How to Cut Your Restaurant Bill in Half

Photo (cc) by ahisgett

If you read this website much, you already know that one of the best ways to save money is to cut out dining out. But you don’t have to give up restaurant fare: There are several ways to eat out and save.

Dining out less often is the obvious way. When it comes to lunch, for example, I bring mine from home. That way, I eat healthier and don’t feel guilty about going out for dinner with friends on the weekends. There are also coupons, which you’ll always find in the “Food” section of my Deals & Coupons page.

But the best way to save is probably with restaurant gift certificates from Restaurant.com. They can cut your bill in half, if not more: The website claims to have saved diners $500 million since 1999.

Last month alone, Restaurant.com was cited in Kiplinger’s Best Bargains of 2011, CNN Money’s Best couponing sites and apps, and USA Today’s Great dining deals. Despite the headlines, too many people still haven’t signed up to save. Many don’t understand how the site works or think it’s too good to be true. If you’re one of those people, this post is for you.

Here’s the gist: Restaurant.com sells restaurant gift certificates for less than their face value. These certificates allow customers like you and me to then go buy, say, $25 of restaurant food for as little as $2.

Here’s why it’s not too good to be true: Restaurants are willing to offer gift certificates at a discount to market themselves to a larger potential customer base.

And here’s what you need to know to get the most out of Restaurant.com…

The best bargain

Restaurant gift certificates (also referred to as restaurant-specific gift certificates) come in five denominations:

  • $10 gift certificates, normally sold for $5
  • $25 gift certificates, normally sold for $10
  • $50 gift certificates, normally sold for $20
  • $75 gift certificates, normally sold for $30
  • $100 gift certificates, normally sold for $40

They frequently go on sale, however, for as much as 80 percent off (which means a $25 gift certificate would cost only $2). Because this price becomes available once a month or so, you should always wait for the sales to buy. I always give readers a heads-up when they’re on sale at this price, so keep an eye on my Daily Deals posts (published every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) or my Deals & Coupons page.

The pros

Saving you money isn’t the only advantage of restaurant gift certificates. They also…

  • Never expire.
  • Are emailed to you as soon as you buy them, so there’s no shipping charge.
  • Can be reprinted if you misplace them, unlike traditional gift cards (though Restaurant.com isn’t responsible if they end up in someone else’s hungry hands).
  • Are available for more than 18,000 restaurants nationwide. (Enter your zip in the “Find a Restaurant and Save” box to see which restaurants in your area offer certificates.)

The cons

Restaurant gift certificates do have a few conditions, though none are deal-breakers. They…

  • Are nonrefundable and nonreturnable.
  • Are only valid on dine-in meals unless otherwise noted.
  • Cannot be used to pay for taxes, tips, or merchandise.
  • Can only be redeemed once per month per restaurant. (So you can redeem certificates as often as you want, as long as you don’t use more than one at the same restaurant in a month.)
  • Cannot be combined with other gift certificates, gift cards, or coupons from Restaurant.com or elsewhere.

In addition, individual restaurants may add their own conditions. For example, take a $25 gift certificate I’ve used at a local sushi joint. In addition to Restaurant.com’s rules, they require that I spend at least $35 in order to use the certificate, and they automatically apply an 18-percent tip. They also don’t let me use the certificate to buy promotional items, which means I pay for both rolls of sushi that I order even when they have a two-for-one special. (Restaurant.com will always inform you of any restaurant-specific restrictions beforehand, though, so you won’t be surprised by them.)

Still, the last time I was at that restaurant, I was able to buy close to $50 of food for $20 plus tip.

Just be sure to give your certificate to your server as soon as you’re seated. They’ll appreciate it because they won’t have to total your order twice, and they’ll be able to warn you about any restrictions before you place your order.

Karla Bowsher runs the Deals & Coupons page; posts deals every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and shares consumer wisdom every Thursday. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, or if you want to share a great deal you found (she’ll credit you), leave a comment below or on Facebook, or email her at [email protected]

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