The average American household spends most of its money—62% of an average $60,060 in annual expenditures—on just three things: housing, transportation, and food. If you’re trying to cut costs and save money, food is the place to get started.
Americans spent more than $$659 billion—yes, billion—at restaurants in 2020 and that was during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. To turn a profit, restaurants generally charge about four times as much per dish as they paid for its individual ingredients—that’s a 400% markup.
Reducing restaurant visits and increasing your home-cooked meals is a surefire way to cut food costs. And when you do opt to eat out, here are 17 realistic, ethical, and pretty awesome ways to keep your tab lean!
1. Special Menu
Many restaurants offer a reduced-price menu for seniors and children. If you or someone in your party qualifies, be sure to inquire if the special pricing doesn’t show up on the regular menu. Typically these discounted menus offer smaller portions at significantly reduced prices.
2. Skip the Sodas
Skip the pricey drinks and dubious “free refills” altogether and you’ll save at least $2 a person. EC reader Lisa B. rewards herself whenever she opts for water by stuffing two bucks into her savings account.
3. Serve Yourself
Opt for a casual dining establishment where you serve yourself, and you can expect to cut the cost by at least the gratuity you would normally fork out at a fine-dining restaurant. Restaurants that do not have wait staff typically offer lower-priced fare, too.
Golden Corral and Old Country Buffet, both casual buffet chains that everyone loves to hate, and yet somehow continue to pack in the customers. While some might see it as a symbol of wretched excess, others just appreciate the chance to fill up on what are ordinarily high-dollar items, like steak and seafood at bargain prices and lower-cost dining out experience.
All of the days’ offerings are laid out on long tables. Customers go through the line selecting any and all items they desire for a single price per diner. Most buffets allow return trips, and yes, you really can eat ALL you can possibly stuff in your face, an excellent option when you’re really hungry.
A bit more individualized, a fast-casual experience is one where you order at the counter first, pay, and then pick up your order at the end of the counter. With no wait staff, these kinds of restaurants can keep the prices lower than a full-serve restaurant. Well-loved examples that offer fast-casual eating are Qdoba, Chipotle, and Panera Bread.
Another way to characterize fast food, quick-serve food is being made ahead in the kitchen and served immediately upon ordering. Most have drive-thru options to make the experience even quicker. Quick-service dining is the least expensive of all.
4. Order To-Go
Most restaurants gladly offer their menu items for take-out. You call ahead, place your order and pick it up. Don’t be surprised when you find the closest parking spots are reserved just for you—”Take-Out Only.”
Here’s the way to save big with this option: Instead of ordering an entire meal that includes, say the entree, salad, and bread, order only the entree, like Chicken Parmesan to-go. You can easily split it into two servings. You’ll cut the cost tremendously compared to the printed menu. At home, toss a salad, add your own bread.
5. Split to Share
Splitting a meal these days is socially acceptable and economically savvy. While some restaurants charge a minimal charge for splitting, most are very accommodating. Even if you have to pay a buck or two to split, it’s still better than paying for two meals you cannot eat completely.
If you’re embarrassed about sharing, don’t be. If you must explain, say you are a light eater or that you’re doing your duty to the earth by not over-consuming.
Many restaurants are so accommodating they’ll split the meal in the kitchen rather than handing you an extra plate.
6. Unadvertised Specials
Many restaurants have low-priced daily specials that are not on the menu. These are not the Specials!! printed on the chalkboard or enthusiastically delivered by the waiter, but unadvertised options. So before you get your heart set on a regular menu item, be sure to ask about any unadvertised specials.
7. Early Birds
Many restaurants, in an effort to increase business during their quiet hours, offer half-off or some other enticingly-priced meal, but only if you go there before the regular dinner crowd, typically from 4:00 to 5:30 pm. Look in your local newspaper and your mailbox for advertisements and information. Or pick up the phone and ask.
Almost every restaurant it seems now has some kind of online club you can join to get coupons and discounts in your email inbox. Join them! You’ll see coupons and offers in your inbox or on your phone. Most of the time these are exceptional, quality discounts! Just make sure you stick to the offer once you’re in the restaurant surrounding by so many other (more expensive) choices.
