6 Tips to Save Money at Restaurants – The Motley Fool

Man smiling at a restaurant and holding out a credit card.

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It’s possible to dine out strategically and save money.


Key points

  • Inflation has hit restaurant prices hard (just like everything else).
  • Consider skipping the booze and ordering an appetizer as a meal.
  • If you choose the right dining out credit card, you can earn cash back or points on your restaurant spending.

Dining out is one of those everyday luxuries that nearly anyone can afford, at least once in a while. It’s very nice to walk into a restaurant, be seated, order whatever you want, and have it be served to you — no cooking or washing dishes afterwards required. That said, it’s extremely easy to blow your budget if you go overboard on dining out.

The most recent report from the Consumer Price Index showed that the cost of “food away from home” (as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics designates non-grocery food spending) was up 8.5% from November 2021 to November 2022. Thanks, inflation.

I’m a fan of small non-chain restaurants in my city, and have definitely felt the pinch of paying more for my meals lately. I’m happy to still buy restaurant meals, because I want these businesses to survive — it’s been a hard couple of years for restaurants, too. To that end, I’ve been collecting little ways to save money on dining out. Read on for some ideas to try the next time you go out.

1. Skip the alcohol

Ordering alcohol in a restaurant has an immediate large impact on your final bill. Alcohol markup in restaurants is often about 200%, according to How Stuff Works. Plus, a restaurant that serves alcohol requires additional (and sometimes expensive) licensing, especially if it serves hard liquor and not just beer and wine. For this reason, it’s a good idea to skip the booze if you’re hoping not to run up a big credit card tab on your night out.

2. Consider the appetizers

I am frequently in the position of being more interested in the appetizer section of the menu than the meals. If this is you too, then why not lean in? You can save some money by picking an appetizer instead of a full meal, and if it doesn’t feel “complete” enough, tack on a side salad with it. You can also specify to your waitperson that you want it brought out with the meals (I’ve never been given grief for this).

3. Look for coupons or deals

It’s a fantastic move to use coupons or other direct ways to spend less. You can find restaurant coupons through various websites, apps, and even in your mailbox at home. It’s worth flipping through that sheaf of coupons you might get occasionally to see if there are any for restaurants you frequent. Also, check to see if your favorite places have deals like happy hour pricing, free kids’ meals on certain nights, and discounts for military members or seniors. Finally, your credit card might have cash back deals with certain restaurants. Your card’s mobile app is a great place to find them.

4. Don’t order something you’d cook at home

This is my mother’s trick, and I absolutely use it as well. Dining out should be special, and as such, I try to order food I don’t make myself at home. For one thing, I know how to cook a steak to the perfect medium rare, and I have yet to dine in a restaurant that can manage it. For another, if I order that steak, I’ll just feel bad that I paid three times as much as I would have to cook it myself. If you really want to feel as if you’re getting your money’s worth on a meal, order something you enjoy but is a rare treat. Note: this is not me giving you permission to order the $40 lobster if it’s not in your budget!

Every time I’m going to try a new restaurant, I look up the menu online. This prepares me in a few ways. I get to make sure the restaurant truly appeals to me (ever visit a restaurant where nothing on the menu sounds good?). And I also get to scope out the prices. This is an especially handy trick if you’re on vacation and unsure of which restaurants are more expensive. If you know you have $30 to spend for lunch, and based on menu prices, that bistro is going to sell you a $50 lunch, you know to find a different place.

6. Use the right credit card

While using a restaurant credit card won’t save you money directly, you will have the opportunity to earn some cash or points back on your restaurant spending, and that’s definitely a good thing.

One of the most common ways to save money you’ll find mentioned everywhere is “stop dining out!” While restaurant meals can be expensive, I’d argue that if something adds joy to your life, the best thing to do is find ways to save money on it. If you can change how you approach eating in restaurants and end up keeping more money in your bank account, that’s a win win.

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