Dining out on a budget

No matter what your financial situation may be, sometimes it’s just nice to go someplace that isn’t your home and eat food you didn’t have to make on plates you’re not going to have to wash.

Eating out is fun! It’s a nice change of pace from time to time and a great way to treat yourself. Unfortunately, eating out can be a bit pricey. If you’re working on a tight budget, dining out is a luxury you may not feel you can afford.

But that doesn’t mean you can never go to a restaurant again. While your budget may not allow you to eat out every day, there are multiple ways you can reduce the cost of dining out and still have a budget-friendly good time.

Coupons and gift certificates

If you feel weird about using coupons at a restaurant, get over it. They exist for the same reason all coupons exist – to help get customers through the door.

You can find coupons in your local newspaper, in that crazy bundle of discounts that shows up in your mail every month or so, and directly on the restaurant’s website. You can also use a website like Restaurant.com to purchase discounted gift certificates for your favorite restaurants. Just make sure that when you tip your server at the end of the meal, you tip them based on true cost of the meal, not the discounted price you’re actually paying.

Join the club

Many restaurants (especially chain restaurants) have “clubs” and mailing lists that you can join. This is a great way to have coupons sent directly to you and earn fun freebies from time to time.

Be social

Follow your favorite restaurants on social media. This is a great way to learn about special offers and discounts. Plus many brands hold contests and other forms of social engagement that can earn you free stuff.

Know the schedule

Kids eat free on Tuesdays! Happy hour is from 5pm to 8pm every weeknight! Many restaurants have regularly scheduled offers designed to appeal to different potential customers at different times. Use those regular offers to your advantage and know the best time to visit your favorite eatery.

Skip the drinks

If you want to maximize your dollar while dining out, you should probably stick to water. Some of the biggest price hikes in a restaurant are on drinks, including alcohol and soda. You didn’t drive all that way for watered down Dr. Pepper anyway, right?

Split a meal

You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but portion sizes at restaurants are slightly out of control. If everyone ends up taking home leftovers, that’s probably a good sign that you’re ordering too much food. Consider splitting meals to save money and prevent overeating.

Take it home

Finally, there may be some debate as to whether or not you have to actually be “out” for it to be considered dining out, but opting to get takeout will almost always save you money over eating in the restaurant. You spend less on drinks and avoid paying a tip for service (although you certainly can leave a tip for whoever prepped your to-go order – that’s up to you).

Preparing your own meals, of course, is the best bet for your budget, but being budget-conscious doesn’t mean you can never do any of the things you like. And if you like eating out, go for it! Just be sure to save money where you can and spend only what you can afford. Happy dining!

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

  • The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is an association of nonprofit consumer organizations that was established in 1968 to advance the consumer interest through research, advocacy, and education. Today, nearly 300 of these groups participate in the federation and govern it through their representatives on the organization's Board of Directors.

  • Since 2007, the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (HPF) has served as a trusted, neutral source of information for more than eight million homeowners. They are partnered with, and endorsed by, numerous major government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Treasury.

  • The mission of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD works to strengthen the housing market in order to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; and build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.

  • The Council on Accreditation (COA) is an international, independent, nonprofit, human service accrediting organization. Their mission is to partner with human service organizations worldwide to improve service delivery outcomes by developing, applying, and promoting accreditation standards.

  • The National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®), founded in 1951, is the nation’s largest and longest-serving nonprofit financial counseling organization. The NFCC’s mission is to promote the national agenda for financially responsible behavior, and build capacity for its members to deliver the highest-quality financial education and counseling services.