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Guest Post: How to Save Money When Eating Out


photo by josef stuefer

Guest Post by Jennifer from Joy Ever After

One of our favorite things to do as a family is eat out. No cooking and
no dishes–what recreation! However, there is a problem when there is
also no money. We have learned some tips and tricks on spending less when we go to a restaurant.

::Know the specials. Many restaurants offer specials on certain days. For example, a barbecue restaurant in our area is giving $4 off a combo meal on Mondays through April. A few other restaurants have "Kids Eat Free" nights. Sometimes all it takes to save a significant amount is to read the white board as you enter the restaurant. Beware though, because sometimes those are just "features" from their regular menu at the regular price.

::Look for coupons. Several restaurants offer Buy One, Get One Free coupons in the newspaper. If yours doesn't, it might be worth it to buy an Entertainment Book for your area or an area you are vacationing in. These have many restaurants from fine dining to fast food with Buy One, Get One offers or 50% off.

::Share meals. I have grown tired of ordering two kids' meals only to have them both picked at and basically wasted. Sure, I can finish the food, but is that really saving the money?

Unless a meal is very small or the kids are unusually hungry, I split one between them. This can also work for my husband and me if a meal is large. Some restaurants offer smaller portion meals as well. One family I know buys a large meal at Cracker Barrel, orders one extra side and splits it between their four children. This is much cheaper per person than four individual kids' meals or even splitting two kids' meals.

::Skip drinks, dessert, and appetizers. This is a tough one if you are "celebrating", but ordering water and saying "No, thank you" when asked if you want an appetizer or dessert can knock $4-10 (or more) off your bill.

::Go out only for an appetizer or dessert. The exception to the previous rule is if that is all you are ordering. Of course it's much cheaper to buy coffee and a piece of pie than a full dinner or to replace the dinner with an appetizer portion. The latter option is healthier, too, providing you stay away from the deep-fried onion rings!

::Save "fancy" restaurants for special occasions. We budget a maximum of $35 for our family of 5 when we go out to eat. This includes the tip and everything.

Obviously, this cuts out some restaurants. Our rule of thumb is to avoid restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages. Even if you don't drink, you are paying in some way for their liquor license since the whole menu is generally higher.

::Join all the birthday clubs. For my latest birthday, I got free ice cream, free coffee, and two free entree coupons at two different restaurants. I didn't even have time to take advantage of all of them. Signing up for these "birthday clubs" is easy online or inquire about them at your favorite restaurant. (Go here for a list of freebies you can score on your birthday.)

::Go to buffets. These are great when your children are small because all you have to do is buy two adult meals and everyone gets as much as they want to eat.

::Combine savings tips. Here's a scenario we've done before: Saturday is kid's night at Denny's. We got the Buy One, Get One Free coupon in the paper. We ordered full kids' meals for the kids, two entrees for us and drinks (if we were really on a tight budget, we could have skipped the drinks). By getting the kids' meals free on top of using a Buy One, Get One Free coupon for the adult meals, we ended up paying less than half of what our bill would have been.

Important note: remember to always tip on the full amount you would have paid before the specials and coupons, though. Your
server does not do less work when you use savings strategies.

::Do it less. This is perhaps the toughest and most helpful tip of all. If you are accustomed to going out three times a week, cut it down to once. If you usually go out once a week, go every other week, and so on. You'll find when you do go out, you'll enjoy it a lot more.

Jennifer Self has been married to her best friend, Jeff, for almost ten
years and is mommy to three little blessings, Jessica (6), Jeffery (3) and
Jerrod (6 mos.). She blogs to encourage Christian women in
their roles as wives and mothers at

From Crystal: How do you save money when eating out? I'd love to hear your tricks and tips!

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  • MJ says:

    I use alot of the tips mentioned above. I also use gift cards (often in conjunction with the other tips) that I get from my bank’s points rewards program.

  • Beth says:

    Right now we are enjoying and taking advantage of the Roastburger from Arby’s. For the 5 of us, we can order drinks and have our meal for about $7.80! Also, another idea is to put the ChickfilA calendars on your Christmas stocking list. They have free coupons every month. My mom gets us all one every year and it is a nice treat.

  • Jenny says:

    Those are all good tips.

    In regards to eating out less–we’ve been eating out only once a month since my son was born. This month, however, due to our birthdays, traveling, and unexpectedly putting our house on the market (there goes baking days!) we’ve eaten out more (still no more than twice a week). Man, does it add up. We’ve definitely spent over $150 in eating out. I can get a months worth of groceries for that!

