Rising restaurant costs don't mean you have to give up the occasional meal out. These tips can help you cut costs substantially.
If you love to eat out, you are in good company. Last year, Americans started spending more money eating out than they spend on groceries. It was the first time that has happened since the U.S. Department of Commerce started collecting such data.
Of course, all those meals away from home can become expensive. Fortunately, we have tips that can help you cut the cost of eating out by more than half.
1. Buy a discount gift certificate
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Websites like Restaurant.com sell discounted restaurant gift certificates that can drastically cut the cost of dining out.
Here is an extra tip: Make any purchases from Restaurant.com or sites like Groupon and LivingSocial via a cash-back portal like Ebates.com. They pay you to shop online by giving you a percentage of your purchase cost back — for example, via a check or PayPal deposit.
2. Join AAA or AARP
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AAA membership benefits include discounts at some restaurants. By eating at those restaurants, you can also earn AAA dollars, which help pay for your membership renewal.
AARP member benefits include discounts at certain national restaurant chains and on Restaurant.com certificates.
3. Join email lists
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Many eateries — from sit-down restaurants to fast-food joints and ice-cream chains — have an email list they use to notify subscribers of deals.
Look for a sign-up option on the websites of your favorite restaurants and other restaurants you would like to try.
4. Use social media to get discounts
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Some eateries share discounts via social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Other places offer discounts or freebies to customers who “check in” via location-based social media networks such as Foursquare (which calls them check-in specials).
5. Take advantage of your birthday
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Some restaurants with email lists ask for your birthday upon sign-up and send you a freebie to celebrate each year. Others toss in a freebie like dessert if you ask.
For examples, check out “25 Birthday Freebies Worth the Trip.”
6. Dine during off-hours
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Pick a restaurant with lunch or early bird specials. Some restaurants also offer specials on certain weekdays.
7. Don’t walk in starving
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Yes, hunger is what brings us to restaurants. But just as you’re liable to spend more on groceries when you go to the supermarket on an empty stomach, you’re likely to order too much if you walk into a restaurant famished.
8. Beware of menu mind tricks
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Studies show that certain menu characteristics make customers more likely to spend more, according to Mental Floss magazine.
Examples include putting photos next to menu items, using fancy language and omitting dollar signs from prices.
9. Rethink your drink
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Over the past 30 years, the price of alcohol in stores has gone down when adjusted for inflation, while the price of alcohol at restaurants and bars has gone up, NPR reports.
Even if a restaurant allows you to bring your own booze, you might still end up paying more than you expect.
Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at Ohio State University, explains in his economics blog that one reason some restaurants adopt BYOB policies is that many customers who bring alcohol drink coffee to sober up before leaving the restaurant:
Letting people bring their own bottle boosts coffee sales. Coffee has a very high markup and this increases profits. Plus, coffee drinkers sometimes order dessert, which has a higher markup than main courses.
Zagorsky says coffee markups can be 300 percent and soda markups can be up to 90 percent, so consider asking for water first.
10. Eat dessert at home
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This is especially smart if you plan to eat a simple dessert like ice cream. The carton you bought at the grocery store can be just as tasty for a fraction of the price.
Even if you’re in the mood for a slice of cake, single servings generally can be found in a grocery store’s bakery department or frozen-dessert aisle for less than the cost of a slice at a restaurant.
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