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A cheapskate's guide to eating out

It's easy to dine cheaply (but don't skimp on the tip).

By Karen Datko Sep 29, 2009 6:08PM

This post comes from Paul Michael at partner blog Wise Bread.

When I was a young lad, eating out was something of a luxury for my family. Most of our meals, at least 95%, were prepared and eaten at home. This was the model for most people my age or older. But these days, society has migrated to eating outside the home way more often. The result is that we're spending a lot more on food than we used to. So, are there ways to chop the bill and eat out for less? You bet.

Share your soft drink. Most of the time, my wife and I find that one drink is adequate for both of us. But in this day and age of countless free refills, we will never run short of our soft drink anyway. It's not much, but a couple of bucks saved every time you order a drink at a restaurant or fast-food place really adds up. And that goes for the kids' drinks, too. My kids are quite happy to share a juice box or fountain drink. Oh, and before anyone cries for the poor fast-food joints or restaurant chains, it's worth noting that the average fountain drink costs the restaurant about 20 cents and they charge you about 10 times that for the beverage. So, I'm not losing any sleep over it; they're still making an insane profit from any drinks we order. 

Don't be shy -- use coupons. I see people hand over coupons at the grocery store all the time, but in fast-food places it happens less; and in restaurants, it's even more rare. There seems to be a taboo about coupons in restaurants, maybe because people feel like they're picking the pockets of the waiter who is looking them right in the face. As several commenters have pointed out, your waiter will gladly accept coupons as long as you remember to tip the waiter based on the price of the bill BEFORE the coupon was deducted. That way, you get the saving, the waiter gets the same tips, and only the restaurant chain itself is out of pocket. But as the coupon enticed you in, the loss of revenue is worth it for the extra customer. Therefore, bring on the coupons, hand them over proudly and enjoy your free grub.

Be wary of the advice from your waiter. When we go into a restaurant we're unfamiliar with, we will often ask our waiter, "What do you like?" or "What do you recommend?" Unsurprisingly, our helpful waiter usually picks from the more expensive end of the menu. Rarely do we hear, "Go for the burger" if there's a filet mignon for four times the price. The more expensive items mean a larger bill, which equates to a larger tip. It may well be a great meal, but it may also stretch your budget. So, load the question with something more useful, like "What do you recommend in the $8 to $10 range?"

Order apps as main courses. Appetizers are supposed to whet your appetite for the main meal. Have you seen appetizers these days though? They're just as big as the main meal. I ordered potato skins a few months ago and could hardly finish half of my main course. So, although they're cheaper and labeled as appetizers, there's no reason not to order them as a main course.

Split a meal. Many restaurants these days go way overboard on portions. A restaurant I go to occasionally called Claim Jumper serves half and full portions. They recommend the half portions unless you're insanely hungry. So, as the full portion is only a few bucks more, it's well worth asking for that and an extra plate. You can also split the rest of the food, including salads and dessert, and will no doubt be surprised at how satisfied you are with the amount of food you got to eat. Half portions these days are like whole portions from the '50s.

Take advantage of your birthday. Hey, it only comes around once a year (unless you're the Queen of England) so make full use of the special offers handed out by restaurants and fast-food joints. A few near me give you a free entrée on your birthday. Others do a BOGO, and some offer free drinks or desserts. And remember, that infamous fake birthday song that most places sing to the guest of honor? Well, that comes with a free cake or free ice cream. Sure, you have to endure 30 seconds of embarrassment, but for free dessert? Go for it.

The salad bar three-course meal. These days, salad bars are becoming the norm in many restaurants. They're easy to stock, they're self-serve and most people don't take full advantage of them. But you really can just order the salad bar and do very well for yourself. Start with salad and bread, move on to the pasta dishes, and finish with fruit, cheeses, pudding or anything else that's on offer. At about $8 to $9, it's not a lot to pay for a healthy three-course meal.

And then there's the buffet . . . Whether you love Indian food, Mexican, Chinese or traditional meat ‘n' potatoes grub, buffets are a great way to feed your whole family for about $20 to $30. Now, buffets get a lot of criticism because the food is not always the best quality and the atmosphere is hardly conducive to a wonderful evening out. But this is budget dining, and if you choose good foods (vegetables, fresh fruit, salads, pastas, the grill and so on) you can have a great meal for peanuts. Usually, kids get in for free or a few bucks per head. Our local Country Buffet has been packed every time we visited recently. In tough times, the buffets get the customers.

Doggie bags rule. If you're not into the idea of splitting a meal with someone else -- or you're eating alone -- then split the meal with yourself. As I've mentioned earlier, portion sizes are huge these days, so eat half of your meal and ask for a box for the rest. This splits the cost of your meal in two, and dinner has already been made for you for the following day.

Look for half-off gift certificates. My favorite site by far for this is Here, you can buy gift certificates to more than 41,000 restaurants for about 50% of their face value. You can search by ZIP code or city, and there's even an e-mail alert system to tell you when new deals go live. Most certificates do come with restrictions, which is why you get such a great deal. A common one is that you don't get any cash back from your certificate, if there's any left. But if you pay $15 for a $25 meal, do you care about the extra $5 anyway? And remember, you can always order something to take home.

Related reading at Wise Bread:

Published Sept. 8, 2009


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