  • Alex says:

    One way to save A TON on eating out is to use I just bought a bunch of gift certificates (GC) on there a week or so ago when they had their 80% off sale. Most GC were for $25 and the stipulations were that you had to have a minimum purchase of $35 and leave 18% tip on the pre-discounted price. The GC cost $2. So, basically, for around $18 ($2 (GC) + $10 (difference between $25 and $35) + $6 (tip)) we are able to feed my family of 6 at a nice restaurant. Can’t beat that!

    Money Saving Mom here: While I’ve heard some great things about, I personally cannot endorse them as I know some folks who have had very bad experiences–multiple unsolicited extra charges on their credit cards, and so forth. So just use caution when ordering from

  • Bridgett says:

    Those were great tips! & Thanks for the list of birthday freebies. Another thing we do is certain restaruants have cheaper lunch menus than dinner. So we try to alternate w/lunch & dinner. Making sure the place has a cheaper lunch menu when we go for lunch. (chinese & asian places are most popular for this)

  • Camille says:

    I sometimes buy gift certificates at They don’t typically have chains but instead have more local places that you can buy heavily discounted gift certificates for. It works really well and gives us a lot more options!

  • Chelssya says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for reminding people the importance of tipping on the full value! I’m a server at nights so I can stay home with my kids during the day, and most customers do not do this. As the economy declines, I have noticed many customers practicing many of the above suggestions to keep their dining costs down. It’s also important to factor in your tip when considering your dining budget. Servers are working just as hard. I’ve noticed customers keeping their costs down by reducing their tips rather than being more conscious about what they order. Servers make just around $2/hr. and most restaurants take 2-5% cash out of a server’s sales to pay bussers and hosts. So, if you leave a low tip, chances are the server just worked for free. And, if you don’t tip, the server just payed out of pocket to serve you. 18-20% is really the standard for good service, 15% if service was adequate but nothing spectacular. Anything less is considered an insult or a comment on poor service. So, just a reminder to please think of tipping as you plan your budget. Of course, no one should have to tip for poor service!

  • Audrey says:

    We budget for 2 eat-out nights a month; one sit down and one fast food. The fast food night is always at Wendy’s for the school’s fundraiser. It’s not a way to save money, but it does make me feel like the money I spend is going farther. And I love supporting the school.

  • Suz says:

    Hubby and I enjoy eating out and have used many of the tips you provided today. The one that is especially important to us is avoiding beverages when we eat out… we almost always get water! A few years ago I encouraged Hubby to do this and he would laugh at me… now he sees the light and enjoys water instead of soda or coffee. We can enjoy all the soda or coffee at home that we like and save almost $6 on the three of us every time we go out just by avoiding the beverage costs… which have continued to climb quickly!!

    We also use when we can. There are only 3 local restaurants available, but we make the best of the deals we can get at them.

  • Jillian says:

    How exactly is it that you don’t have to pay for the kids’ meals at the buffet? Most buffets charge at least 50cents per year old the child is, up to age 12. Do you know of some that don’t?

    Money Saving Mom here: There are many buffets I know of which are free for children under age four, etc. I believe that’s what was being referred to in the article. It can be rather inexpensive if you only have young children.

  • Finance Girl says:

    I like your ideas, but I don’t buy that prices are higher at restaurants that serve alcohol because of the cost of a liquor license. A liquor license in this area is typically $1,000 per year for the first year, and $750 a year after that. I think more formal restaurants are just more likely to serve alcohol, while casual, breakfast-oriented “family” restaurants are not.

  • Alex says:

    As far as the unsolicited charges in regards to, after you make your purchase, you are enticed to sign up for a “free” service that you will get charged for if you don’t cancel within the first month or so. I figured that as long as you click “no thanks” you’ll be okay. You just have to be extra careful when making the purchase. At least I’m hoping that’s the case!

  • sandy says:

    I’d like to use those tips, but my friends/boy friend always tell me “if you are out then just enjoy..don’t focus too much on saving money here and there…just enjoy when you are out and if you are on budget then eat out less..”.

    It’s kind of hard to stay frugal when people such as friends, family, etc are not like that. They don’t even know what budget is. They buy over $1K purses, shoes, etc. YES! OVER $1,000 on one purse or a pair of shoes!!

