I had failed to pack one. On those occasions, I just repeated that thought in my head and waited until the day ended, then had dinner at the house.

  5. Good suggestions!  Dessert at home is a great idea!  We’ve been eating fruit with whipped cream (actual cream that is whipped, not that stuff in a can) lately with a dash of cinnamon and it is a great way to end a meal.We don’t eat out much (even less now that we have a 6-year old who is a picky eater) and we have local friends that enjoy dinner parties, so we tend to stay at home or eat with friends.  The kids all play together and the adults can talk, which is nice.  Also, I cannot eat gluten, so that has cut down a lot on our restaurant outings.  But, when we did eat out more, we skipped appetizers and just ordered a main course, took home half of the meal or split the meal, and ordered water with lemon instead of a drink, all of which you suggested in your post.Personally, I think cooking at home with my husband is extremely enjoyable.  We turn on music, drink wine, and cook together, so it’s kind of like a fun date.  Plus, the food we eat is a lot more healthy and we can have a nice candlelit dinner together.  We also sometimes have 1 person cook and the other person clean up, which also works out well.  Now that we have a child, I like to try and get him involved in the cooking, although he’s not always too keen on it.  :)

  6. Jennifer Alison May says:

    The biggest/easiest one is only drink water.

  7. K Ann Laird says:

    I was going to say no drinks, only water, too!

  8. Michelle Sheasby says:

    I was going to say same thing. Easier to enjoy a drink cocktail or soda as a treat once you go home. At some restaurants you can split a meal with your partner as these days servings are huge. No dessert there and have a nice one made so you can enjoy coffee and dessert at home.

  9. Pinyo Bhulipongsanon says:

    Put half of your entree in to go box before you start, or split it.

  10. Get to the restaurant before they bring out the more expensive dinner menus!

  11. JeffreyCrews says:

    I am with you on eating out! It just fits my schedule better. Restaurant.com is great, and many times they offer $2 certificates. I didn’t know the whole “Chili’s/FourSquare” thing. Do you get that every time you check in? 

  12. When we were in the States we only ate out once a week or so, it was just to expensive.  Now that we are living in Thailand we eat out probably 5 times a week.  The difference is that here as long as we stick with Thai food eating out only costs us $6 for a family of 3.  The downside is that anything other than Thai costs around $30 which is still cheap compared to U.S. prices.

  13. Today, it’s not really practical to spend for expensive dining. Not all people can afford dining such as “middle class” dining. I suggest to just dine at home and make something special for the family. You may use cook books to find dishes that you don’t usually cook, if needed. Being practical may save you a lot of spending.

  14. I love using Foursquare to find deals.  Between the “Specials” and the American Express $5 off – it’s pretty easy to eat cheap.

  15. Stephanie Coviak says:

    Lots of places have a variety of appetizers – you can add a small dinner salad – and viola!

  16. Jackie Walters says:

    PT – Two things our family loves to do is eat out and travel.  I have found that using a Dining Out envelope is crucial when enjoying this type of pleasure in life.  However, I do find myself wanting to beef up this envelope more and more.  
     
    I just signed up for Foursquare myself.  Can’t wait to start using it.  Groupon and Living Social are other ways to get great discounts at local restaurants. Our local paper always have 2 for 1 coupons as well.
     
    I also find that using coupons on groceries and other household items allows me to have more money to use dining out.  It also helps that my husband either takes his lunch to work or comes home for lunch.
     
    Freezer cooking and crockpot meals are great as well.
     
    I’m the baby of 7 so I have always been use to making tons of food.  Great for leftovers!  I often cook in large quantities so that I can freeze half of it for later consumption.
     
     
     

  17. Like you, my wife and I like to spend money on food. We were especially hit hard this past week as it was Restaurant Week in our area. To save money, I set a budget for eating out in addition to groceries that we use for cooking at home. We try to cook as often as we can to save money.
     
    We recently got a crockpot too. We haven’t used it much yet, but I anticipate that we will much more when we have our baby. I bet it will be a huge time saver.
     
    For dining out, I like to use Opentable to make restaurant reservations. It’s a great way to get a table and they reward you with points that you can use towards the check.

  18. Really good list of tips, PT! We’re featuring this article on our blog today :) Sometimes, especially when eating a nice steak, I can’t help but really want a red wine to pair with the meal. One trick I’ve learned to make sure that I limit myself to just one drink: Have then bring it in with the meal, and not before it! 

  19. Found this post featured in a carnival.  Ironically, the post I featured in that same carnival is about not being a cheapskate while dining out!  I actually don’t disagree with most of your advice here.  The only thing I can never bring myself to do is order water.  Even if I would prefer to drink water, I still get soda (or beer) for fear of being labeled as a cheapskate.