Americans love to eat out — but the resulting damage to their budgets can cause a lot of indigestion. And it’s getting worse, with prices on the rise.
The cost of eating out increased 4.2% between June 2020 and June 2021, according to the latest Consumer Price Index data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is the largest 12-month increase in this index since May 2009 — the month before the Great Recession officially ended.
There are plenty of ways to slash your restaurant spending, though — so many ways that there’s no reason to pay full price for a meal out. The following tips can help you cut the cost of eating out by as much as half, if not more.
1. Use a discounted gift card or gift certificate
This is one of the easiest ways to take a big bite out of your bill.
Say you pay for a restaurant meal with a gift card or gift certificate that you got for 20% off its face value — like a $100 gift card that you bought for $80. You will effectively save 20% on that meal.
You can buy discounted gift cards and certificates from:
- Warehouse clubs: Costco and Sam’s Club are among those that sell restaurant gift cards at a discount.
- Gift card marketplaces: Websites such as Raise.com are basically exchanges through which folks with unwanted gift cards can sell them for less than their face value to savvy shoppers.
- Discount websites: Restaurant.com sells discounted gift certificates for local restaurants and small chains, boasting savings of up to 50%. The likes of Groupon.com are another option.
- Restaurants themselves: Many major chains offer free gift cards or vouchers with the purchase of a gift card in the spring and during the winter holidays. These promotions are tied to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day graduation season, or winter holidays, but there’s no reason you can’t use the gift card and freebie for yourself.
Here is an extra tip: Make any purchases from Raise.com, Restaurant.com or sites like Groupon via a cash-back portal such as Rakuten. These websites effectively pay you to shop online by giving you a percentage of your purchase cost back as a cash rebate.
2. Pay with a rewards credit card
Don’t want to bother looking for a discounted gift card or gift certificate? At least pay for your meals out with a rewards credit card — assuming you’re using credit responsibly by paying off the bill in full each month to avoid interest charges.
If you eat out often, you might look into rewards credit cards that give a greater percentage of cash back for such purchases.
An easy way to find the right card for you is to use a free online resource like Money Talks News’ credit card comparison tool. Select “Cash Back” or “Rewards Cards” from the menu on the left to limit search results to that type of card.
3. Ask for a senior discount
If you are 50 or older, you should ask whether a senior discount is available at pretty much any business you patronize — certainly including restaurants.
For more options, consider joining an organization like AARP, which will give you access to discounts at more than a dozen chains.
4. Beware of menu mind tricks
Certain menu design tactics make customers inclined to spend more money. So be sure to read “8 Ways Restaurant Menus Trick You Into Spending More” before your next meal out.
5. Join email lists or social media
Many eateries — from sit-down restaurants to fast-food joints and ice-cream chains — have an email list they use to notify subscribers about deals. Look for a sign-up option on the websites of your favorite restaurants and others you would like to try. Some chains will even send you a coupon or freebie just for signing up for their email list.
If you don’t want your inbox inundated, create a second email account and use that address just to sign up for email lists. Then check it for the latest discounts before each time you eat out.
Another option is to “like” the Facebook page of your favorite restaurants. Many chains announce deals and specials through their social media accounts.
6. Take advantage of your birthday
Some restaurants with email lists ask for your birthday upon sign-up and send you a freebie each year to celebrate.
For example, check out “20 Restaurant Chains That Offer Free Food for Your Birthday.”
7. Dine during off-hours
Pick a restaurant with lunch or early bird specials. Some restaurants also offer specials on certain weekdays.
8. Eat a light snack beforehand
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.
9. Eat dessert at home
This is especially smart if you prefer to eat a simple dessert such as ice cream. The carton you bought at the grocery store can be just as tasty for a fraction of the price of a restaurant scoop in a fancy dish.
Even if you’re in the mood for a slice of decadent cake, single servings generally can be found in grocery store bakery departments or frozen-dessert aisles for half the price of a slice at a restaurant.