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Even if you make restaurant-style recipes at home, a night out every now and then is a welcome treat. But with food, drinks and tip, it can be tough to manage on a tight budget. Whether you’re looking for a quick bite at a favorite taco joint or going tablecloths-and-candles fancy, we share 12 secrets to saving money at restaurants without sacrificing the experience.
1. Like ’em
Most restaurants have Facebook pages, and many of these offer special deals or coupons. “Like” and follow your favorite eateries to get in on unadvertised specials and Facebook-only freebies and discounts.
2. Celebrate Good Times
A free dinner on my birthday? Sign me up! Many restaurants have birthday clubs and will send a coupon for a free meal or discount you can use during your birthday month. Having an anniversary? Let the restaurant know about it when you make reservations, and be sure to tell the waiter you’re celebrating a special occasion-you may get a complimentary glass of champagne or a dessert on the house.
3. Avoid Holiday Hustle
True, dining out on Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve sounds festive and fun…but plenty of other people are thinking the same thing. To make the most of the hot demand, some restaurants hike prices on holidays, often by offering special dinner menus. On top of the extra cash, you can expect longer waits and a harried wait staff. Do yourself a favor and avoid dining out on holidays. Celebrating the week before or after makes for a more relaxing, enjoyable and affordable evening. (Find workable recipes for every occasion!)
4. Plan Ahead
Take advantage of weekly specials by reviewing a restaurant’s menu online ahead of time and zeroing in on the days that offer deals on your favorite dishes (think Prime Rib), half-off bottles of wine or two-for-ones. Have a seriously strict budget? Even if deals aren’t available, familiarizing yourself with the menu and prices will help narrow down the choices that fit your finances.
5. Dine Happy
If your schedule is flexible and you don’t mind eating dinner before 6 p.m., take advantage of early bird specials or plan to dine during happy hour. Restaurants often offer appetizer specials (free wings, anybody?) and drink deals that can save you big bucks. You may need to eat in the bar area to get happy hour specials, but if you’re out with a group of friends, does it matter?
6. Drink Water on Tap
If you want water with your meal and the waiter asks whether you want still (plain) or sparkling, order still. It’s generally just tap water, so it shouldn’t cost a penny. Sparkling water such as San Pellegrino or seltzer can add $3 to $4 to your bill. Personally, I’d rather save those dollars for something more interesting-like cheesecake.
7. Delete One Course
Most upscale restaurants hope you’ll order a starter with cocktails, get a glass of wine with dinner and cap it all off with dessert and coffee. That’s a ton of food! At a favorite restaurant, tasting many different plates is half the fun. Still, you’ll save a good chunk of change by skipping the app or dessert, or by splitting these courses with your companions.
8. Apply Portion Control
Get creative with your order, especially if you have a lighter appetite. Try ordering an appetizer as the meal (often, appetizers are smaller portions of main course items, but at a much lower cost). Is the lunch menu still available at dinnertime? Choose an entree from that list. Again, portions will be smaller, but so will the bill. Or order a main entree and split it between two people. There’s sometimes a fee of a few dollars for splitting, but it’s still much cheaper than ordering a second $20 meal. Last but not least, if you do order your own entree, cut it in half before you dig in. You’ll be more likely to eat less, and you can take the other half home for tomorrow’s lunch, effectively getting two meals for the price of one.
Restaurants mark up beverages as much as four times the actual cost. You’ll save a pretty penny by eschewing specialty cocktails and sticking with house wine or on-tap beer. If you’re a wine snob (guilty), call ahead to see if you can bring your own bottle. Restaurants generally charge a corkage fee, which can range from $10 to $20 (but may be higher). That might seem like a lot, but considering fine wine is usually marked up a minimum of two times, a $75 bottle would be at least $150 in a restaurant. Suddenly $20 doesn’t seem so bad-and you’re assured you’ll like what you’re drinking. (Note: If you bring a larger format bottle, you may be charged a double corkage fee.)
10. Add It Up
When the waiter brings the check, do you automatically hand over your credit card without looking at the bill? Big mistake. Always scrutinize the bill to make sure the charges are accurate. This may seem obvious, but many people don’t do it. A waiter once accidentally brought me the check for a neighboring table of eight, which was considerably higher than the bill for my table of two! Be sure to note whether the gratuity has been included in the total-it often is for larger parties. (You’re not insulting the waiter by checking the charges.)
11. Get It to Go
A large portion of any restaurant bill is tax, tip and beverages. Skip all of these by ordering your food to go. (Bonus points if you opt for takeout instead of delivery.) Go fancy by serving the food on your nicest plates and popping open a bottle of wine, or enjoy a low-key evening in front of the TV, and eat right out of your to-go containers. (These sheet pan dinners make cleanup easy, too.)
12. Check for Discounts
A quick Internet search provides plenty of mobile apps (such as Groupon, OpenTable, Restaurant.com, Coupon Sherpa and Valpak) that offer deals or discounts you can download to use in area restaurants. Be aware, however, that your inbox may be inundated if you sign up for every money-saving app.
Don’t forget to take advantage of any status discounts that may apply-teachers, students, senior citizens, military personnel and AAA members often get special pricing.
Finally, many credit cards offer cash-back programs specifically geared toward dining out. While it may not seem like much, the rebates you reap later will add up to a few extra dollars in your pocket.
Try these 12 ways to save money and have a night out that’s fun, relaxing and budget-friendly. Just one parting word of advice: If you’re going to splurge on dining out, order something you wouldn’t cook for yourself at home. The night will be that much more special. (Tempted to try your hand at beloved restaurant dishes? We’ve got copycat recipes right this way.)