Frugal NationFrugal Nation

11 cheaper ways to dine out

From paper coupons to high-tech frugal hacks, these tips mean life beyond leftovers.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 12, 2012 3:26PM
Image: Couple ordering meal in restaurant © NULL/CorbisLast week I teed off on folks who don't cook because they don't know how. Today I'm offering a different take: Why you should factor an occasional meal out into your budget.

 

Make it once a week, once a month or once a quarter -- and make an end run around the expense. If times are tight, you don't need to pay the sticker price for steak and chardonnay.

 

If you've been packing PBJs for lunch and eating leftovers for dinner all week, it's wonderful to have someone else cook for you. 

Allowing yourself a little fun helps keep you from tumbling off the frugal wagon. The following 11 tips will help you dine out affordably.

 

Coupons and beyond

Use a coupon. Look for them online, in the mail (Valpak envelopes, shopper publications), in the newspaper, in the phone book or even in your email.

 

Use a Groupon. Or a voucher from Eversave, Living Social, Buy With Me or any other social buying company. I've seen some really cheap ones. Bought some, too.

 

Use Restaurant.com cards. Watch daily deal sites and frugal bloggers for specials. I've seen $25 worth of scrip offered as cheaply as $2. Be aware that restaurants generally have rules and restrictions, so watch the fine print.

 

Get the punch card. It isn't just chain burrito or sub shops that offer these. Local restaurants are also wooing return customers with every-10th-one-is-free deals. (Possible frugal hack: Volunteer to go pick up lunch for the office, and you'll reach your goal faster. That is, unless co-workers hand you their cards to get stamped.)

 

Timing is everything

Eat lunch, not dinner. The dish of ravioli or pad Thai might be larger at 6 p.m. But it's cheaper at noon. Only get half an hour for lunch? See the next tip.

 

Hit happy hour. Lots of places offer deeply discounted or free appetizers and, at times, cheaper versions of the regular restaurant menu.

 

Become a mystery shopper. This isn't for everyone, but it's one way of having somebody else buy your dinner.

 

Share a meal. Some restaurants put way too much food on the plate, i.e., enough for two to split. Don't grouse about a shared-plate charge. Also, please tip decently and don't "camp," i.e., linger interminably. The servers need to turn the tables regularly to make a living wage.

 

High-tech hacks

Follow your faves. Facebook and Twitter are a reliable way to get discounts and freebies from national chains and local bistros.

 

Use an app. Real-time search engines like BiteHunter let you filter the best deals by food type, area, special deals or delivery availability.

 

Check in. Get discounts and exclusive location-based deals from companies like Foursquare and Yowza.

 

How about it, readers: Is dining out a line item in your budget? How do you keep it affordable?

 

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2Comments
Apr 24, 2012 4:43PM
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I go to lunch or even breakfast because the diner by my house gives you $5 off when you visit them 5 times; I got breakfast (2 eggs, toast, and maple chicken sausage and a drink) for $2.98 last time I used my discount!
Mar 12, 2012 6:07PM
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My husband loves LoneStar for its steaks. I'm addicted to their cheese fries, but would barely touch the rest of my meal. And leftovers never quite get eaten around here. So now I order the cheese fries, have Tim's salad (one of his two sides) and we save about $15. It's still not all that cheap (except by steakhouse standards) and not even remotely healthy. But sometimes it's good to get away, just the two of us.

For fast food, we've started getting one combo meal and just get the second sandwich or burger by itself. Then we split the fries. I'm not a huge soda drinker, so it works out well.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.

ABOUT DONNA FREEDMAN

Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.

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