15 Ways To Spend Less At Restaurants

How much do you spend on dining out? According to the U.S. Bureau of labour Statistics, the average American family forked over $2,505 on meals away from home in 2010. While that number is down from 2008, when it was $2,698, that’s still a lot of bread.

If you cut your dining costs by just 30 per cent, you’d be $751.50 richer within a year. So how do you accomplish that? The obvious solution is: Just don’t go out to eat.

But where’s the fun in that? For me, that’s impossible—partly because I live in New Orleans, where we have more than 1,200 restaurants, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Dining out is a way of life for me, but so is saving money and increasing my wealth. Here’s how I do both…

Buy Cheap Gift Certificates

Restaurant.com sells $25 gift certificates for $10 or $50 gift certificates for $20.

The site also has sales throughout the year, and I've snagged $25 gift certificates for $5.

I keep a stack of these things in my wallet at all times. Most places have a minimum purchase requirement (from $35 and up) but you can generally use the gift certificates any time.

But there are drawbacks: They're for dine-in only, they're nonrefundable, and they can only be redeemed once per month per restaurant.

Still, the site has become so popular that you can double dip -- buying Restaurant.com certificates through an airline's shopping portal in order to earn frequent flier miles, for instance.

Snag Online Coupons

If you're not already using Groupon and LivingSocial, start now.

Both sites post daily deals that will give you 50 to 90 per cent off at different restaurants. You'll have to act quickly, but you'll save a bunch.

I just got a dozen cake pops (regularly $17) for $8 through Groupon.

If you don't want to spend hours sifting through all the offers, Money Talks News deals diva Karla Bowsher has culled the very best on our deals page.

Check In

If you have a smartphone, some social networking apps will get you free stuff and discounts.

Last weekend, I got free guacamole and a free flan for checking into the restaurant on Yelp.

Here are a few apps that score you deals:

  • Yelp Check-ins: After you check in, mention Yelp to your server to get the goods.
  • Foursquare: Many places offer discounts and buy-one-get-one offers to people who check in.
  • SCVNGR: Every time you check in, you accumulate points. You can redeem your points for a discount on your bill or a free item depending on the restaurant.

Ask For Special Occasion Deals

Every restaurant in town knows when my birthday is.

Last year, I got three half-price meals, six free desserts, two free entrees, and about a dozen free cocktails--and all I had to do was sign up for a birthday mailing list and turn a year older.

Many restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club.

Signing up is free and they'll send you a coupon around the date.

Ask your server how to sign up, and even if they don't have a mailing list, he'll tell you what you can get for free or cheap on your special occasion. There's even a site devoted to listing restaurants where you can eat free on your birthday: eatfreeonyourbirthday.com.

Follow Restaurants On Twitter

Opens in new window: https://www.facebook.com/moneytalksnews

Use Apps To Find Deals

I've made it a habit to open a few apps before I walk into a restaurant.

There are several free apps that post deals to local and chain restaurants.

Most places will apply the discount to your bill if you show them the app--no need to print the coupon.

Here are a few apps worth downloading:

  • Dining Deals
  • LocalEats
  • The Valpak app

Dine During Off-Times

Many restaurants in my area extend their lunch hours until late afternoon.

By eating dinner early, I get the lunch prices, which are often 25 to 50 per cent cheaper than the dinner prices for the same entrees.

Before you try somewhere new, visit the restaurant's website and see if they have a lunch or early bird special.

BYOB

Split Your Meal With Someone

Know Your Steaks

Knowing the different steak cuts and how they're prepared will save you money. For example, my friend always goes for the filet mignon because it's well-known and tender. It's also one of the most expensive cuts you can order. Meanwhile, I ask if the hanger or flank steak was marinated. If it was, I order that. It's the cheapest steak on the menu, but it's also flavorful and tender--if marinated.

MSN says sirloin, flank, skirt, and hanger steaks are really underrated. Give them a chance.

Plan Before You Travel

If I've learned one thing being a local in a tourist town like New Orleans, it's this: Tourist traps are alive and well.

Many of the famous restaurants tourists want to visit are overpriced and not the best dining experience. If you want an authentic experience and a better price, check out a review site like Yelp or Urban Spoon before you visit a vacation spot.

Pick a few places the locals rated highly and check their websites for menu prices.

You can save a ton by planning ahead and skipping the hot spots.

Pick The Place

Become A Regular

Around here they call it lagniappe--the little something extra you get for being a great customer.

Like the free cup of gumbo I've gotten every time I visit a diner in my neighbourhood. I get that little something extra because I'm a regular.

Trying new places is great, but you can get a discount (or a lagniappe) by building a relationship with the servers or owners of local restaurants.

Take Surveys And Earn Cash Back

With iDine, you can earn 5 to 15 per cent back any time you eat out. Just sign up on their website. Within 30 days of your meal, sign on and complete a quick survey.

For every survey you take, you'll earn cash back. When you reach $20, iDine will mail you an American Express gift card. It takes some effort, but it's free money.

See? Dining out doesn't have to mean going all in--or staying in.

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