9. Play Tourist
It’s not unusual for restaurants to have special offers directed at tourists that you can take advantage of as well. Stop in the lobby of a local hotel and peruse the local attraction brochures. You’ll find all kinds of offers for local restaurants. Your local tourism board will have this kind of information as well.
Google the name of your favorite restaurant plus your specific location to find online discount coupons.
10. Opt for Linner
Many restaurants have a lunch menu that is slightly different from the one for dinner, the difference being the portion size and price. Ask the waiter if you can order from the Lunch Menu for dinner. Get it? Linner! Usually, you’ll be cordially accommodated—and you will save quite a bit. If your favorite restaurant cannot honor your request, switch your dining out time of day to lunch and enjoy the lower price but the same food you love.
- Applebees. Dinner entrees range in price from $8 to $18. Lunch combos, which include any two choices from a list of soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees, cost $7 to $8.
- Red Lobster. Dinner entrees range in price from $13 to $33. Lunch entrees range from $8 to $12.
- Cheesecake Factory. Dinner entrees range in price from $11 to $30. Lunch specials cost between $9 and $14.
- Olive Garden. Dinner entrees range in price from $12 to $20. Lunch entrees range from $7 to $13.
Can’t make “liner” work? Do brunch—the kind where you order from the menu, not a bottomless event, which will be more pricey. It’s likely the cheapest meal of the weekend, but because it’s a mix of lunch and breakfast foods, it still feels like an indulgent special occasion.
Before you opt for a full meal, check the appetizer menu. You’ll find generous portions minus the add-ons like salad or soup. And the price is right. Just request that your selection be served as an entrée and you’ll fit right in.
Most every restaurant offers some type of discounts as part of their marketing plan. Those coupons and discount codes are out there—it’s just a matter of finding them!
Lots of restaurants offer discounted Gift Certificates at Restaurant.com as part of their marketing programs. Search the site to find restaurants in your area, then click to buy a $25 Gift Certificate for as little as $10.
Before buying, always make sure you understand the terms and conditions of the offer, plus the time frame in which the coupon must be redeemed. Read the fine print first.
Discounted Gift Cards
Raise is a site that resells gift cards at a discounted rate. I can find gift cards for just about any store or restaurant, available to use almost immediately. I never pay face value or a fee of any kind for gift cards at Raise.
I was suspicious at first, but I’ve confirmed that this is legitimate, legal, and completely above board. And as a bonus, when you buy a Gift Card at Raise, you get Rakuten cashback.
13. Go for Combo
Opting for the value meals and combos can save a lot of money, especially if you’re willing to split that meal. Many restaurants save their most amazing deals for this category on the menu. It may be half sandwich and any soup on the menu for $10 or less. Order the combo then add a full-size salad and you’ll have a great meal for two.
14. Speak Up
Lots of restaurants have discounts for teachers, students with valid ID, seniors, or military—really great discounts, like 10 to 15% off your total bill. But here’s the catch—you have to ask your server about it. Often these discounts are not advertised. Don’t be shy, speak up. Kindly ask if they’re offering discounts for which you might be eligible. It’s so worth it!
15. Leftovers To Go
Go ahead and order the large portion or dinner special, with the plan in mind to take home half of it for another meal. If you have trouble disciplining yourself to stop eating while there’s still food on your plate, ask for the container at the start of the meal. Then you can put the to-go portion in the box right away, before you start eating.
16. Happy Hour
Go early and grab all the Happy Hour specials in the pre-dinner time slot, which in many restaurants are not just on drinks. This is a good time to sample a number of “small plates,” which are small portions of the restaurant’s regular fare.
Coordinate eating out with your Birthday. Lots of restaurants now offer special discounts and even freebies when you come in on your Birthday! Find discounts and coupons for more than 150 establishments at Hey!It’sFree.
First published: 3-30-12; Revised & Updated 5-28-21