Whether you prefer pizza, pad Thai, cheeseburgers or chicken curry, everyone loves to eat out. On average each of us spends a whopping $2,500 a year on meals away from home, according to the National Restaurant Association. But, it doesn’t need to be so expensive. Here’s what to buy and what to skip to keep both you and your wallet full.
Save With Lunch
First, if you’re looking to try out a new fancy joint, buy lunch instead of dinner. Between the hours of noon and 4 p.m., many restaurants allow you to order from the same menu at a lower price. In fact, more restaurants are cutting deals to patrons during off-peak hours. The free mobile app Savored lets you book at over 1,000 restaurants across the country, offering discounts of up to 40% off the entire bill for making reservations during slower hours.
Now, when it comes to upscale restaurants, you may not get the same exact menu but you will get the same experience — just cheaper. For example, the lunch tasting menu at swanky New York restaurant Gramercy Tavern is half off the dinner version. The same goes for Philly’s top-rated Le Bec-Fin, where the chef’s tasting menu is more than 60% less during lunch — with dishes similar to those at dinner.
If your friends would rather meet for dinner instead of lunch, you still don’t have to break the bank. Some restaurants offer cheaper menus in the bar area. Or instead of ordering off the entrée list, scour the appetizers section and choose one or two smaller plates to save several bucks. And depending on the portion sizes at the restaurant, the apps could be more than enough.
Speaking of portions, if you do get an oversized meal, make it last by getting a doggie bag. Better yet, ask the server to bring only half the meal to the table and wrap the rest to go right away. That way you won’t be tempted to eat all of it, and you’ll have lunch packed for tomorrow.
Know These Wine Tricks
What’s dinner without a nice bottle of vino? As we know, restaurants mark up the cost of wine as much as two to three times a bottle’s wholesale cost. But get this: the cheapest wines get the highest mark up. Restaurants know we don’t want to look frugal, so they typically mark up the second cheapest bottle the most. So, for the best value, choose a wine one or two price points higher on the list. Another way to save on wine? Bring it from home! Some small, local restaurants allow you to bring your own bottle for a nominal uncorking fee, and sometimes at no cost at all.
Trim Your Beverage Bill
Keep in mind that drinks, in general, can really add up over the course of dinner. So if you're serious about trimming the bill, skip the alcohol altogether or ignore the $12 cocktail menu and order beer or simple mixed well drinks, which are cheaper. And don’t forget about happy hour, where you can save 30% to 50% or snag a buy-one-get-one-free deal.
Next, earn a discount before you even leave your house. Check daily deal sites for vouchers to local eateries, and browse Restaurant.com for $25 gift certificates sold for just $10. There’s also the popular mobile app Foursquare which lets you “check in” when you arrive at your favorite restaurant, bar or pretty much anywhere. Doing so regularly may eventually earn you a complimentary drink or discount.
Try a Lighter Java
Finally, most of us can’t make it through the day without our caffeine fix. A latte, made with espresso and steamed milk, can cost over $4. Instead, order a “misto,” which, at Starbucks, is steamed milk and drip coffee. It’s a little less intense, but you’ll save about $1 per drink. If you order one daily, that totals a savings of close to $350 a year.
We want to hear from you. How do you save money when dining out? Connect with me on Twitter @Farnoosh and use the hashtag #finfit. For YF, I’m Farnoosh Torabi.