Eating out is a great American tradition. The average U.S. household spends $3,154 per year on food eaten away from home, according to the latest federal data.
What fills your belly can quickly empty your bank account. But 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.
1. Drink water
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.
Suppose a couple eats out twice a week, paying $3 per beverage. That’s $12 per week — or $624 per year.
Even if your numbers are lower, you can see how ordering water will help keep your bank account liquid.
2. Discover a discount service
There are many ways to get discounts at your favorite restaurants.
If you’re planning to patronize an independent restaurant or a small, local chain, check out Restaurant.com. It sells discounted restaurant gift certificates.
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.
If you prefer big restaurant chains, discounted gift cards are a great way to save. Several websites offer such cards. At Cardpool.com, we recently saw the following discounts:
- Up to 22 percent off Fleming’s Steakhouse gift cards
- Up to 17.1 percent off Olive Garden cards
- Up to 10.5 percent off Starbucks cards
Meanwhile, Raise.com was offering up to 24.3 percent off Buca di Beppo gift cards and up to 15 percent off Cracker Barrel gift cards.
A comparison website called Gift Card Granny will tell you which of these marketplaces is selling a particular restaurant chain’s gift cards for the lowest price at any given time. So, always check that site before buying a discounted gift card.
3. Hit a happy hour
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 various national chains partake in the trend.
For example, Chili’s offers a happy hour twice a day on most days. These time frames are:
- From 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays
- From 9 p.m. until closing on Mondays through Thursdays
- All day on Sundays
If you’re not too hungry, order a $6 plate of boneless wings — or even two plates — and you’ll save a bundle.
4. Use a rewards credit card
Numerous rewards credit cards offer cash back — 1 or 2 percent, for example — every time you dine out.
Say your household does spend that average of $3,154 per year eating out while earning 1 percent cash back on those purchases. You’d rack up $31.54 a year in cash back. At 2 percent, you’d rack up more than $60 a year.
If you’re looking for a rewards credit card, check out Money Talks News’ credit card search tool. Select the “Cash Back” or “Rewards Cards” category from the menu on the left to narrow the results to those types of cards.
5. Box up your leftovers
If your eyes are often bigger than your stomach, make sure you ask for a “doggy bag” so you can bring your leftovers home. Turning one meal into two is among the best ways to save.
Some restaurants actually encourage this practice. Chains like Olive Garden regularly run deals giving you a second entree free when you buy one entree.
6. Bring your own wine
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.
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.
7. Flash your age
There’s something to be said for the advantages of growing older.
If you’re at least age 50 and a member of AARP, dining discounts at popular restaurants — like Denny’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Outback Steakhouse — are among the many perks you’ll enjoy.
Members get access to everyday dining savings, healthy eating tips, recipes and more!
Do you know of other overlooked ways for saving at restaurants? Share them by commenting below or on our Facebook page.