Smaller Check, Please!

Dining Out on a Budget

When you’re trying to save money, chances are you think dining out needs to be off the table. But whether you’re looking for a fun evening with friends or you’re tired of your own cooking, it can be fun to treat yourself. With these tips, going out to eat doesn’t have to be out of reach on a tight budget.

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Clip Your Coupons

Local and national restaurants still print and send coupons or include them in mailers, so take a second look at your junk mail before you toss it. Check restaurant websites and social media pages, and pay attention to your spam folder — if you’re on email lists or part of loyalty or birthday programs, you might get exclusive, subscriber-only offers.

Now that sites like Groupon and LivingSocial are active in most cities, there are often lots of dining offers available through them. Recently, I noticed that one of my favorite sandwich shops had an offer on Groupon; buying it allowed me to eat there for a 50% discount. (I’m also more likely to try new places if I’m not paying full price.)

Eat Alfresco

Who says going out for a meal needs to happen in a restaurant? Buy something fresh from the deli and have a picnic in the park. Or pick up something from a food truck (or a taqueria or a similar hole-in-the-wall gem). You’ll save money and get outside. If you’re meeting friends, have everyone bring something different to make up a meal so that there are a variety of choices.

Hello, Happy Hour

In college, a friend of mine turned me on to her favorite dining out trick. She and her family would go to a restaurant during happy hour and only order appetizers. The portions were decently sized, the price tag was smaller, and they still had a great time.

It’s become one of my favorite tricks, but I’ve learned that not all happy hours are created equal. Check out the specials on food and drink before you go (and make sure you’ve got the right day and time).

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Share Your Food

When I go out with friends, we all get something different and share, but we all feel we’ve had enough. At restaurants with big portions, I’ll split a plate (some salads are so big I could never hope to finish one alone). A friend and I can usually order a meal made for one person (a salad and an entree) and both leave feeling very full.

Rethink Dinner

Besides happy hour, why not go out for breakfast, brunch or lunch? These meals are usually cheaper. One of my boyfriends and I went out to a local diner that served breakfast all day and ordered bacon and eggs for dinner regularly — for about half the price of the dinner menu.

Or, skip the entree and just get a side —at a favorite bistro of mine, a side of signature macaroni and cheese is inexpensive, delicious, and large enough for dinner. Another of my tricks is to go out only for dessert. I still get to dress up and enjoy the atmosphere, and I get a treat I’m unlikely to make at home.

Ditch the Drinks

Whether you’re ordering alcohol or simply soda, switching to water can dramatically reduce your bill. Add a twist of citrus to keep it interesting, hydrate effectively, and save the special beverages for before or after your meal. If I’m feeling really classy, I’ll sometimes order club soda, which is complimentary in most restaurants.

Indulge in the Extras

Never underestimate the value of bottomless fries, chips and salsa, or bread and olive oil. Many restaurants serve these complements to your meal free of charge. One friend fills up on these, eats part of her entree, and saves the rest for a work lunch the next day, stretching the meal further than normal. (Just be sure to order something to go along with it, and don’t forget to tip!)

All You Can Eat

If you’re a big eater, look no further than a good buffet. While I might spend quite a bit at my favorite local Indian restaurant during dinner, their lunch buffet is affordable and gives me lots of variety. Pay attention to the signs in the windows of your favorite restaurants — they might offer special deals on certain days of the week (like Taco Tuesdays).

With a little research and an adjustment here and there, you can enjoy the experience of dining out without the high price tag.