Skip to main content

People want to save money wherever they can these days -- and one of the easiest places to cut is the amount they spend at restaurants.

The cost of eating out continues to rise, as restaurants have to pay more for basic staples like wheat, corn, flour and rice. The National Restaurant Association reports that average menu prices increased 3.9% in 2007. Similar increases are expected for 2008.

One way to reduce these costs is to simply not eat out and make more meals at home, but there are also plenty of ways to save money when dining out that don't take much effort. By knowing the ways you can cut costs when ordering a meal, you can enjoy your favorite restaurants for a fraction of the price. So, you can still indulge from time to time, even when on a budget.

Here are 10 ways to go about it.

Have a snack:
If you are going to go out to eat, learn to have a light, healthy snack before you go. This will ensure that you aren't "starving" when you sit down at the restaurant, and will allow you to order without "your eyes being bigger than your stomach."

This can mean feeling satisfied with ordering a smaller meal, which will usually be less expensive -- and not needing to order extras like appetizers or side dishes along with the meal.

Appetizer dining:
One way to save money at a restaurant is to cut out the appetizers, but another way is to focus on them instead of a full meal.

Appetizer dining has long been around as a way to sample a variety of a restaurant's offerings (and tapas-style dining takes it to another level), but it's enjoying a renewed popularity with more people trying to save money. Prices for appetizers are usually significantly less than a full meal price, and many restaurants offer specials on them.

Coffee and dessert at home: Coffee and dessert are some of the most expensively marked-up items on restaurant menus. One easy way to save money when dining out is to simply save the coffee and dessert for when you get home. This also allows you to have your favorite dessert while saving money since purchasing directly from a bakery (or making your own) will be much less expensive than purchasing it at a restaurant.

TheStreet Recommends

Pass on alcohol:
Like dessert, alcohol is expensive when dining out. Instead, choose a nonalcoholic drink such as iced tea, which many restaurants provide with unlimited refills.

If you really want to go frugal, you can skip the drink altogether and ask for a glass of water. You can then split a bottle of wine when you return home that will be of higher quality for less money.

Split meals:
If you follow the advice and have a small snack before going out to eat, you may be in a position to split a meal with the person you're dining with instead of each getting a full meal. Because restaurant meals tend to be oversized, it's a great way to save money and not eat more than you need to.

Take leftovers home:

If splitting a meal in a restaurant makes you feel uncomfortable, getting a full-sized meal with the intent of taking home a portion can also save money. This will mean that you will have a meal to take to work the next day so that you don't need to make or buy one.

Take advantage of discount programs:
There are a number of discount programs that provide discounts at restaurants. Programs like Cozmo Card , Entertainment and can all give you significant savings at a restaurant if you learn to incorporate their restaurant savings when you dine out.

Avoid major holidays:

When money gets tight, many people reserve dining out to special events and holidays. This can actually cost you more. Holidays and special events like Mother's Day and Valentine's Day are the busiest times for restaurants, which means that restaurants will often have special, limited menus that cost more than their usual fare. By changing your special meal to a day ahead or a day after, you'll save money while also avoiding the crowds and long waits that come with the special holidays.

Change times:
Most people think about dining out as an evening event, but if you can change yours to morning or lunch, you can dine for a lot less. Most restaurants' breakfast and lunch menus are less expensive than their dinner equivalent, and they will often have specially prices meals during these times.

Give feedback:
Restaurants want feedback because it helps them know what they are doing correctly and where they can make improvements, but most people never take the time let a restaurant know.

If the restaurant has a feedback card, take the time to honestly fill it out. Sometimes the receipt you receive will have information on it where you can give feedback. You can also take the initiative and write a letter directly to the restaurant.

While you won't always receive something for your effort, you'd be surprised at how many times a thank-you response will arrive with discount coupons enclosed.

All it takes to save money is to remind yourself to break from the habits you have formed when ordering at restaurants in the past. By incorporating a few of these check management ideas into your dining out, especially in combination, you can still have a quality meal without paying full price.