7 Ways to Save Money on Dining Out

The common mantra when it comes to overspending at restaurants is brown-bagging your lunch. But let’s face it — meal prepping isn’t always a feasible solution. Whether you’re headed to a new restaurant hotspot to network with coworkers or simply meet up with friends, you might worry about blowing your budget.

Here are a few money-saving tips to keep in mind that can help you curb spending when dining out.

Photo by Melissa Walker Horn

Photo by Melissa Walker Horn

1. Buy discounted gift cards

If you and your group know which restaurant you’re headed to, a gift card can help bring your meal costs down. Gift cards in themselves don’t save you money unless they were gifted to you for free. But there are ways to save money using a gift card.

For example, buying gift cards in bulk, like at Costco or Sam’s Club, can help you save up to 25% of the face value of each card. You can also use gift card exchange sites, like Cardpool, to find gift cards to restaurants at up to 35% less than the card’s face value.

2. Opt for linner

Dinner is infamous for being a costly meal and brunch is just as expensive (looking at you endless mimosas). And although lunch can be a more affordable option, if you’re dining on a weekday, the lunch rush can eat up a lot of your time.

When planning a get-together with friends, a sweet spot to dine on the cheap is between lunch and dinner. “Linner” usually happens around happy hour, like 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., for example, and gives you a great opportunity to taste food and drinks for a lower price.

3. Sign-up for dining rewards programs

If you’re going to spend money eating at restaurants, you might as well get something out of it. Dining rewards programs don’t necessarily save you money in the same way these other tips do, but they can help you save money in other ways. 

Many airline loyalty programs, like Delta SkyMiles, offer dining programs to help you earn more rewards toward future travel. Simply link your credit card to a dining program and use it to pay at a partnered restaurant. You’ll earn points that can help chip away at airfare costs down the road. 

4. Find deals online

Before heading out to your favorite restaurant, check out group deal sites, like Groupon or LivingSocial for discounts. These sites offer up to 80% off your meal price which means big savings while still having a social life. 

Don’t forget to also follow your favorite haunts on social media for exclusive, limited-time discounts. Every little bit helps you keep your spending in check.

5. Scope out the menu early

When visiting a new restaurant, especially on an empty stomach, your appetite can easily take the reins. Avoid over-ordering at the table by browsing through the menu in advance. Yelp is useful in these situations since in addition to item descriptions and pricing, you can sometimes find user-submitted photos to get a sense of the portion size.

If the restaurant offers generous portions, you might even want to split an entree with a friend. The more prepared you are early-on, the easier it is to overeat and overspend while out on the town.

6. Avoid add-ons

Add-ons to your meal are a huge budget-buster. Be wary of premium add-ons, like sliced avocado for an extra $3 or an extra side of slaw for $4. All of these tiny expenses can take a $15 lunch and turn it into a $30 meal after taxes and tip.

Before adding extra elements to your order, think about whether the cost is truly worth going over budget. You can also strike a compromise with yourself — $2 fried egg and $3 bacon add-ons to your gourmet burger, or a happy hour cocktail for $6? The answer is different for everyone!

7. Use a cash back card

If you love the convenience of paying with a card and rarely have cash in your wallet, do some research to find a rewards credit card that offers a high cash back percentage at restaurants. Some cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer 3% cash back at restaurants which can add up to a nice amount of cash back.

The caveat to using credit cards as one of the many ways to save money at restaurants is to pay back your entire statement at the end of your billing cycle. This avoids any costly interest charges for rolling a balance over.

Jennifer Calonia