  • Need A Nap2 says:

    I would also make the suggestion of planning ahead to avoid eating out. Make a few freezer meals or keep some supplies on hand to make dinner in a hurry.

    Bring snacks for the kids if you’re going to be out a long time. 🙂

  • Jessica says:

    Sandy, I know just how you feel. My friends have buried themselves in debt and spend shocking amounts of money on drinks, pubs and eating out. I tried suggesting other outings such as parks, camping, and picnics, but they just aren’t interested and its hard to schedule those events, which are much more sporadic with 4 nights at the bar. I hate to admit defeat, but I have, and over the past few months, our phone calls from friends are dwindling and few and far between.

    But I refuse to give in and spend my savings that way. We eat at home, we plan our meals and have date nights where we make something a little unique or fun to make (sushi). Thank God for the blogosphere and others like us!


  • Mara says:

    I wanted to say thanks for a great post!! Those are great tips that our family of 6 uses when we do go out (although rarely).
    Also, I agree whole-heartedly with “Chelssya’s” comment about tipping! Very well said!
    My husband is currently a server and I was for 3-4 years. We are very frugal, and you should absolutely save your money when it comes to eating out – but, not tipping enough is never an option to save money! Yes, please tip based on the amount **before** discounts – most servers work very hard no matter how much you’re spending. And they often have a family they’re working to support – and would rather be home with! If you don’t have enough money to tip well, you don’t have enough to go out to eat. Please include tipping in your budget!

    thanks again!!

  • Rae says:

    I practice most of the tips above as well as The one thing I can’t really do around here though is order water. The tap water here is NASTY and even if you order water with lemon, it really is unbearable. But I do order water with a lemon whenever I am in another town. I also know to tip on full amount. This weekend, my husband and I used 2 of the free Guiltless Grill entree coupons at Chilis and my waiter was very sure to point out the pre coupon price… I guess he wanted to make sure that I knew but I did. We eat out every week or two. It’s not a spur of the moment thing it’s just that we enjoy eating out… great food with no effort to cook, clean up, plan, shop etc. We plan our trip first so we do not waste gas (think of all the things we need to do in that area), look for coupons, do not order appetizers/desserts/ec, and keep cost in mind when choosing an entree so we don’t spend much but get to relax, be served, etc.

  • Julie says:

    Just wanted to reiterate that when you DO have a coupon to eat out (like the BOGO Ruby Tuesday’s entree coupon), don’t forget to tip the waiter on what your order would have been.

    The server has to claim the cost of the free food in their sales total and pay 10% on that total for taxes. (If you sell $100 worth of food, you have to claim that you made $10 in tips, whether you made the money or not).”

    When you eat out and get a great deal with a coupon, don’t forget to tip the server on the free food, too. You may be saving money out of your own pocket, but you’re taking it out of theirs.

  • flutemom says:

    we would like to go out a few more times per year than we do now, but with a tight budget, and 4 (5 if our other daughter is home) of us being adult prices, it doesn’t fit well in our budget. we usually try to go out for breakfast, since that is a less-expensive meal. sharing food (ordered from the menu, not at buffet) helps keep costs down. i always order water, and our girls do too, if they are with me. when daddy comes, it’s soda…..
    free birthday meals help keep costs down, as well as not going out very often. it is a real treat for us to go, since we don’t do it but about 4 times a year. one thing we do, although it isn’t really “going out” is to get domino’s pizza about once every 2 or 3 months on a tues, when it’s buy one, get one free. usually, i just make my own homemade pizza to save on cost.
    one tradition we started a few years ago was going out to the chinese buffet for new year’s eve. this time i went alone and did take-out, and we were all able to taste lots of different goodies, for less than $20 for all 6 of us! (we used our own rice at home). in general, we eat smaller portions for all meals, much less than what is served at a restaurant, so it almost seems like a waste for us to go out to eat, and come home stuffed from “too much food”. (which is why we prefer breakfast, then you have all day to “work it off”)

  • Erika says:

    We eat out only a couple times of month (and usually reserve it for couple time! though our two are three and under so they don’t cost much anyway), and one thing we almost always do is to share entrees. Though that doesn’t always save any money, it does give more variety and thus enjoyment to the meal out. And if one of us orders a entree salad, then we can save by not wanting to tack on extra charges for salad with a meat entree (if not included).

