7 Surefire Ways to Save on Your Next Restaurant Meal

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Some simple steps can dramatically cut your costs when dining out.

Eating out is a great American tradition. The average American adult purchases either a meal or a snack from a restaurant 5.8 times a week, according to the nonprofit United States Healthful Food Council.

In fact, in 2015, Americans spent more on eating out at restaurants than they did buying groceries. That marked a first in the nation’s history.

But what fills your belly can quickly empty your bank account. Fortunately, a little frugal wisdom can help you trim just about every restaurant bill.

Following are seven ways to save the next time you decide to dine out.

Drink water

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Good ol’ H2O is the foundation of life — and of a healthy bank account. One surefire way to save on every restaurant meal is to skip the soda, booze, coffee or other pricey beverage and simply sip the free stuff instead.

Several years ago, Paul Michael at Wise Bread did some calculations. He figured that the average family of three that eats out three times a week and pays $1.90 per beverage racks up a bill of nearly $1,000 in 12 months.

Even if your totals are lower, you can see how ordering water will keep your bank account liquid.

Discover a discount service

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Why is it that a meal tastes so much better when you don’t pay full price?

There are many ways to get discounts at your favorite restaurants. Simply enter your ZIP code and preferred food type (optional), and Restaurant.com offers pages of discounted gift certificates to dining establishments in your area.

For example, it’s not unusual to pick up a $25 certificate for as little as $10. And sometimes, the site offers promotions that can save you even more.

Just be aware that you often must spend a minimum amount to use your certificate.

Buying discounted gift cards is another great way to save. Several websites offer such cards. At Cardpool, we recently saw the following discounts:

  • Up to 22 percent off at Fleming’s Steakhouse
  • Up to 12 percent off at Olive Garden
  • Up to 10 percent off at Starbucks

Meanwhile, Raise was offering more than 20 percent off at Buca di Beppo and up to 18 percent off at Cracker Barrel.

Hit a happy hour

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If you don’t mind dining a little earlier, you can score big savings during happy hour. Restaurants typically offer these bargain windows in late afternoon or early evening. And a growing number of national chains are getting in on the trend.

For example, Chili’s offers a happy hour from 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays, and all day on Sundays. If you’re not too hungry, order a $5 plate of boneless Buffalo wings — or even two plates — and you’ll save a bundle.

Use a rewards credit card

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Some credit cards offer a reward every time you dine out. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers double the points every time you eat at a restaurant. The TD Cash credit card gives you 2 percent cash back on all dining purchases.

Many other rewards credit cards offer periodic deals at specific restaurants where you can rack up points or cash back.

For example, a friend with a Bank of America cash-back Visa card tells us he is getting offers for 10 percent back if he dines at Ruby Tuesday or Five Guys this month.

Bring your own wine

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OK, we know — this sounds a bit radical. Bringing your own wine (BYOW) to a restaurant might seem a tad gauche, but it’s acceptable at many establishments.

The Wall Street Journal offers some tips for doing this appropriately. Needless to say, you want to call ahead first and make sure it’s OK. Even better, wait until you get to know the restaurant staff over a few visits, then politely ask about the restaurant’s policy.

Keep in mind that you can’t do this just anywhere. For example, it’s illegal to bring your own wine to a restaurant in some states.

Box up your leftovers

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If your eyes are often bigger than your stomach — guilty as charged! — make sure you ask for a “doggy bag” so you can bring your leftovers home. Turning two meals into one is among the best ways to save.

In fact, some restaurants actually encourage the practice. Chains like Applebee’s and Olive Garden regularly run deals where you buy one entrée, and get a second entrée free.

Flash your age

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You got us — this last tip isn’t for everyone. But there’s something to be said for the advantages of growing older. And if you’re at least age 50 and a member of the AARP, dining discounts at popular restaurants — like Denny’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Outback Steakhouse, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Rainforest Cafe — are among the many perks you’ll enjoy. According to the organization:

Members get access to everyday dining savings, healthy eating tips, recipes and more!

Do you have more overlooked ways for saving at restaurants? Share them by commenting below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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