Portrait of cheerful family at restaurant

17 Easy Ways to Cut the Cost of Eating Out

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. Food is the place to start if you’re trying to cut costs and save money.

Portrait of cheerful family at restaurant

Americans spent more than $$799 billion—yes, billion—at restaurants in 2021 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 quite a 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 typically fork out at a fine-dining restaurant. Restaurants that do not have wait staff typically offer lower-priced fare, too.

Buffet

Golden Corral is just one of the buffet restaurants everyone loves to hate, and yet somehow continues 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 ordinarily high-dollar items, like steak and seafood at bargain prices and lower-cost dining out experience.

All of the day’s 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 can eat ALL you can possibly stuff in your face, an excellent option when you’re really hungry.

Fast casual

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 Chipotle, and Panera Bread.

Quick Serve

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 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

In an effort to increase business during their quiet hours, many restaurants 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.

8. Clubs

Almost every restaurant 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 certain you stick to the offer once you’re in the restaurant surrounded 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 also take advantage of. 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 and your location to find online discount coupons.

10. Opt for “Linner”

Many restaurants have a lunch menu 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 linner 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.

11. Appetizers

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.

12. Look for deals and discounts

Most restaurants offer some type of discount as part of their marketing plan. Those coupons and discount codes are out there—it’s just a matter of finding them! If the establishment has an App, download it. Now you’re eligible for special offers and other discounts.

Entertainment books

Call your local high schools to find out who sells local Entertainment restaurant discount books. Or go to entertainment.com to find one for your area.

Restaurant.com

Many 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.

Local discounts

Group buying sites like Groupon and LivingSocial let you in on huge group discounts! Once you sign up (it’s free), you’ll get emails with offers for all kinds of things including restaurant meals.

Before buying, take time to 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 where you can find gift cards for just about any store or restaurant, available to use almost immediately. You will never pay face value or any fee for gift cards at Raise.

I was initially suspicious, but I’ve confirmed this is legitimate, legal, and completely above board. And as a bonus, when you buy a Gift Card at Raise, you get Rakuten cashback, provided you have set up an account..

 

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

Many restaurants have discounts for teachers, students with valid ID, seniors, or military—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 immediately before 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.

17. Celebrate!

Coordinate eating out with your Birthday. FortunatelyLots 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


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19 replies
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  1. Pat Weiser says:

    We have Metro Dining Club cards. They get more expensive every year, but our favorite pizza restaurant has a card, so once a month we get half price pizza that we love. There is also a card for half price car washes, and a few other restaurants we enjoy. Many go to waste, but we’re happy as long as the cost of the card is covered.

    Reply
  2. Don says:

    Sam’s Club and Costco offer big discounts on some restaurant gift cards. Recently, I bought Golden Corral and Potbelly $100 gift cards for $75 at Sam’s.

    Black Friday is a great day to buy gift cards online. I got great deals at six or seven places that I eat at regularly.

    Reply
  3. M says:

    Beware of tipping. Our restaurant in town includes tip if there is a party of six people which I didn’t know cause it is written on the bottom of the menu in small print. I ended up tipping twice. went to looked on my bank statement notice my restaurant bill wasn’t the same as my receipt. I called the restaurant and was told tip is included with a party of 6 or more people. I didn’t even notice the extra tipping on the menu.

    Reply
  4. Laura Loudermilk says:

    My husband and I frequently split a dinner and order a side salad for me, since I usually don’t want the side that comes with the meal.

    Reply
  5. Pamela Gray says:

    I AM a light eater and I will vouch for the appetizer menu. And I’m a big soup eater so I order a bowl instead of a cup and take what I don’t eat home. That’s my breakfast/lunch the next day.

    Reply
  6. David McCurdy says:

    Sodas are closer to $4.00………often $2.99 + tax + tip. Figure it all in.
    I was once on vacation with my family and the wife and kids wanted a soda with dinner. I had a cooler full all day in the car and they went untouched. I explained for the cost of our 4 sodas at the restaurant, we could have bought 32 24 oz bottles of the same soda at the supermarket.

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Not necessarily. I visited a restaurant with a full salad bar, just today. That’s a kind of buffet! Things are getting back to normal in many areas of the country. And the national buffets’ websites with current updates have not gone away.

      Reply
      • judi rettich says:

        Mary, thanks so much for your sound reply regarding salad bars and buffets! I’m so please to see them come back to my favorite restaurants!

      • Vicki Tavana says:

        I have tried finding myPizza hut buffet near me; I loved going there because I can try different pizza toppings without having to buy an entire pizza as well as get my salad with the buffet at the same price. I haven’t been able to find one near me anymore. The ones near me that I used to go to said they stopped serving because of Covid. They no longer serve salad as well. Since I’ve managed to lose the weight I needed to lose (a lot of it by portion control- if I go to a meat and 3,I can’t eat more than I get with that meal, whereas if I cook for myself I either waste food since I live alone, or I eat too much both because it tastes so good and to keep from wasting it) I loved going to the pizza buffet because I could fill up on the salad bar and that limited my pizza consumption.

  7. Connie says:

    The advice is well received but the comments on buffets had to be before COVID-19. They hardly exist at this date, if at all.

    Reply
      • Kay Jones says:

        I found some parts of the country virtually ignored any Covid precautions and those buffets stayed open. I have family all over and was surprised at the differences. Please note this is a comment on my personal experiences only and not a judgement.

  8. Patricia Goff says:

    I sign up for their rewards and get coupons and free food on my birthday. I do surveys and use free gift cards to go out to eat a few times a year. Eating out is a treat so we do it for birthdays mostly unless there is free food in the apps. Download the apps to get free food too. We use coupons every time we eat out. We usually eat out when we are travelling and haven’t been travelling much lately. I used to travel at least every month for a 3-4 day weekend to friends and family but not so much anymore.

    Reply
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