    And another combination option that we love is the soup and salad (and breadsticks!) at Olive Garden. You can even change soup varieties on subsequent servings. We can amply feed the four of us for a fun lunch out for less than $20 (if we drink water with lemon!)–maybe not a spectacular deal, but we also get our Olive Garden fix for a while!

  • Jenn says:

    Since my kids are still young enough to eat free at buffet places, I love taking them to our local Gambino’s for the lunch buffet. I pay $6 for all 3 of us to eat as much pizza as we can eat. My 3 yr. old usually eats 2 slices plus a bit off the salad bar and my 19 mo. old can eat 2-3 slices! We get our money’s worth. They also have “beat the clock” night on Mondays…the hour you call in for your pizza is how much you pay for a large, 1 topping (if you call in the 6 o’clock hour, your pizza is $6, etc. $6 is the lowest you can get it for, so if you call at 5pm, you’ll still pay $6). We love our Gambino’s and I’m sad that in 6 months I’ll have to start paying for my daughter 🙁 3 yrs. and under also eat free at Pizza Hut’s buffet.

  • Andrea says:

    I always read your blog, but this article I wanted to say was wonderful! Very helpful and some great tips that I will apply to my life! Thanks so much!

  • lokate says:

    if you can get to a restaurant for an early dinner you can hit happy hour and get some great deals! my fave example is “the yard house.” if you order before six pm, appetizers and pizzas are half price! and you can definitely make a meal out of those.

  • Sandy says:

    Thanks Jessica. 🙂

    I totally agree with you. I try my best not to reach over my savings and bury myself in debt. But it can be frustrating when your close circle is not aware of the existence of “budget”. So where do i go and get help? Site like this to ease my mind and know that i can live well for less.

  • Kristine says:

    My family LOVES Red Robin, so the the few times we do go out to eat are usually there. Red Robin offers bottomless fries, and I just discovered that if you order something that comes with fries you can ask for the fries early while you are waiting – kind of like an appetizer! I never thought of this before, but it makes sense and I think it is really neat!

    Sandy and Jessica – I too “feel your pain”. We are the “poor ones” in our circle(s) of family and friends. I am learning to shrug it off, but it is sad when the relationships slowly die b/c of it. We recently asked our family if we could not exchange birthday gifts this year among siblings – to help cut expenses (we are VERY tight right now). They all agreed, but then suggested we have a giant bbq with fancy food, etc. to celebrate instead. Ummm….they kind of missed the point! We will end up spending MORE money if we have to help pay for this giant picnic! But they don’t see it that way – they don’t realize that those things add up and cost quite a bit! Oh well, I didn’t mean to ramble on so long. Just wanted you to know that you aren’t alone – I too need a more frugal circle in my life!

  • Laurie says:

    Eating out is our downfall. I am in my car 40 hrs a week so it is so easy to go through the drive thru. BUT I am really trying to only do this once a week now. We head to Applebee’s twice a month on kids eat free night and the 3 of us can eat for about $10. I share my daughter’s kid size pop and just get it refilled. This frugal lifestyle has been hard, but since I do not spend money on frivilous things these days eating out fits our budget. I just have an envelope for this category too. Thanks for sharing all the great idea’s.

  • Chelsea says:

    I am very glad to see the reminder about tipping on the original price of food when using a coupon or other discount at a restaurant!

  • sherelle says:

    I work at a TGI Fridays, and my tip is to check out your favorite restaurant’s website and sign up for the email list! Our restaurant has been sending out crazy coupons and I don’t know how anyone pays full price for anything these days. SIGN UP and get a bunch of freebies in your email!!

  • Davonne says:

    My husband and I just order one meal to split (sometimes ordering an extra side if the meal won’t be large enough) and two extra plates, then we each give some of our half to our daughter. One meal serves three people!

  • We, without kids, go out to eat rarely, but pick a place we know we will really love. Since we cook well, many places are a disappointment. This month we went out for my birthday to one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia. It wasn’t cheap, but we kept the price low by avoiding wine (easy to do when pg) and ordering a la carte instead of a bigger fixed price meal with many courses. The food was excellent and the service exceptional. We left and didn’t regret the time and money (or calories!) spent. For us, the rare special treat is a better value than more frequent but less expensive meals out.

  • wonaday says:

    I’m with Sherelle. I love TGI Fridays! They have great specials and I use the “Give Me More Stripes” rewards program. Right now there is a coupon for buy one entree and get one for $1 good till the end of April. I always leave a generous tip!

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